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Business Report

Sascha Haselmayer on Solving Tricky Urban Problems

An online platform connects cities to a global network of suppliers and ideas.

In Sant Cugat, Spain, near Barcelona, city officials worried that too much food was going to waste while high unemployment had left many people hungry. In San Francisco, government leaders sought a way to save energy and money by controlling street lighting and other urban systems with one smart wireless network. In Lagos, Nigeria, video piracy consumed 80 percent of the profits of the “Nollywood” film industry, the world’s second-largest producer of feature films after India.

Rather than taking the traditional route of issuing a request for proposals for a specific product or service, all three cities instead used Barcelona-based Citymart, an online marketplace. The platform, founded in 2011 by Sascha Haselmayer, a German-born architect, urban planner, and social entrepreneur, turns traditional city procurement on its head: instead of putting a well-defined job request out for bidding, cities craft an open-ended “challenge” that is published online. Citymart staff help frame the challenge, research solutions, and recruit potential bidders, but the cities choose the winners. So far, Citymart has run some 100 challenges for 54 cities in 25 countries.

Haselmayer spoke with Robin D. Schatz during a recent trip to New York, where he plans to open an office next year.

This story is part of our January/February 2015 Issue
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Don’t local governments usually want to choose local suppliers?
You have 557,000 city and local governments around the world, whose budgets represent 10 percent of GDP. They often have no way of learning what others have done. By giving cities the full portfolio of what’s out there, we’re first of all giving them amazing intelligence on what’s possible and the different ways they can tackle a problem. Then we’re connecting them directly to the company that has the solution.

Since the city is not specifying the solution it is buying, it allows different approaches to compete. You may have 50 companies competing instead of five. That brings the cost down, we estimate, an average of 5 to 10 percent.

What’s an example of the kind of solution you are talking about?
In Moscow, 65 percent of the residents have traffic noise levels in their homes that far exceed what health regulations allow. Moscow was looking for ways of reducing that noise without reducing traffic, which is hard to do in a city of 12 million people. So we published a challenge for them to reduce traffic noise.

The city chose three promising solutions, but one of them is particularly groundbreaking. It’s a small device you put on your window that completely cancels out the outside noise. It’s a really early-stage technology, but its potential is so disruptive that the city of Moscow is now working with the company to help bring it to industrial scale using local technology, venture capital, and other resources in the city.

Do you feel this approach has the potential to change the way city governments operate in the future?
Probably the biggest opportunity lies in redefining the role of government from something seen as this protector and disburser of public money to a partner in aiding change. Human ingenuity will solve any problem, and if you can allow those solutions to reach scale quickly, and if you can tap into some of the financial resources, both in the community, like crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, and by making government a real and active partner, I think you can deal with a lot of things.

When you imagine the city of the future, do you foresee a lot of new technology?
Probably everything that cities need for the next 50 to 100 years has already been invented.

What cities consistently tell us is they do not want to just buy technology. Cities are less and less interested in buying technology from generic vendors. What cities are looking for is a technology with an entrepreneur behind it, who is dedicated to applying that technology to their specific problem.

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