Technology Isn’t Innovation

Theo Blackwell, London’s Chief Digital Officer, met with

Jonathan Andrews to discuss the UK capital’s new smart city strategy and the upcoming launch of the London Office of Technology & Innovation

Closing in on his first year as London’s Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell hasn’t had much time to reflect. Appointed in September last year by the mayor, Sadiq Khan, Blackwell immediately embarked on an eight-month listening tour to garner feedback and help him formulate the city’s new smart city strategy.

Released in June, the strategy isn’t shy in its ambitions and according to the mayor, it will make London the “smartest city in the world”. The strategy–in the form of a roadmap– includes more than 20 initiatives designed to support the development of the next generation of smart technology and promote greater data sharing among the city’s public services (see box).

A key element of the new plan is the London Office of Technology & Innovation which will open before the end of the year.

“In a city that has been non-strategic in its approach to technology and its civic benefits, we need to create the institutions that enable city-wide collaboration such as [this] new office,” says Blackwell. “Technologists want to collaborate and we can provide the environment for that to happen.”

Accompanying the Office of Technology will be the London Office of Data Analytics for which the mayor has budgeted £365,000 and the London Office of Rapid Cybersecurity Advancement–a new £13.5-million innovation centre that will incubate 72 cyber security companies, across a variety of sectors including AI, data analytics, VR/AR, fintech and IoT.

Blackwell reels off a list of platforms, accelerators and incubators both public and private, including Raingods–a meeting place and forum for civtech start-ups–which all help to create an interesting ecosystem but he admits that the crucial question that start-ups and tech companies would ask is: how do they put their product or service in front of a potential buyer [CIO] and de-risk the offer?

He sees the new office of technology and innovation as the answer. It will help not only city hall but the other boroughs better express their needs in a way the technology sector can understand, and engage with the tech sector in a more realistic way, rather than “being the recipient of emails from people trying to sell us products.”

“If a number of authorities are putting out the same challenge, then we can help them do that in the most effective way through helping them with the process but also to mobilise them more,” he adds.

He isn’t afraid to copy ideas either. The London team fully acknowledge the inspiration for their “roadmap approach” came from Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor of New York, which involved creating a masterplan which would be updated annually. Bloomberg Associates advised London on the UK capital’s new strategy. And the new office of technology and innovation will effectively be a direct relative of a similar office in Scotland and London’s data platform is based on something that was developed in Cumbria, the northwest of England.

“Our position is not competition, it is collaboration,” he says. “We are taking what works elsewhere and putting a London finish on it and testing it against what people need here.”

It would also help reduce unnecessary duplication. His experience from implementing GDPR compliance after the new European laws came into force in May, taught Blackwell that with greater coordination the city could have spent less. He says that in comparison, the Scottish Digital Office for Local Government–a coordinating body–was able to assist 33 of their local authorities to be GDPR compliant for a relatively small amount of money.

“When we are faced with a new regulatory challenge, the need to adopt technology across London can be done so more efficiently,” he says. “GDPR has been a really good example of how we could have done that better and reduced the cost to the taxpayer quite substantially.”

Blackwell’s listening tour included 80 public meetings across London and around the UK

A game politician

In August Blackwell was listed in Apolitical’s World’s 100 most influential people in digital government. He joins the likes of information and digital leaders from Barcelona, Tel Aviv and New York.

While a nice coup personally for Blackwell– given he is the first person to ever hold the office of Chief Digital Officer in London–he has a long history of combining politics and technology. He was a city councillor in the London borough of Camden for 15 years and in the latter years was borough cabinet member for finance, technology and growth.

“Having quite a lot of political experience helps,” he says. “Some cities will appoint a CDO who is more like a chief technology officer or chief innovation officer. Here in London, one of our big challenges is that we needed someone who is more of a digital leader.”

It was during his stint as Head of Policy & Public Affairs for the video games industry’s trade body, Ukie, where he saw first hand the massive changes in how data was being used, the new business models being implemented, and the power and potential of data to transform people’s lives.

“That [experience] has really helped me in this environment,” he explains. “The power of data in public services can be much more exploited than what it has been until now which will be my key role here.”

Despite London already having a good reputation for open data and innovation–particularly so with Transport for London (TfL) whose open data policy helped spurn the likes of the now £250-million valued company Citymapper–Blackwell wants to take this further. He rates the Oyster card and contactless payments on transport across London as a legacy system.

“Behind these really big and globally recognised successes there is a lot more to do, in the sense that we are only at the tip of the iceberg,” he explains. “There is more work to do around data sharing so we can benefit our citizens. We need to move to the next level.”

During his listening tour that included 80 public meetings across London and around the UK, what he heard most was a strong emphasis on citizens. The feedback he gained from the tech sector, universities, councils, digital society and community groups was to put citizens at the centre of user design.

London’s unique structure

This poses a somewhat challenging situation for Blackwell and the Greater London Authority as the city doesn’t provide a large number of services directly to its residents. Most are undertaken by the 33 borough councils, whose combined budget dwarfs that of the mayor himself (see box).

“But they really wanted the mayor of London to champion user-centric and citizen-centred design to those boroughs and we heard that message loud and clear,” he says.

Blackwell likens the finished strategy, A Smarter London Together, to a roadmap not a rigid digital masterplan offering a flexible approach on interactions between city government, citizens, data and digital technology.

