Let’s play a game. You think of an Italian company that’s good at deploying urban games to improve cities while having fun; and I’ll guess who ou are thinking about. Ready? Ok, my turn: if you are Italian, you are thinking about Focus, owner of CriticalCity Upload (disclosure: I serve on its advisory board).
Easy win. If you ask around to anyone in Italy who knows anything about that, the name CriticalCity is immediately mentioned: they won seven awards in Italy and abroad, recruited a community of 250 players for their playable beta, and featured on most innovation specialized media in the country, from Wired to Nòva.
Despite all the recognition, a year ago the CriticalCity group managed to lose a tender of the Puglia Region to build a game that would activate the creative community gathered around the Pugliese policies in favour of the young, and in particularly around Bollenti Spiriti,, one of the most advanced initiatives in Italy in this space. The winner was a consortium that included Consorzio Nova (supposedly they do social innovation, but the website is under construction), communication and marketing agency Tom Comunicazione, and an e-learning company, Grifo Multimedia. Not much experience in the gaming area; that they won means they had a proposal that evaluators found very convincing.
After getting over the disappointment, the CriticalCity team went to work and, in may 2010, secured a grant from a Fondazione Cariplo and that allowed to launch the current version of their game, CriticalCity Upload. Then things moved quickly:
- they launched on October 15th 2010 – five months after being awarded the grant
- in the first two month, with zero communication spending, they rallied 800 players, verified one by one (i.e. zero spambots)
- over the same period, players executed 1,516 missions
- Upload costs € 150,000 for the first year – 70% of which funded by their grant, 30% by third parties
- under the hood there is a solid gameplay engine, developed into code in collaboration with Californian early mover game company Playtime
On the other hand, the winners of the Puglia tender:
- launched their game, Firstlaif, in november 2010, a full year after winning the tender
- Firstlaif is obviously modelled after CriticalCity. Compare Firstlaif’s presentation video with CriticalCity’s (in the beta version of late 2007). Compare the concepts: Firstlaif changes the labels, but is really using the same concept. The word “ripoff” comes to mind.
- after one month, Firstlaif totalled 16 completed missions (source)
- over the same period, with communication “being limited to a banner in a local nespaper”, it attracted over one thousand registered users (source: as above). This figure chould probably be taken with a pinch of salt: at the time of taking my notes (31/12/2010, 10:45 CET+8) the whole first “community” page was occupied by users with names like pwyfvc63, ibhw1dzk, afbty6ic2f etc. These are not people, but spambots, i.e. programs that infiltrate social websites to advertise viagra, penis enhancement solutions, no-prescription drugs and all of the “worst of the Internet” repertoire. I looked at the first 100 users, and only 6 had a realistic-looking name.
- it cost the regional administration € 335,000 (source: official documents).
All in all, it is clear that the regional administration failed to choose the right people for the job. I have no reason to believe that the officials in charge are incompetent or dishonest. Rather, I think the problem is technological and legal: public authorities are locked by the law in a spceific technology to make procurement choice, and that technology is the competitive tender. It is a public procedure whereby a buyer, meaning to purchase a certain good or service, writes down and publishes the specifications of what it wants, the maximum price it is willing to pay and the criteria according to which it will assess competing proposals. At a fixed date, an expert committee compares proposals and chooses the winner. This procedure is designed to be efficient (it allows comparison of alternatives), merit-based (it operates on clear criteria for what is desirable) and impartial (all proposals follow the same procedure, and everything is out in the open).
Despite these advantages, competitive tendering is not a universal solution. Assessing public projects, especially ex ante is famously difficult. This gives rise to a structural information asymmetry, which is most severe for immaterial projects and policies: by definition, the supplier knows more on what she is selling than the purchaser, and the latter might find it difficult to figure out just how advantageous a proposal is. Here’s the thing: competitive tendering is a state-of-the-art procedure, but of the nineteenth century. It still works well for choosing supplier of well defined goods and services you can but from several suppliers competing with each other: it’s great for buying toilet paper, but sucks as a tool for making strategic decisions.
When we need to figure out who, in the world, knows a lot about something and could help us dealing with it we do a very simple thing: we ask our friends and Google. If you, like me, have a pretty good social network it is often enough to share a question on Facebook or Twitter ( “hi all, do we know a good graph theorist who understands different metrices of node centrality in a network?”) to receive some lead within minutes, or hours at the most. These leads are generally links to publications or CVs of people with that specialization. If they look promising, we can write to them and they can accept to work for us, or recommend other people with the right set of skills. And what about accountability? Well, accountability should be geared towards results, not procedure: and transparency of those results helps good suppliers or collaborators to build reputation.
Competitive belongs to the arsenal of Weberian bureaucracy, itself an extraordinary innovation that, however, is now growing obsolete. I would suggest (actually I did that in my book Wikicrazia) to rethink the organizational form of government administration: in times of dwindling resources it makes sense to equip yourself with the best available tools for making decisions. CriticalCIty Upload is obviously better than Firstlaif, and any tool that leads to choosing the latter over the former is simply not good enough.