Case Study: How the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) model helped Belfast City Council transform its approach to Problem-Solving

Business rates provide more than half of Belfast City Council’s annual revenue, used to fund local services. However, with a constantly changing business community, the maintenance of an up-to-date register of businesses in the city to inform the timely and accurate collection of rates income can be challenging.
The Small Business Research Initiative

Initially, Belfast tried to identify solutions already on the market that would help boost revenue from rate-paying businesses, but after market research found no solutions commercially available, Belfast looked to launch a competition to attract new suppliers.

The Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) is an approach that brings public sector challenges together with ideas from business to create innovative solutions. According to Innovate UK, the SBRI programme has brought more than £1 Billion to the UK economy with over 66% of the contracts awarded to SME’s.

Keen to harness this approach, Belfast prepared to lay their challenge out to the market.

Defining the challenge

The first thing that Belfast needed to do before engaging the market was to define the problem they were actually trying to solve. Connected Places Catapult helped apply an objective, human-centred approach to this exercise in order to encourage creative solutions without overly defining the eventual solution — i.e. leaving room for innovation.

In defining the challenge, Belfast focused on what outcomes they wanted to achieve, rather than defining how they wanted to achieve them. For Belfast, these outcomes included:

  • identifying occupancy status of a non-domestic property in near real time;
  • ensuring that all properties required to pay rates have been identified and are valued for rates purposes;
  • identifying the function/use of a non-domestic property in near real time;
  • identifying the occupant of a non-domestic property in near real time; and
  • expediting the issuing of bills to new properties.
Making it happen

Working with Land and Property Services, Belfast City Council applied for £100,000 of funding from the Department for the Economy to bring forward the development of a timely, accurate and cost effective solution which could be implemented to maximise business rate revenue for the city. The council contributed a further £50,000 to the funding.

To reduce risk and allow space for innovative solutions to be developed and validated, the SBRI approach allows for a multi-stage bidding, shortlisting, validation and selection process.

Phase One: The Open Call

The first step was running an open call that was open to any companies interested in taking part in the competition. To kick this off, the Council developed a structured plan for market engagement which included activities such as running ‘meet and greet’ sessions open to companies interested in taking part in the competition to talk to council officers about it and get prepared. The open call was then released which was publicised in the press with a competition briefing and online application.

Phase Two: Proof of Concept

As a result of the competition, four companies were awarded £5,000 each to help turn their ideas into more substantial proofs of concept over a six-week period. These projects focused on behavioural economics, Internet of Things networks, rule-based analytics and machine learning models. Crucially, none of the firms which responded to the open call had previously considered themselves local government suppliers.

Phase Three: Prototyping

Two companies — Analytics Engines and NQuiring Minds — were awarded further funding of £55,000 each to turn their concepts into functional prototypes during Phase Two. This phase ran from November 2016 to March 2017.

The companies had the opportunity to trial their new solutions over a two-week period. Using different approaches, they used a range of data sources, such as from Belfast City Council, Land and Property Services and Northern Ireland Water, to enhance the process for identifying rates income from businesses in the city.


During the final two-week evaluation period, the two companies identified an initial £500,000 of previously uncollected business rates. Subsequent use of the winning solution has since revealed still more previously unrealised revenue which is now being used to deliver local services.

In addition to demonstrating to Belfast City Council the value of taking a challenge-based approach to procurement, the SBRI process also gave SMEs a valuable opportunity to innovate and commercialise ideas in a real-world environment.

“Our experience of working with Belfast City Council and Land & Property Services has been invaluable, and having the opportunity to work on a city challenge directly with the service end users has been incredibly rewarding. Access to data and funding allowed us to focus fully on the challenge at hand, including the development of algorithms, which gave new insights and allowed us to propose new ways of doing things. We are now promoting our solution to a range of new markets.” Analytics Engines

Since the completion of this SBRI, Belfast City Council not only moved to procure a rates maximisation solution, but expanded its use of challenge-based procurement through the creation of the Smart Belfast Framework though which they regularly publish information about problems they are looking for the market to solve.