Helping places to prosper from net zero

Building blocks pointing upwards diagonally

What can local authorities do to bring in essential net zero innovation from the private sector?

It will be a familiar experience to many local government leaders. You’re being pitched by a private company who claims their service can help your bottom line, meet your service goals, or broker a new innovation. But they use jargon, it’s not clear how their business model works, and you can’t see how to fit it into existing services. Or when you’ll get the headspace to think about it properly.

Since the start of the year, Innovate UK has been exploring this ‘innovation gap’ in net zero policy: the frustrations, communication errors and disconnects between local authorities and companies.

We identified five things that local government can do to try and close this gap, and ultimately tap private innovation to get to net zero.

Local authorities can map their assets

Do you have a particularly strong local sector that provides a low-carbon solution? Do you have a hidden resource in internal data or information? Do you have people who could be deployed to focus on net zero innovation? This kind of analysis is often the basis for agreeing which innovation projects could then be pursued. In a net zero context, this might identify surprising systems which could be the focus of emissions-reduction partnerships across an authority’s area.

Broaden procurement approaches

Some products will always have to go to tender. But many new net zero products won’t fit into traditional procurement categories. They could be challenge-based market engagement exercises, built around open-ended challenges, not solutions.

Buying processes can be tweaked to reward innovators, too. Open engagement with suppliers can broaden access to decision-makers for smaller and newer firms, away from the big outsourcers who already invest in networking.

Giving longer turnaround times, simple questionnaires and avoiding high turnover or headcount requirements makes it easier for newer firms to bid, while staying within the confines of procurement law.

Creating a single focal point

Councils that break new ground often put funding, people and political backing in the same place. For example, smart city teams, innovation teams or dedicated account managers for different sectors have all been tried with success: the combination of focus, with senior support, and the remit to make decisions, brings the right blend of expertise and influence into a single place.

Companies trying to bring innovation to councils want a single person or team which is informed, influential and interested. Local authorities should try and create that focal point.

Net zero awareness

Net zero is gaining in momentum across business, citizen groups and government, and this is a huge opportunity to create new ways of working by uniting previously disparate functions around a shared goal. For example, dedicated net zero working groups that bring in wider functions than traditional environmental services have been successful in spotting new opportunities in diverse areas like catering or citizen communications.

The same holds for external relationships, where the national momentum for net zero is an opportunity to foster stronger relationships with private-sector innovators.

Enabling change

And finally: net zero is a big, complex and difficult area. That makes it easy to think it’s someone else’s problem, or that it will just resolve itself in years to come. The best councils assume their job is to lead. Where they cannot directly achieve change themselves, they use their soft power, relationships or advocacy for their area to convene and corral others.

All of this is set in a context of a two-way relationship. The full report is available on the Urban Foresight website (PDF, 2.21MB) and sets out the company side of the bargain. It outlines how they can understand the pressures on local government and avoid irritating potential partners in local government. It also explores the role of national bodies like Innovate UK.

But councils are going to be at the forefront of the UK’s charge to reach net zero goals. Working out how to foster innovation is a big part of that. These five lessons can help improve innovation at a local level – and ultimately, help get us to net zero.

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