Public and private sector organisations converged on the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for CivTech 4.0, a chance to showcase solutions to problems posed by the Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate, bring public sector expertise and private sector creativity together to develop new products and deliver better, faster and easier services for everyone.
Now in its fourth iteration, CivTech is a gathering of minds to solve ‘challenges’ – a problem laid out by a public sector organisation – with a potential solution posed by tech companies, called ‘challenge sponsors’.
This allows problems in the public realm to be solved, thus helping the sector while also providing private companies the chance to secure investment.
And it is not just public sector companies that can provide challenges, it can be anyone – individuals, formal and informal teams, academic teams, pre-start businesses, start-ups, established businesses of all sizes, charities, and community groups.
The event started out small: “Four or five years ago, we were running hackathons where we were bringing, bright, talented people in and they were spending a day or an evening or even a weekend, coming up with ideas”, said Colin Cook, The Scottish Government’s Digital Director, when asked about how CivTech began.
“We noticed that those ideas were great, but they didn’t have anywhere to go. CivTech was about marrying those kinds of skills and enthusiasm, with the business incubation skills that we have, the economic development skill that was within the government, and it was about bringing those things together. And that’s what we see today,” Cook added.
These humble beginnings have culminated in a 700-person event, bringing together a host of large and small tech companies, and sponsored by organisations such as Harvey Nash, a large tech sector recruitment company, Wallet Services, creators of a new distributed ledger platform, and Amazon Web Services.
The day focused on Scottish tech companies that have taken up these ‘ challenges’. Companies such as Amiqus, aimed at powering the public sector job candidate experience.
“We built an online platform, which can be accessed via your browser, for professional services and regulated firms to be able to streamline their and candidate on-boarding processes”, said Natalie Ferguson, Business Development Manager at Amiqus. “For example, the Scottish Government specifically, we can bring it [the applications process] down from 10 weeks to 14 hours. And the way that we do that is we’ve created an intuitive platform meaning that a member of staff and social government can very quickly send out a check to your candidate remotely.”
Amiqus’ technology could have huge implications for companies looking for potential employees, something that highlights the importance of some of these innovative ideas, and the significance of an event like CivTech.
Senior consultant at Harvey Nash, Luke Thornborrow, spoke of the importance of CivTech: “It’s important to share technology, it’s important to share ideas. And there’s no more important to do that than the public sector when the main concern is the people of Scotland.
“So for that reason, it’s good to have a hub and somewhere like CivTech where people can demonstrate their ideas and their products to potential investors, and it also gives a good boost to discuss government and the public sector and a lot of the things that they’re trying to do is just for the Scottish people, so it’s good to be here.”
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The event has proven to be a success for private sector organisations finding investment. Andy Sime, Director at Oxido, spoke of how taking up the challenge at CivTech 3.0 of using technology to help people connect more with nature to help with mental health problems gained Oxido the tools to expand their business: “It [CivTech] allowed us to go and focus an app around outdoor learning which we saw as the key target audience or the route to that market.
“The following years allowed us to really target funding, scale up the project, launch it in the App Store ahead of CivTech 4.0 today, and get the first role out to nine national nature reserves with Scottish natural heritage and a routine bunch of follow on projects that are allowing us to grow. It got us from early concept to sustainable business within the scope of the year.”
A hot topic from CivTech 4.0 was climate change, something that challenge sponsors were attempting to combat. SilviBio, for example, is attempting to deal with the climate emergency and drought in Scotland with seed planting technology. With 17 countries facing extreme water stress from climate change, it is hoped that CivTech will enable the firm to expand its product not just in Scotland, but all over the world.
Ben MacPherson, Scotland’s Minister of public finance, commented: “We should always be looking to both technology and human collaboration, for solving problems, and doing so in a meaningful way and in a way that increases fairness and quality of life and tackling the climate emergency as part of that”.
MacPherson continued: “Civic tech is so important because as a forum, it has a growing strong reputation, but also it brings together different sectors, whether that be the private sector, the public sector, third sector and also investors and people, not just Scotland, not just the UK, not just Europe, but beyond.
“That positioning of bringing people together internationally to find solutions, look at problems to find solutions, and the entrepreneurial, but also innovative leadership that is shown by those who come forward with the solutions, and when you combine that with it being a forum of such strong collaboration, and a partnership building out of that has been successful for the last three, we think it’ll be very successful today. And we look forward to another successful one when CivTech 5 happens next year”.
Colin Cook told us what is in store for CivTech in the future: “Firstly, to put more and more challenges through the process. I’m hoping that we will at least double the number of challenges going through in the year ahead.
“Secondly, to focus it on some of the very big issues that we face, given that we have top 26 in Scotland this year, a real push on things like tackling climate change. And thirdly, trying to find ways of helping the companies that are coming through the CivTech process, to scale.”
The event’s programme director, Mark Elliot, summed up the current digital climate with a poignant message: “Digital is no longer a nice to have, it is a must-have”, and from the success of the last three CivTech events, the size of which CivTech 4.0 now is, and the discussion about where CivTech 5.0 is going next, it seems certain it will grow from strength to strength and continuing to solve bigger, more important problems for our public sector.