Chief Enterprise Architecture & Innovation, Digipolis
Next Generation Customer Experience
Antwerp (B), a city of over 500.000 people, and well-known for its urge for innovation, plays a pioneering role in many ingenious areas. Digipolis, the public, non-profit and inter-communal co-operation commissioned with the IT management of the municipality, is a valuable partner in developing and validating the City of Antwerp’s innovative urban digital applications on a vast scale. To facilitate this Digipolis built a system of solutions capable of addressing any new digital initiative or (r)evolution.
Digipolis is not a commercial tech company, but is the IT-business unit of the City of Antwerp, developing, managing and supporting the municipality’s IT infrastructure on a daily basis. Digipolis qualifies as a buyer of technology.
Over the last few years public administrations are faced with severe budget cuts, resulting in a significant decrease in available IT investment and exploitation budgets. In 2015 the Antwerp budgetary climate (more and faster results with less resources available) was the major reason for Digipolis to reinvent its software development strategy for the City of Antwerp's municipality radically.
On the other hand Digipolis ought to find a solid answer to the City of Antwerp holding’s urgent need for fast business transformation supported by modern digital technology. Digipolis, being the IT-business unit of the City of Antwerp, faced the challenge of delivering 10 times cheaper and 10 times faster, open, innovative and flexible IT solutions enabling personalized e-services for citizens, businesses, visitors and students.
In a nutshell, a thorough redesign of the municipality's existing IT landscape of siloed applications was to be addressed, this together with the development of a strategy allowing for a higher degree of innovation, creativity and expertise.
A company-wide microservice architecture is a fit solution to the budgetary and fast delivery challenge. It answers to the Enterprise Architecture objective and to the aspiration of developing scalable and future-proof IT solutions. In short, it is a smart city’s state-of-the-art architecture.
Adhering to these fundamentals the development of ACPaaS, the Antwerp City Platform as a Service, was kicked-off. It comprises a series of microservices called engines, accessible via APIs, and providing a set of functions and/or services covering a given domain or functionality (e.g. notification, payment, workflow). The engines are fully recyclable; each component is upgradable on its own.
Digipolis used to build or buy vast monolithic applications to support the municipality’s processes. Although these solutions may provide a sense of comfort, security and control, they also lack the crucial characteristics to cope with today's challenges in business transformation and software development. They are unwieldy, less agile and difficult to evolve to a next gen application. Their closed nature leads to vendor lock-in and fortifies the privileged position of software vendors in selling high-priced licenses.
Using microservices and APIs allows for creating open, flexible and future-proof IT solutions and responding swiftly to new digital needs. Since everything is reusable we may save hugely on the much-needed budget for developing the smart city. Technologies such as Internet of Things, blockchain and artificial intelligence offer an opportunity to take a quantum leap forward toward a Digital eXperience Platform.
As we speak ACPaaS is disrupting the Flemish IT software market. With OCAPI the Flemish Government is co-funding an experiment with an ACPaaS-based Open City Platform, aiming to investigate whether it can be used by multiple Flemish municipalities, the Flemish Government and 3rd party developers.
Currently we already buy and exchange microservices with vendors and other organisations. Vendors willing to operate on ACPaaS are asked to rethink their architecture and their licensing and pricing policy.
The most striking results are:
- faster response to business transformation (from years to months)
- faster adoption of new technologies (use of IoT, Blockchain, Chatbots, AI, ML, …)
- faster time to market (go live after maximum 4 months)
- budget savings: more with less (millions of euros)
- buy from startups and creative entrepreneurs: from 0 contracts (2015) to 195 (2017)
- increased procurement budget spent on startups and creative entrepreneurs: from 0% (2015) to 67% (2017)
- 55 ACPaaS components live, supporting hundreds of client-applications (2018)
- no more development or procurement of siloed applications
- Leveraging microservices, APIs, context and AI to optimise user centricity
- Powered by ACPaaS, the Antwerp City Platform as a Service
- A strong preference for buying from and partnering with startups and creatives
- A future proof, dynamically adaptable and open source full application stack based on DevOps principles and aiming for continuous deployment
By building an innovative IT startup community and ecosystem, in parallel with the modification of the IT development and procurement strategy, Digipolis and the City Council were able to put Antwerp on the European Smart City map.
A steady publication of challenging and smaller-scale IT assignments (ACPaaS building blocks) and a lean and mean procurement process resulted in a more than hoped-for influx of innovative ideas and solutions and extremely pleasant collaborations with often less obvious partners. Made-to-measure boot camps and the necessary support encouraged startup companies to cross the threshold and tender.
With ACPaaS hackathons and boot camps Digipolis supported its own staff in their new role as well. In parallel Digipolis opened its doors to citizen devs, students and universities. In a meetup-group with more than 2.000 members several evenings a month are spent on co-creating and infusing the city with innovation.
Working with startups on such a large scale is disruptive in Belgium (and maybe beyond).
Established and big IT vendors have been shaken up by this approach and need to adjust to be able to continue doing business. They need to transform into software engineers using and building ACPaaS microservices. The shift towards openness, reusable services and even (re-)building applications on ACPaaS is a reality in Flanders. Together we are creating a whole new software universe.
Who is leading with digital government technology platforms?, a caption in a slide including the Antwerp City Platform as a Service at the 2017 Gartner Symposium ITxpo warmed the cockles of our hearts, convincing us that all endeavours and hazardous experiments undertaken were not futile at all. We were boosted in our believe that the Digipolis revised procurement and development strategy is not only unique and groundbreaking, but also sustainable and definitely to be pursued.