SXSW: What it will take to turn London into the world's smartest city

Transforming London will take the enthusiastic cooperation of all parties, but it must be done if it is to continue to be one of the world's greatest cities.

"Intelligence is the ability to adapt" - Stephen Hawking

Theo Blackwell, London’s chief digital officer, kicked off his presentation at SXSW with this quote to frame London’s motivation to become the world’s smartest city.

Because, while London is one of the world’s greatest cities, a technological transformation is required to both improve the quality of life for the nation’s capital and sustain our ability to compete on the world stage.

The specific vision painted in his hour-long talk focused on collaboration and openness. Across businesses and electorate, all to drive innovation.

The biggest challenge in transforming London is scale. If you looked at all the digital activities currently in place across the 33 local borough authorities they would be the equivalent of "650-700 separate lines of business".

On top of that, we have the TfL with a turnover of £11bn a year and all the data and systems underpinning the Metropolitan police. (Fun fact on the size of London… Croydon borough alone is the same size as New Orleans, culturally a little different, but the same size.)

London’s initial vision for becoming a smart city was instigated by Boris Johnson and inspired by New York’s journey under Mike Bloomberg. This original vision primarily focused on 'integrating systems' to 'drive efficiency. However, under Sadiq Kahn’s more inclusive and open vision for the city, this vision has evolved.

Gone are vague and slow-moving ideas of systems and efficiency. In its place is a focus on using data and technology to spark the "good growth" of London. An ambition to "design and develop safe, open and inclusive solutions for Londoners". And a focus on "a city-wide collaboration between public institutions and the tech sector".

It was refreshing to hear a member of a local authority specifically warn against the dangers of large, long-term IT contracts. Instead, he honed in on improved capabilities, collaboration and a problem-solving mindset to improve city life. A progressive approach likely shaped by Blackwell’s past in the video game industry.

There are 5 work streams currently in the digital plan, with practical actions in development under each:

  • City-wide collaboration and innovation. Connecting local authorities, citizens and businesses

  • A new deal for city data. With GDPR an opportunity for leadership, not a burden to comply with

  • World-class connectivity. Including plans to maximise the impact of 5G

  • Digital capability and skills. Improving skills of staff at the GLA, developing a pipeline of talent and ensuring that those who face unemployment are supported in retraining

  • Openness and responsible tech. By collaborating with other cities, tech companies and citizens

With the uncertainty of Brexit, and the inequality that triggered it, this human-centred and open approach to the concept of a Smart City is both more ambitious and more optimistic than what was in place before. And is further reinforcing the theme of inclusion that has permeated SXSW this year.

I encourage Londoners to pay attention and get involved with this programme.

Doug Baker, is director of strategic services at AnalogFolk

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