Blog Post

November 9, 2023

Open Innovation Programmes at PUBLIC: Bringing the Innovation Ecosystem to the Public Sector's Front Door


For over 5 years, PUBLIC has been at the forefront of shaping innovative solutions for the public sector and propelling industry growth. Working together with a number of governments, from the UK all the way across Europe, our team brings together SMEs, public and private sector innovators, investors, civil society, academia and NGOs to create solutions with lasting impact. In this interview, our Head of Communications, Natasha Wren, sits down with Chiara Carlini, our Head of Open Innovation Programmes at PUBLIC, to explore her journey and insights into the innovation ecosystem across Europe. 

Chiara, you’ve been a key driver of open innovation programmes at PUBLIC. Can you share a pivotal moment or project that exemplifies the power of transforming the way governments collaborate with the startup ecosystem? 

Earlier this year, as part of an international consortium, we kicked off The GovTech Connect project, funded by The European Commission, which is helping to empower public sector access to the European GovTech ecosystem and drive forward the green transition. To mark the culmination of our first series of Boot Camps, we hosted an event in Madrid where 24 startups presented their cutting-edge solutions dedicated to achieving sustainability, spanning areas like sustainable procurement, energy efficiency, and sustainable tourism and we’re just getting started. 

This initiative is already further demonstrating how public sector administrations can harness startup expertise, enable collaboration, and adopt cost-effective and flexible digital solutions whilst stimulating growth. We’ve always believed that by creating a dynamic ecosystem of GovTech innovators, we can both foster impactful solutions whilst contributing to achieving net-zero objectives and advancing sustainable practices in the public sector. Having our journey start at the heart of introducing GovTech into the mainstream, we believe this project is a testament to the rapid momentum building behind enabling open innovation to drive positive and meaningful outcomes. 

Open innovation requires not just finding the right startups but also creating a conducive environment for experimentation. What strategies have you used to foster a culture of innovation within public sector orgs when seeking out solutions? 

We design all of our programmes around creating environments that encourage experimentation and innovative ways of working. One such environment was created for The Safety Tech Challenge Fund (STCF), a groundbreaking government grant programme, dedicated to ensuring the safety of children in end-to-end encrypted environments, all while preserving user privacy. With it being a cross-Whitehall initiative, led by the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) and involving Home Office, National Crime Agency, and more, we had to ensure such a high-stakes government initiative was met with a multifaceted and meticulous approach to stimulating cross-sector and cross-Whitehall collaboration. 

This initiative led to the development of proof of concepts (PoCs) that have the potential to make significant impact in preventing online child sexual abuse and exploitation while upholding user privacy. The programme’s educational and interactive aspects and events furthered knowledge dissemination and cross-sector cooperation, helping all stakeholders engage with the subject matter in a dynamic and actionable manner. Helping to empower the Safety Tech sector through the STCF and countless other online safety initiatives makes it all the more reaffirming now we’ve seen the Online Safety Bill reach royal assent. STCF was an important use-case of the impact of developing innovative approaches to public sector challenges and the establishment of effective product-to-policy feedback loops. It’s led to even greater steps taken by government bodies united to create a safer environment for children whilst protecting user privacy.  

Sustainability and social impact are increasingly significant in public sector initiatives. Can you share examples of how these values are integrated into PUBLIC’s open innovation programmes and the positive outcomes they have driven? 

Our mission to help the public sector create outstanding digital public services that create a better society for everyone is deeply tied to our OIP practice. The Prison Leaver Innovation Challenge (PLIC) done in partnership with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is one that stands out in my mind as a perfect example of bridging the startup ecosystem to develop new tech solutions and tools to support the most pressing public sector challenges. In order to craft the right pathways to impactful solutions to support prison leavers, we delivered six activations to help the client design a set of strategic challenge statements. We ran assessments of MoJ technical and data systems along with their compliance requirements and interviewed over 75 stakeholders in policy, digital, and frontline delivery teams across 5 UK central government departments. This led to the production of a comprehensive map of existing providers in the justice space and beyond. With over 500 attendees to our series of supplier webinars and 57 leading applications, shortlisted to 9 startups who are currently developing their solutions in cooperation with the MoJ and individuals with lived experience, the overall goals to reduce reoffending and recidivism were further enabled. 

Also, another favourite of mine was delivering Tech For Our Planet (TFOP) with the Cabinet Office, an innovation challenge programme to identify and pilot leading CleanTech SMEs that address the most pressing challenges in achieving Net Zero, and to showcase them at COP26 in Glasgow. Startup presence had limited visibility so we were proud to attract 4500 attendees, helping to provide a prominent platform for startups that achieved outstanding success over a short piloting phase, such as Brainbox AI and Olio. 

The public sector increasingly recognises that Off-the-shelf Artificial Intelligence (AI) products and services could deliver significant improvements to public services for both civil servants and citizens. How can the public sector leverage open innovation programmes to keep at pace while ensuring ethical adoption of AI-driven solutions? 

AI startups across an extensive variety of sectors spanning Health and Social Care; Climate; Business Systems; Education; Privacy, Security & Online Safety have always been integral to our view of public sector innovation. After many years already working with AI innovators it’s been interesting to see the AI Hype Cycle surged as a result of generative AI. In light of this need to ensure ethical adoption has become an utmost priority, leading us to work alongside AWS on our third programme, following the success of our health and defence accelerators. The intention behind this programme is to help departments mature their understanding of AI, prioritise practical use cases beyond recent hype and see up-close innovative solutions that have already been tested in the private sector or other government settings. Alongside key government departments and public sector organisations, we have run an investigation into  high-impact challenge areas for ethical adoption of AI into government, resulting in a shortlist of three challenges with high potential for successful integration of AI-driven solutions. 

Applications are now open until November 15th to apply for the AI in the Public Sector Showcase challenge programme. Can you tell us more about the challenge statements and what can startups stand to gain pitching at this showcase event?

Shaped in partnership with UK Government Digital Service (GDS), the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), and the Environment Agency (EA), we have launched a call for applications with technology solutions that can substantially move the needle for government capabilities to meet the pace of AI. One challenge statement, shaped with GDS, is focused on UI optimisation aimed at discovering how AI tools can personalise experiences when users interact with public services online. There are currently over 7,000 services available on in this complex landscape, AI can help users access the right service in a frictionless way. 

The second area of focus is helping public sector organisations make optimal decisions when dealing with individual cases, utilising high-quality evidence collected both internally and externally in the most resource-efficient way. This challenge area, shaped in partnership with the MoJ, will have cross-government relevance and applications.

Finally, we have worked with the Environment Agency to define a challenge statement encouraging innovators to to come up with solutions that can aid compliance monitoring. The process of monitoring whether organisations remain compliant with permits is currently challenging and laborious for regulators such as the EA, and AI solutions can help rapidly identify non-compliance and guide the right response. 

We invite you to apply now and get your chance to gain access to a powerful platform to showcase your AI-powered solutions. Beyond that, learn more about our work across this area by checking out our Open Innovation Programmes Expertise Page or get in touch with Chiara today to discuss how open innovation can help you shape the future of the public sector. 


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Photo by the author

Chiara Carlini

Deputy Director of Startup & Challenge Programmes

Photo by the author

Natasha Wren

Head of Communications

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