One could argue that with London being the tech-hub of Europe with more than a third of Europe’s billion-dollar ‘unicorn’ companies and 46,000 tech companies, Blackwell’s job looks rather straightforward. Yet, this is where he says he has to tap into his political experience to bring together all the disparate elements of London’s tech and government ecosystems; the 33 boroughs, 50 NHS (National Health Service) trusts, 48 universities, and engage them all with the tech sector. Not to mention TfL and the Metropolitan Police, the largest city police force in Europe.

One big takeaway for Blackwell from the listening tour was that progress in transformation across the capital has been uneven. He reveals that what he learnt was that a third of boroughs were specialists in one form or another, a third were stuck in the mode of shifting people from paper to online, and a third didn’t see the need to turn up to the meeting.

“The concept of a smart city, a city the size of London, the idea of having one thing that governs is not necessarily the case,” he says. “The demand people had was that they invite diversity but they didn’t like fragmentation.”

He sees this as something special about the Greater London Authority: the relationship between city hall, the big public agencies and the 33 boroughs.

“In other big cities you have slightly different challenges, big vertical departments which are trying to work together whereas here you have got a mixture of that,” he adds.

He wants London to better collaborate with the NHS and the MedTech sector which he sees as an opportunity for the city, particularly post-Brexit, and to better work with the universities that call London home. He says that often a borough council would work with a university in their boundary rather than other universities across London. He sees this as an opportunity to mobilise the power of universities and to assist them in their need for real use cases with local councils and their vast array of services.

Blackwell rates the Oyster and contactless payment system on London’s transport network as a legacy system but says there is more work to do around data sharing

A Smart London Board

To help him refine and achieve some of these goals he isn’t alone. The mayor appointed him as Chair of the Smart London Board which was created to help advise the new CDO on the strategy and to hold the city to account on longer-term plans. The board was put together last year after an open call from the mayor and consists of people from academia, civil society and business.

“In the city hall environment where we get dominated by rolling news coverage and medium-term pressures, and short and medium-term concerns that we have to respond to, it’s really important to have that future focus,” he explains.

Looking ahead Blackwell is keen to repeat the mayor’s mantra that ‘London is open’–post-Brexit–highlighting the city’s collaboration with cities across Europe. This includes working with EUROCITIES’ Sharing Cities programme which is looking at ways to modernise the common lamp post with 5G capabilities, EV charging, and air quality sensors.

He lists close work with the Chief Technology and Digital Officers of Amsterdam, Barcelona, The Hague, and Sophia, among others, and believes that things like the lamp post programme will come about by the creation of markets on a European level.

“This country in the [Brexit] referendum narrowly decided to leave the EU but this doesn’t mean that London’s place in those debates doesn’t change because we are and will remain a European city,” he stresses.

He says that being the largest city in Europe with links to the tech and fintech market, that the close ties to European cities will remain regardless of what national governments are doing on a European scale.

“London is very much a European city,” he reiterates. “And we will continue to play a role in smart European cities.”

Smarter London Together

The five missions:

More user-designed services

  • leadership in design and common standards to put users at the heart of what the city does,
  • develop new approaches to digital inclusion to support Londoners’ access to public services,
  • launch the Civic Innovation Challenge to spur innovation from the tech sector,
  • explore new civic platforms to engage citizens and communities better,
  • promote more diversity in tech to address inequality.

Strike a new deal for city data

  • launch the London Office for Data Analytics (LODA) programme to increase data sharing and collaboration for the benefit of Londoners,
  • develop a city-wide cyber security strategy to coordinate responses to cyber-threats to businesses, public services and citizens,
  • strengthen data rights and accountability to build trust in how public data is used,
  • support an open ecosystem to increase transparency and innovation.

World-class connectivity and smarter streets

  • launch a new Connected London programme to coordinate connectivity and 5G projects,
  • consider planning powers, like requiring full fibre to the home for all new developments, to enhance connectivity in the future,
  • enhance public Wi-Fi in streets and public buildings to assist those who live, work and visit London,
  • support a new generation of smart infrastructure through major combined procurements,
  • promote common standards with smart tech to maximise benefits.

Enhance digital leadership and skills

  • enhance digital and data leadership to make public services more open to innovation,
  • develop workforce digital capability through the Mayor’s Skills for Londoners Strategy,
  • support computing skills and the digital talent pipeline Londoners from early years onwards,
  • recognise the role of cultural institutions engaging citizens in the digital world.

Improve city-wide collaboration

  • establish a London Office of Technology & Innovation (LOTI) to support common capabilities and standards for future innovation,
  • promote MedTech innovation in the NHS and social care to improve treatment,
  • explore new partnerships with the tech sector and business models,
  • support better GLA Group digital delivery to improve effectiveness,
  • collaborate with other cities in the UK and globally to adopt and share what works.

Smart strategies v city budgets

One of the factors which London noted in comparing its own strategy with other cities, is the size of the budget available to the city to fund and scale projects. As Stephen Lorimer, Smart London Strategy and Delivery Officer, says the budgets available and the services that each city’s mayor oversees vary widely but budget is a good indicator of how much funding is needed from collaboration with other public sector providers, the third sector, and the private sector.

Cities ranked by size of budget

  1. New York City: £62.8bn
  2. Singapore: £38.6bn
  3. London: £34.6bn (Mayor of London £1.4bn / rest of GLA Group £10.5bn / London Boroughs £22.7bn)
  4. Paris: £8.5bn
  5. Mexico City: £8.1bn
  6. Toronto: £6.0bn
  7. Copenhagen: £5.8bn
  8. Amsterdam: £4.8bn
  9. Barcelona: £2.4bn
  10. Boston: £2.2bn

Source: Smart London

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