January 2, 2023

A Toolkit for Startups in the Utilities Sector Seeking to Partner With the Public Sector

"Cities in low-and middle-income countries are home to one billion people lacking access to affordable, reliable, safe, and sustainable utility services," Max Cuvellier, GSMA's Head of Mobile for Development, writes in the Forward of a toolkit that was created for startups in the utilities sector that are seeking to partner with the public sector. He adds: "This urban service gap is being exacerbated by rapid urbanization, climate change and widening inequalities posing complex challenges to city authorities, municipalities, and utility service providers."

In its press release announcing the publication of the toolkit, the GSMA, a UK-based organization that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, notes: "Partnerships between start-ups and the public sector have emerged as an innovative and impactful way to address critical gaps in essential urban services – particularly when it comes to reaching low-income urban populations in informal settlements. They have the potential to combine the technology, innovative financing, and agility of start-up ventures with the public sector’s scale, service mandate, and resources."

The GSMA's announcement further says: "Over the last decade, through the GSMA Innovation Fund, we have supported more than 100 start-ups and SMEs working across LMICs. In that time, we have observed how central partnerships are to startups' scaling journeys and wider social impact. We have also seen how partnership formation between stakeholders with different organizational cultures, time horizons, and strategic priorities can pose challenges. Meanwhile, there has been little research and few resources tailored towards start-ups and early-stage private sector innovators pursuing partnerships with the public sector."

This toolkit therefore aims to:
  1. Highlight the role of start-up-public sector collaboration in the context of the many challenges facing cities in LMICs;
  2. To provide a conceptual framework of how to think through, frame, and define startup-public sector partnerships;
  3. To offer practical tips and tools to startups navigating these complex partnerships; and
  4. To highlight additional resources that might be relevant to those aiming to catalyze startup public sector collaboration.
The toolkit presents the following conclusions:
  • Innovation: Digital solutions have demonstrated their value for improving urban services in LMICs. However, more innovation is needed to develop business models that can be deployed on a wide scale and account for the financial constraints of utilities and municipalities, as well the needs of low-income customers.
  • Urbanization and climate change: Though the startup-public sector partnership landscape for improved urban utility services is still nascent, trends such as rapid urbanization, urbanization without structural formation, and climate change will mean that municipalities and public utilities will have to collaborate with startups and private sector innovators to close the urban service divide. While there has been more attention placed on the opportunities related to startup-public sector partnerships for urban utility services, it is also clear that there are many barriers to such partnership models, particularly when it comes to taking such partnership models to scale.
  • Pioneers and challenges: Examples in countries that have pioneered these partnerships such as Kenya, India, and Bangladesh highlight that start-up-public sector partnerships can support cities in making urban utility service delivery more affordable, reliable, safe, and sustainable. Despite these successes, it is important for startups to be aware of the challenges and complexities associated with public sector collaboration, and better assess where synergies with the public sector lie and how their service can support the public sector in meeting its objectives.
  • Collaboration: This toolkit sought to highlight the role of startup-public sector collaboration in the context of many challenges facing cities in LMICs (Section 1), provide a conceptual framework of how to think through, frame, and define startup-public sector partnerships (Section 2), offer practical tips and tools to start-ups navigating these complex partnerships (Section 3), and highlight additional resources that might be relevant to those aiming to catalyze startup-public sector collaboration (Section 4). Given how nascent many partnerships and the wider start-up public sector ecosystem are, it will be critical to continue to conduct research on the developmental, commercial, and social impact of these innovative partnerships, and use case studies to generate granular insights.
  • Drivers for change: Trends will continue to drive startup-public sector partnerships for improved urban utility service provision. These include increasing devolution and public sector programs that encourage and incentivize startup participation in urban service delivery, the increased relevance and maturity of circular economy use cases, increased adoption and availability of frontier technologies and digital payments, as well as increased availability of funders and funding models to support multi-stakeholder partnerships.
  • Digital Utilities Partnership Hub: The GSMA Digital Utilities program convenes startups, relevant public sector organizations such as state-owned utilities, and other relevant corporates such as MNOs to catalyze innovative partnerships and collaboration for urban utility service provision. Alongside this toolkit, the GSMA Digital Utilities program is launching the Digital Utilities Partnership Hub. The hub is GSMA's comprehensive source of information on the role of digital solutions and innovative partnerships for improved urban service delivery, highlighting key insights and case studies from our work with public and private sector stakeholders over the last decade.
  • Support: The GSMA Digital Utilities program is committed to supporting startups and their public sector partners aiming to form, sustain, and scale partnerships for improved urban utility service delivery. To achieve GSMA's objectives, the program engages in:
    • De-risking and catalyzing innovative urban utility services: Providing grants to private sector innovators to test and demonstrate the role of digital urban service solutions;
    • Research and insights: Generate rigorous evidence on innovative solutions to essential service provision by gathering insights from Innovation Fund grantees and conducting research with partner organizations with deep expertise in utility service provision; Partnership facilitation and convening of key ecosystem stakeholders: Drive replication and scale through convenings and leveraging our own networks as well as those of key partners who work to enable similar solutions; and
    • Technical advice to MNOs, municipalities, and utility service providers: Provide advice on the role of digital innovation for improved utility service provision and insights on how to achieve multi-stakeholder partnerships.
  • Enabling Forums: GSMA's market engagement team is looking forward to convening public sector stakeholders and startups for our next digital urban utility forums in Bangladesh and Kenya in Q4, and GSMA's program is looking forward to leveraging their strategic partnerships with key enablers and funders such as Imagine H2O Asia, the International Water Association, GOGLA, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the World Resources Institute and other partners to continue to drive public-private collaboration to close the urban service divide.

Do you see value in this toolkit for startups in the utilities sector? What recommendations do you have for how startups and the public sector can partner?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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