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Bridging the innovation gap

How can innovative companies get better at selling net zero solutions to local government?

Bridging the innovation gap
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  • James Taplin
  • August 20, 2021
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We’ve just finished a project looking at the relationship between councils and innovative companies. There is frustration on both sides. Companies often feel like councils move slowly, don’t understand innovative business models, and resent restrictive procurement approaches.

Top tips for selling to local government

But councils have frustrations with firms, too. We’ve identified a couple of lessons for innovative start-ups and scale-ups to get better at selling to local government.

First, speak the language. Lots of private firms come with a set of buzzwords, jargon, and the latest big concepts from industry. Terms like ‘AI’, ‘Big Data’, ‘The Data Flywheel’ and ‘The Internet of Things’ are common. Being disruptive, entrepreneurial, or radical, is seen as positive.

Establish what the customer wants

But councils don’t want disruption in its literal sense: they want security and reliability. Often a non-specialist is making decisions, and jargon that is familiar in business might be at best unclear, and at worst, deeply unnerving. Companies that approach councils speaking a kind of second-hand Silicon Valley slang can end up eroding trust.

The answer isn’t to throw out the proposition of a new business, or to stop using accurate technical terms. But it does mean thinking hard about what kind of language is really appropriate for council customers, and err on the side of providing reassurance.

Net zero by 2050

Second, companies should buy into the policy drive to meet the UK’s ambition of net zero emissions by 2050. Most councils are looking for help to hit demanding emissions reduction goals.

But surprisingly few companies are actively mapping their services onto net zero strategies. Even in sectors that are directly relevant to net zero, like buildings, waste management, transport, or land management, companies often miss opportunities to give robust modelling on their potential emissions impact. They miss opportunities to spell out how their product fits net zero approaches.

Net zero is going to shape local government policy for years to come: understanding and engaging with it should be at the centre of company growth strategies.

A unique customer

Third, try and understand the pressures on local authorities. Companies get frustrated by the slow speed of decision-making in the public sector, and the apparent inability to think beyond existing functions.

But this is often because people in local government are working with limited resources and have strict legal obligations about what they have to provide. Successful companies turn themselves into allies. They work with policymakers to address the concerns of legal or procurement functions, help win funding from central government, and stay positive and supportive. They understanding the political and financial pressures that local government is under.

Companies that express their frustration, and don’t understand this context, come across as thinking the customer is always wrong.

There are other lessons for councils in the summary report for the project, which is available on the Urban Foresight website. The overall conclusion for companies is clear though: if you want to sell innovation to councils, then speak the language, help the net zero agenda, and understand the pressures.

Know your customers, in other words: and understand that local governments are a unique kind of customer.

nnovation lead, urban systems team, UK Research and Innovation

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