APIs are at the heart of new technologies (broadly referred to as ‘civic tech’) that are enabling cities to solve local problems, better manage resources, and connect with citizens. Cities are using civic tech -- often powered by APIs -- to create liveable, dynamic places to live, work and play.
A number of drivers are encouraging businesses and startups to use APIs to create a lot more civic tech solutions:
- 60% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050
- More people are preferring to live in city centers rather than in suburban homes
- Climate change and oil prices are creating new resource constraints that require city authorities to better manage densely populated areas.
Meanwhile, city governments are recognizing the opportunities of working with startups. Many are exploring cloud-based infrastructure; are opening up their data publicly; and are seeking innovative technologies to reduce costs while creating greater efficiencies.
A Common Pattern for API-Enabled Civic Tech Businesses
For businesses seeking to provide civic tech solutions via API, some simfilar patterns are emerging.
- First, businesses and startups test the waters by producing an app or product that solves a particular local need.
- In order to scale, however, these businesses often find they need to participate in open API standards design in order to replicate the app or product in another city.
- This leads a startup or business to pivot towards becoming an API platform that uses de facto open API standards. This has been the model followed by successful civic tech startups like TransportAPI, TrailheadLabs and SeeClickFix.
- This new platform now means that other startups can enter the civic tech market by becoming a commercial ecosystem partner that is building products off the main API platform, or who provide consultancy services to city authorities to help them integrate with the API platform.
- Others can replicate the API platform model in other subdomains of civic policy.
- Following this, as technology and expertise advances, a second wave of innovation is on the horizon where solutions that introduce predictive analytics and machine-to-machine (IoT) solutions become possible.
Civic Tech Market Entry Opportunities
For API businesses looking to service the civic tech market, there are several factors related to market entry:
- Challenges rather than hackathons offer real-world projects for which businesses can create solutions over a more realistic product development timeline (rather than in a werekend timeline fueled by pizza and Red Bull)
- Cities and other authorities are increasingly funding accelerator and incubator programs to support new startups and existing businesses that want to reorient towards the civic tech market
- Consultancy projects that come in under procurement thresholds are helping startups build relationships with city governments quickly
- New models such as self-invested labs are emerging which have a social enterprise/volunteer component that creates products and solutions in collaboration with city governments. This helps the lab test commercial opportunities and better understand the civic tech market.