Design first, then tender

Success factors for innovation in the public domain

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Eric Verberkmoes

Imagine if, before tendering, municipalities first conduct a thorough design process together with an experienced design agency. This leads to better products in the public domain with lower implementation risks. Spark has proven to be successful in collaborating with municipalities, focusing on valuable innovations in preparation for tenders.

In the world of procurement, innovation often clashes with the mandatory procedure. Municipalities seeking to implement a new product can choose from producers who must offer as competitively as possible based on dry specifications. Quality improvements thus receive no priority, which can lead to problems in practice. But what if there's a way to break this pattern, to stimulate real innovation and reduce risks?

In this article, we provide you with 4 success factors to transform the challenges of tenders into opportunities for real innovation. Learn why a thorough design process before tendering is crucial and how this sharpens the functional requirements, resulting in better products.

Level playing field

But first, some background on tendering. The tendering process requires a so-called 'level playing field'. Alignment on the assignment in the bidding phase can only be public and according to strict rules, but this often proves challenging. Ideally, a supplier would engage in dialogue with the client to discuss the best implementation of the assignment. However, this is particularly sensitive in tendering. The consequence? Individual interpretation of the requirements and significant differences between bids. This brings us to the first success factor.

Success Factor 1: Well-considered specifications

Suppliers must make an offer based on functional requirements. Without a concrete design, suppliers inherently have different views of the final product when making their offer. This makes it a complex task for municipalities to evaluate these bids. If the supplier develops the product after being awarded the contract, costs plays a disproportionately large role. The supplier is mainly challenged to meet the functional requirements as cheaply as possible. However, these requirements do not fully describe the product. The solution is clear: by tendering based on a detailed design, not only are the bids more comparable, but the functional requirements are also significantly better considered.

Success Factor 2: The municipality as a designer

To successfully tender the delivery of a new product, you already want to have a design. If the ambition is to achieve substantial innovation, an independent design agency is ideally suited to support a municipality in a co-development process. The design agency has no stake in the final tender and can therefore focus entirely on the interests of the municipality and its citizens to develop the most suitable product. An important competence here is the ability to early assess the consequences of requirements and choices on the final design. Will it be difficult to manufacture and vulnerable, or affordable and robust?

In collaboration with the municipality of Rotterdam, Spark has designed a casing for the organic waste container. With this container, people living in stacked buildings without their own container can dispose of their organic waste for recycling. In addition to product design, we also provided prototypes, product validations, and documentation for the tender. Our support extended to the tendering process, where we supported both the municipality and the manufacturer to achieve a production-ready design that meets the design intent.

To achieve a well-thought-out and feasible design, it helps to validate solutions as quickly as possible with test models and prototypes. From quick 'cardboard-and-tape' models for initial critical insights to a fully functional prototype as a solid basis for the tender. Before tendering the design, you want to make sure it meets all specified requirements, not afterward.

"Before introducing the improved bins on the street, we subject them to thorough tests to ensure they function well. We start with a wooden prototype and will bring several working steel models to the neighborhood."

- Vincent Karremans, alderman municipality of Rotterdam

From various stakeholders within a municipality, sometimes conflicting requirements arise. An important role of the designer is to distill the essence of the product to be developed from a complex set of requirements, wishes, and ambitions: what are we really trying to achieve, and what matters less? Together with the various disciplines within the municipalities, we create control over this and make choices. The result is a sharper focus on development, a more realistic development framework, and broad support for the new product within a municipality.

Success Factor 3: The feasible design

The new design only has value if it can also be made. It may seem like an open door, but this universal truth is a bit more critical in tendering situations. Open discussion between client and suppliers is sensitive, and a public tender mainly adds value with sufficient bids. Therefore a design must be clearly feasible and use common materials and techniques to enable as many suppliers as possible to make a good offer.

How do we ensure a feasible and realistic design? It starts with a healthy dose of realism and practical experience from hundreds of successfully realized product designs. If you know how the manufacturing industry works, you can also design for it. Ultimately, we create a prototype in the right materials to validate its feasibility.

Success Factor 4: Leeway for the manufacturer

The rigid nature of tenders makes it essential to clearly document the design for both a municipality and a supplier. A municipality wants as much control as possible over the end result, and a supplier prefers to bid on the most concrete product possible to reduce risks. So, fully detailing the design for tendering seems like the best solution? Not entirely true. It's important to leave room for input on producibility. An experienced manufacturer knows their own production capabilities best and can work towards them within the framework. If there's no room, the product becomes too expensive, or the manufacturer backs out.

The challenge is, therefore, to document everything critical about the design as concretely as possible and to leave as much leeway as possible for the producer to implement the intended design as effectively as possible. This way, everyone works to their strengths: the municipality sets the boundaries, the designer finds the optimal solution within them, and the manufacturer ensures an efficient implementation to the end product.

From ambition to result

For a municipality committed to progressive innovations, it's time to embrace this approach. The road to successful tenders starts with a thorough design process. Get in touch today with an experienced design agency, collaborate on valuable solutions, and transform ambitions into tangible results for the entire community. Feel free to contact Eric Verberkmoes, partner at Spark, to discuss your ideas.

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