Article: Tendering for design


Using design to develop cities will offer plenty of work in the next few years. Different public actors would like to buy design expertise, but first it is necessary to know how to make a good call for tenders, says Tiina-Kaisa Laakso Liukkonen, former Project Director for Design Driven City.



Why are tenders found difficult?

TL ”Design is exceptional expertise, the outcome of which is sometimes hard to define. As expertise, it is often involved in wider procurements, and the place and role of design are sometimes hard to separate and define. Design procurements strongly concern iterative projects, so defining what is actually being bought has to be quite open. The public sector knows how to purchase consulting, for sure. But is that the direction where design procurements want to be taken? Then a fundamental part of design’s nature might disappear. But there is still a lot lacking in estimating the right amount of work and qualitatively assessing results.

The crucial thing would be producing good qualitative criteria. The lack of them at the moment is a stumbling block. What is good quality design in the public sector? Understanding is only gained through experiences, examples, and different sized calls for tenders. And no one is doing them just for fun. Even around the world, you don’t really find big calls for tenders in buying design. An understandable language and presentation method should be created for making calls for tenders.”

Why is tendering worth it?

TL “When tendering is done well, it attracts the kind of experts who might all not even be known to the one calling for tenders. We should get as many new experts as possible into this field. If good calls for tenders are made and tendering becomes routine, then it will spawn interest and that way the number of bidders will increase, too.

If you want to get design involved in meaningful projects and tenders, and you want to influence structures, then it is for the advantage of all parties to operate by the rules and tender properly. Tendering is the first step where you measure the commitment of the client, as well.”

Where should the buyer begin?

TL “You have to understand what kind of situation your own organization is in. Are you used to using outside experts? If design expertise is the first thing you start practising buying expertise with, then I would not greatly recommend it. What if it clearly concerns a specific venture or project that you can get on the move? It is easier to start from a smaller piece of the puzzle. Then you know a concrete need against which you can reflect a possible bigger contract. But since tenders are quite tough, it is always worth thinking about whether you should expand the tendering into a larger framework agreement. But you also shouldn’t set the bar too high – you have to start from somewhere and lessons are only learned from experience.

You should accept that making a call for tenders always takes a bit more time. Buyers from the public sector should share information on tendering with each other, because finding good examples is so difficult, and they should now be created at a fast pace. If only a few calls for tenders are produced in a year, you will not gain learning experiences either.”

How do you make a good call for tenders?

TL “You shouldn’t think about making calls for tenders as a loathsome, extraneous project. It is actually an opportunity that forces you to carefully consider what it is that you are really doing, and you have to do that at some point anyway. When you describe what you are doing precisely to someone else, your own operating develops. So you don’t define the thing that is being bought only for the sake of the call for tenders, but you discuss and document your own work and plans carefully. The call for tenders is produced in the same instance.”

What can easily go wrong for the buyer?

TL “For example, buying design expertise like you would buy consulting, rather than having thought beforehand what kind of needs or situations can arise in, say, the next two or three years. It is worth going through at least the following: do we have needs related to participation, customer orientation, visualising operation, or workshops? Are we faced with changing the whole process, which should be done through trials? Or do we need more training?”

How do you know whether you should buy from the outside, or hire an in-house expert?

TL One factor is scope: how much work related to the field is there in the time frame that you can imagine? You have to have a gripping surface for all buying and using of expertise in the organisation. If there is no one in the house who understands design and can create novelty with an expert or service producer, then no service will hit the target. You always have to have some kind of understanding within the house, because you cannot outsource decision making.”

Why do tenders not excite designers at the moment?

TL “The documents can be quite terrible. After all, they have not been made user-driven at all. Some visualizer and jurist should put their wise heads together and try, for once, how a call for tender could be made understandable and in plain language. Designers, too, should be more actively influencing what kinds of calls for tenders are coming: not complain that they are bad, but suggest what they could be like. A call for tenders does not have to be just an A4 full of text.

Has anyone ever asked designers what a tender that design experts would latch on to would be like? Or have design professionals been genuinely active, and made suggestions on what a call for tenders and the tendering process related to procuring design expertise could be, from their perspective? An active developmental approach is a way to influence tendering culture.

For example, the City of Helsinki’s Education Department tried something completely new in tendering service design to cities at the start of the year: selected offices came to give hour-long open presentations in front of an audience on how they would approach building a service network for the education department. The decisions were made on the basis of these presentations and the chosen approach. At the same time, the whole staff of the department got to hear how the service providers would approach the issue. This way, the staff is aware from the start what kind of a project is being carried out during the spring. The events also function as good practical training occasions. This is the kind of combination of design and doing at its best that design is about, and what the public sector needs. Long and time consuming planning processes have to be shortened, so that new functional solutions can be put to use quicker.”

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Using design to develop cities will offer plenty of work in the next few years. Different public actors would like to buy design expertise, but first it is necessary to know how to make a good call for tenders, says Tiina-Kaisa Laakso Liukkonen, former Project Director for Design Driven City.

Tendering for design