"Alkemio is helping Digicampus to change public services"

We recently managed to grab some time in busy agendas to sit down for a conversation with Flori Spoelstra, a key champion for Alkemio.

Flori is a portfolio manager at Digicampus. Digicampus is a Founding Partner and launching customer for Alkemio.

As someone passionate about the need for collaboration, Flori uses Alkemio daily, is engaged in building the community and provides essential input into the product roadmap.  

Can you tell us what is the mandate for Digicampus?

Digicampus has the mandate to drive innovation in the public services. Digicampus was established by Logius, ICTU, TU Delft, NLdigital and Ministerie van BZK. It is setup as an independent organization, with strong connections to the government innovation ecosystem as well as the private sector and scientific community working on public sector innovation.

Our goal is to give focus and stimulate innovation of public services by guiding innovation communities and coalitions around a mission-driven agenda.

One of our daily activities is just following what is going around the missions, understanding who is researching what, identifying obstacles in getting meaningful innovations to society, connecting people who can benefit from each other’s capabilities and knowledge, etc. Bringing insight and oversight [Dutch: inzicht en overzicht] basically and build from there.

  How did you connect with Alkemio? 

A key issue we faced was how to make our work scalable.

For that we needed a way for the innovation ecosystem to track what is happening and connect with each other, without Digicampus as matchmaking party in the middle.

Shortly after realizing we needed some sort of platform to facilitate our work, we realized it would be a huge step for us to develop it ourselves. Luckily, around that time, my colleague met Neil [Smyth] who told her about the Alkemio mission to build an open-source platform for collaboration that would put challenges central instead of organizations. That was in a still very early stage of Alkemio when there was no tangible product yet. Since we shared the same vision, a logical step was forming a partnership between us.

We stepped in as a launching partner straight away and from there we worked towards a minimum viable product that is now online. 

How important is the open-source component for you?

Being open is at the core of Digicampus, and open-source is a key element in this approach.

So it was very important for us to find a partner supporting the same values.

We really feel that if we put public money in software it should be a public good.

And it’s not just us, open source is now a spearhead of the Dutch government policy.

The fact that there is a not-for-profit foundation behind Alkemio was one of the key factors to create a partnership with them.

How is this partnership with Alkemio impacting your mandate?

Innovation in the public service is currently done from existing Organizations, each with their own legal base.

But societal problems can’t be changed if we start with the organization: the problems are much bigger than that. We need to put the Challenges themselves central.

It is also important to realize that at the moment that there is systematic duplication. Organizations are struggling to connect to each other and to ideas, so you find often that they are working independently on the same problem. This is simply a waste of societies efforts and talents, not to mention public funds. I really believe there is not a lack of innovation budget or motivation to change, but we are lacking a coordination mechanism to focus our efforts. I am not talking about a few organizations or agencies. There are hundreds of government agencies in The Netherlands, each with their innovation projects. This result is systematic duplication of efforts, which we want to avoid.

Now is a pivotal moment when a fundamental change in approach is needed.

To put organizations aside and bring contributors together around the problem we want to solve. That is exactly what Digicampus is aiming for and where Alkemio can really support.

What is the current maturity of Alkemio?

A public preview.

In my opinion, launching the product in a very early stage instead of in a ready stage, was a smart choice from multiple angles. If you take something off the shelf, it is never really tailored to your needs, and it can get quite expensive to alter it later in the process. Better to start working with small communities and a strong foundation, and then build upon it, isn’t it? It gives us a chance to get valuable feedback, see how people are using it, what are their expectations, problems they are running into, and then try to develop it further as quickly as possible. Figuratively speaking, instead of building a car with luxury accessories like a Ferrari, we started to create a car with all the necessary equipment that can take people from point A to point B.

It has a great foundation to build upon and the feedback in this early stage creates focus. Knowing how carefully it is being developed, makes me admire it more. Just an example: when creating functionalities, developers take time for every detail, have a clean-up sprint, and then try to make it better on the back end to avoid any problems that might arise in the future.

Can you explain how start-ups and organizations connect in this early stage? Are they creating new challenges or just participating in the existing ones?

Previously what happened is that a startup discovers that someone, let’s say municipality X is working on a problem they already have a solution for, and then want to connect with them. So they turn to us and ask for that connection. That does not scale.

That is what Alkemio is doing for the start-up market.

Providing start-ups with an insight into the problems the government and municipalities are already working on.

The next phase for us is to form coalitions and get them on board of these coalitions. That way they can see where to offer their services and find potential customers.

For example, Alkemio has the organization’s profile page, and when you click on a specific organization, such as Digicampus, you see what challenges and opportunities they are involved with. For commercial parties it is interesting to have a page like that. It is transparent and makes them visible and people can see how they are contributing to, for example, public services in The Netherlands. 

Since you are setting challenges on the platform and building a community around it, do you have any learnings to share or feedback?

  For me, it is the heart of the work that I do. I honestly enjoy bringing people together and building coalitions.

Alkemio makes it much easier and scalable.

Alkemio creates that shared space we need for innovation partnerships.

Yes, it is still in an early stage, so the real community function that should drive people to the platform and help people connect into a challenge is only now starting to be released.

The major challenge going forward is that just posting challenges and opportunities online, is not going to make a change. It makes a difference, that’s for sure because people are ‘screaming’ for insight and oversight. But to really make the change needed we should also use the platform to better coordinate the challenges we put out there, discuss what next steps are needed and provide guidance to the coalitions working on an innovation-pipeline.

That is why we have named our hub not Digicampus, but Public Services (In Dutch: publieke dienstverlening), and we co-operate with other public bodies such as VNG and BZK to get our joint portfolio on there.

Also important to mention is that people are key to making the innovation happen. So while Alkemio can support this sort of collaboration every step of the way, it is of course real people that manage the processes surrounding that.

What are you looking forward to on the Alkemio roadmap?

I am looking forward to community functionality, such as Updates and Discussions, which makes it easier connecting people around challenges. I have no doubts it will create great traction.

In the hopefully not too distant future, I am really looking forward to the whiteboards function that has the potential to help people through every step of their innovate process, from creating a collaboration agenda, to setting up a test-session with citizens.

It would be really helpful if we can share our best practices on Alkemio.

What is your call to action to the wider innovation community?

I’d say don’t be afraid to show what you are doing. l see a lot of hesitation to work transparently. We tend to first do it all within our own four walls. Why not do it out in the open on Alkemio? If you have a posted challenge, it gives others a chance to help you by refining it or asking questions about it.

There is a shortage in knowledge sharing and a need for a space where we can judge what are the real valuable steps forward, where we should invest in together. Digicampus can lead by example with a few government agencies and see what kind of valuable discussions arise from that and hope everyone will follow.

I know Alkemio can bring this more systematically for the future.