Government Europa spoke to London’s first Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell, about how the city is pledging to lead the way and create a bundle of small smart cities within London.
Cities throughout Europe are in transition; becoming smarter, using technology to make them more sustainable and more efficient. London is vying for position as a world-leading city in employing digital technologies to greatly improve quality of life, whilst simultaneously making the city sustainable and more environmentally friendly. However, there are still challenges and barriers to implementation, which will now fall under the remit of London’s Chief Digital Officer, a new position created by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan last year to shepherd the implementation of digital technologies.
Theo Blackwell is the first Chief Digital Officer for London, and Government Europa caught up with him at the Public Sector Show – held in the city in June – to find out how the nation’s capital is becoming smarter and how this can benefit citizens.
What progress has London made in implementing smart technologies?
Transport for London (TfL) has lead the way with contactless payment. In 2014, TfL essentially popularised the use of contactless payments on transport networks for the world. Over 50% of journeys are now currently contactless – this is a major advancement which enables people to get through the stations quicker. We are also piloting the use of data to improve bus journeys, and there is a whole host of technologies which exist on private estates where people work.
Additionally, there is a whole new generation of technologies coming through on air quality, meaning London is really rich with innovation. But the question that we have is, how does it all fit together?
How will making London a smarter city benefit citizens?
People have already seen a lot of the benefits as a result of London getting smarter. They can travel around London easier and quicker, with the key thing over the last decade being the reduction of queues. This is essentially because you can now pay for lots of things – like your rent or your council tax, etc. – online, and London’s public services have generally done a good job on that.
The question of how to get from relatively simple transactions to using smart technologies to solve more complex problems for citizens remains, whether that is individually or collectively. For example, air quality is a really big concern for the mayor, and we have a whole new generation of sensors that enables us to collect data which will in turn, help to give people more choices on things such as, how they travel and when they travel, whilst enabling us to introduce new laws or measures which will subsequently clean up our city.
What challenges you facing, as London’s first Chief Digital Officer, when implementing digitalisation throughout the city?
Seeing London as a smart city is perhaps inaccurate. Rather, there are lots of smart cities within London; it is a big area and nine million people live and work here. Most other places making the smart city transition are much smaller than London, and so the idea of an all-seeing eye which includes operational headquarters and a big platform with multiple streams of data is not necessarily London’s future. Instead, it is about how those systems fit together collectively.
Essentially, London is a collection of smart cities, and so our objective should be to become smarter, and we will achieve that by working together. London is made up of 33 boroughs, and each of them have a population of 250, 000 people, 50 NHS trusts, seven major universities and a huge tech sector. Collaboration is therefore a really big message from London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
How can smart cities benefit the environment?
We can make London a much greener place moving forwards. I have already mentioned air quality, but one of the new ideas which is coming through includes a major exercise in smart lamp-posts. This may sound like quite a trivial thing, but it should be understood that most lamp-posts were bought 15 or 20 years ago, and they aren’t smart. They also aren’t procured together, but by London’s boroughs and TfL.
If we brought TfL, the police, and all of the people who own these things together, we can create a new generation of lamp-posts which do things such as help people feel safe, have electric vehicle charging points, and have air quality sensors. Collectively, these things would enhance what we already own, and this would allow us to collect data which will provide solutions for people in ways that we can’t do now. The introduction of sensors across the city is a really exciting opportunity, and we are working alongside other cities in the European Union in order to take part in a joint procurement around all of this.
How will the position of Chief Digital Officer for London allow you help citizens who have no access to computers, or a lack of digital skills?
Digital inclusion remains a major issue for a small group of people who cannot use the internet. That is different from people who won’t use the internet.
Making sure that everyone who has access to the internet is taking advantage of it will lower our costs, and we can then reinvest that money in those who cannot. The fundamental challenge for us – and why it is one of the major issues of the Smarter London Together road map from the mayor – is a new culture of service designs.
When we come to a point of re-designing adult social care services for people suffering from dementia or people who may have multiple conditions, we will do this using the latest service design techniques and these are likely to involve Public sector workers, using new technologies, which will enable them to do their jobs better. This ensures that nurses are going to the right door, they know what the conditions are, and they can then provide a better diagnosis, for instance.
Essentially, this will allow us to link up with the NHS. One of the major challenges at the moment is the misfit about what is happening with accident and emergency departments in hospitals and what knowledge we have about people in social care. It is not necessarily about simply providing people with iPads and expecting them to navigate the internet. It is more about the public service worker with that iPad, helping that older person. Let’s look at it from that angle, not just the idea that we are forcing people into the hands of robots.
Will there be more of an emphasis on training and educating younger people going into the tech industry?
Absolutely. This is one of the ways in which we can build consent for the changes we want to make. The mayor is investing £7m (~€7.9m) in a digital talent programme in the hope of encouraging women, young children and under privileged children into the jobs which are being created. The mayor also has responsibility for the skills strategy, and digital skills are a really important part of that. The apprenticeship levy is finally being levied from all big London tech companies, but we need to make sure that is being recycled back.
Finally, it should be highlighted that London is very diverse, and in a diverse city our products will be better if our workforce is also diverse. As Chief Digital Officer I have backed a campaign called ‘Behind Every Great City’, to address the shocking record that the tech sector has on promoting women. Only 19% of employees are women in this sector, and the mayor has a really strong message around this, and there is evidence that the industry is beginning to respond.
London Chief Digital Officer