‘Building the Solution Economy’ – A perspective from Bill Eggers

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

In an era of exponential technological change, and in a world where governments are seeking to reduce costs but citizen demands are changing and growing, how are we to solve entrenched problems?

At a breakfast event in Canberra on Tuesday 25 February, Bill Eggers of Deloitte spoke about building the ‘solution economy’ as a means for governments to deal with a confluence of events and trends:

    • Many governments around the world are looking at reducing costs
    • Citizen demands are changing and increasing
    • The complex problems that society faces are not getting any smaller.

Bill reflected that technology is creating a positive supply shock – a rapidly increasing number of people are getting involved in societal problem solving and have access to low-cost tools, in a way that has never been possible before.

These people, these ‘wavemakers’, are helping fill the gap between citizen expectations and the service that government delivers. This is where the solution economy is growing and evolving.

The solution economy involves an ecosystem of these wavemakers who solve problems, made up of individuals, businesses, not-for-profits and governments with roles of:

    • Investors
    • Conveners
    • Multirational multinationals
    • Steady suppliers
    • Innovators
    • Citizen changemakers.

To illustrate the solution economy, Bill took us through the example of traffic congestion. Traditionally the response might have been to invest in more/new roads, in additional bus services, or introduce or extend mass transit services such as subways, or increase pricing through a congestion pricing.

Now the solution economy presents a range of other options that collectively offer an emerging congestion relief system. Elements include:

    • Personal travel assistant apps
    • Mobile parking apps (such as San Francisco’s SFpark)
    • Real time traffic management and tracking
    • Telecommuting
    • Integrated fare management.


These measures won’t ‘solve’ the problem, and there still needs to be some management of the ecosystem, but collectively these measures ease the pressure, and at a greatly reduced cost to the more traditional measures available to government.

Another example shared by Bill was that of ReCAPTCHA – a program used to tell whether a user is a human or a computer, and that helps digitise books and newspapers. Over 2.5 million books are digitised per year through this micro-task. The inventor of the tool has now applied this thinking to Duolingo, a service that takes advantage of people learning different languages, and uses their efforts to help translate Internet pages.

Such ‘micro volunteerism’ helps crowdsource dispersed information that, in aggregate, gives meaningful results and intelligence. For instance there is an application called Street Bump, where Boston volunteers use the mobile app to collect road condition data while they drive. The data is then aggregated and gives the city of Boston real-time information.

A further example was that of Dean Kamen’s Slingshot water purifier. Developed by the private sector, the inventor had trouble finding partners with global health institutions, so instead partnered with Coca Cola to bring it to those most in need. “By 2015, Coca-Cola and partners plan to bring 100 million liters of clean, safe drinking water to 45,000 people across 20 countries.”

Bill explained that through the solution economy perspective, we need to look differently at who we could partner with to achieve our aims, not just the traditional avenues that we might have intuitively relied on in the past.

He finished by sharing that he saw the future of government more as an enabler and a solution recruiter than the provider of the solutions themselves.

Bill’s presentation was followed by a short panel discussion with Lynne PezzulloMarie JohnsonFrank Farrall, and Dr Jack Dan. The panel discussion included:

    • That many businesses are moving to involve the customer more (such as providing reviews of books on Amazon) and that this could be seen as getting the customer to ‘work’ for free, but in a way that they are happy to do. How can government look at problems in a way that gets citizens to help themselves, and in a way that will make them happier?
    • The growth in social impact bonds and other models of government receiving services on a ‘pay for results’ basis
    • That the citizen is surrounded by a great deal of complexity, including from government and that the public sector needs to consider how to remove or simplify that experience – just as some businesses have done by reducing the number of products and services that they offer and concentrating on those alone
    • Whether the Australian Public Service is hampered in working with businesses as partners by its (relative) geographic removal from much of industry in Australia
    • The need for recognition that innovation and the solution economy requires an acknowledgement that the process cannot be controlled – that it is collaborative.

The notion of the solution economy is something that Bill has written about with his co-author Paul Macmillan in The Solution Revolution: How Business, Government and Social Enterprises Are Teaming Up to Solve Society’s Toughest Problems.

Personally, I’d highly recommend taking a look at The Solution Revolution and considering how this frame of looking at problems might be relevant for you, your work and your agency. It’s a good read and contains a lot of interesting ideas and examples that give food for thought.