Centralism is stifling growth by failing to give councils sufficient autonomy to participate in the trials of new technology, a former council chief now leading a national drive to promote tech innovation has told LGC.
Former Bristol City Council chief executive Nicola Yates now holds the same position at the Connected Places Catapult which seeks to accelerate innovation to improve transport and the built environment, boosting firms working in the sectors. The government-funded organisation came into being at the start of the month following the merger of Future Cities Catapult and a sister body promoting new transport systems and seeks to cooperate with councils on using new technology to tackle problems relating to congestion, low quality of life and infrastructure.
Ms Yates said in her experience British councils were “not very willing” to embrace technology because they had “less autonomy” and therefore fewer “levers” to pull to innovate than authorities in other countries.
Describing UK councils as “the most highly regulated in the world”, she said: “Being regulated makes you dependent on what the state says you can and can’t do. Breaking out of that, you have to be within the law and it’s sometimes risky.”
“People abroad will be brave and do what seemingly to us are outrageous things that we could only dream of because they have control of their city and their hinterland,” Ms Yates said. “They have the authority and ability to do something about it.” In contrast local UK decision makers could only do things “on a much smaller scale”.
As an illustration of what overseas councils could do in their “freer space”, she gave the example of the mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota who, seeking to reduce congestion and improve the environment, closed a three-lane motorway to private motor vehicles, with one lane being used for pedestrians, another for cyclists and one for buses.
“It’s unsurprising that UK councils are behind international counterparts because they haven’t stepped into that space until quite recently,” she said.
However, combined authorities now offered their mayors the opportunity to develop a new “mindset” which will “help innovation”. “There are extra powers but what they’re exercising most of the time is an assumed power to act and behave, and then things fall in place behind them,” she said.
Ms Yates said Future Cities Catapult had spent the past 18 months encouraging councils to become more “receptive to prototyping” of new technology locally. She said the tech industry needed to test its products in a “real environment”, whether a street or a larger area, and therefore required councils to volunteer their area to be “a demonstrator”.
The catapult has also sought to convince councils to buy new forms of technology, working with procurement officers to be “confident in their buying choices” and “overcome reservations” about relatively untested technology.
“Generally, it’s a challenge because innovation by its very nature doesn’t always work. The public are very unforgiving of trying anything new. There’s a conundrum… to balance ‘always working and staying exactly the same’ versus ‘why don’t we have modern public services?’”
Bringing together cities and transport
“The city is a complex ecosystem [that] cannot live in isolation from its hinterland.” So said Nicola Yates in explaining the decision to merge bodies respectively seeking to accelerate the adoption of technology in cities and transport.
“By 2050, 70% of people will live in urban areas but they’ve got to get in and out of those urban areas,” said Ms Yates.
She said the former Transport Systems Catapult was the “the first organisation in the UK to test autonomous vehicles on a public road” and the new Connected Places Catapult would seek to continue this level of ambition.
Ms Yates mooted that on-demand autonomous vehicles could mean fewer parking spaces are required and that one lane on a dual carriageway could be reserved for autonomous vehicles.
When planning, councils and other bodies should remember that “it’s not just the physical technology opportunity, it’s also about humans’ acceptance of that, the social behaviours and the trust that we would have in technology like that”.
She said it was the catapult’s job to make clear that in instances of innovation failing, it was not the councils which had not delivered, “it would be our project that hadn’t quite worked”.
“Because we’re seen as an innovation agency we aren’t expected to succeed with everything,” Ms Yates said.
“We’re here to work with [councils] who want to be at the forefront. We’re not here to persuade people to do things they don’t want to do.”
She said councils’ willingness to purchase new technology “varies enormously”. Politicians or senior officers sometimes were comfortable because they had a background in tech, sometimes they required a new solution following the end of an outsourced contract and in other places their local economy was “intrinsically linked to digital growth”.
However, she warned that “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”
Ms Yates admitted that there were only “so many hours in the day or pounds in the budget” for council chiefs to devote to tech, but “the future is coming” regardless.
“The challenge, not just applicable to local authority leaders but industry leaders, is if you’re only ever thinking about the here and now and never planning for the future you’ll never, ever get off the treadmill or change the way it currently is,” she said.
Nicola Yates: the CV
Chief executive, Connected Places Catapult April 2019-
Chief executive, Future Cities Catapult 2017-19
Chief executive, Bristol City Council 2013-2016
Chief executive, Hull City Council 2009-2012
Ms Yates said the 83 councils that sought to be involved in FCC’s work on digitising the planning system demonstrated willingness to innovate in a “service that needs updating”.
She said the current planning system was beset by “regulations that say you’ve got to put a sign on a lamppost” alerting someone to an application for a 50-storey building when full digitisation would boost engagement, data and efficiency.
“People think that PDF is digital,” she said. “It’s not – you can’t apply artificial intelligence to a PDF.
“If we were able to press a button and aggregate all that planning data so Homes England or the [National] Infrastructure Commission could plan on a national scale, none of that would affect the individual policies of every local authority’s local plan.”
In hope of bringing enabling data to be aggregated FCC has been seeking common design standards on the interoperability of technologies. This would also mean “small SMEs with very bespoke solutions” could compete with big companies.
Ms Yates also said that although 5G was “unproven technology”, the “prize for early adopters is quite significant”. Business could “flood your area” while “large companies… might want to pay you money to help you run your services so you can show that value to the rest of the UK”.
She said devolution of skills policy could be an opportunity to change provision to get more people into data science. Places should “think about what happened when computers went in and typewriters were redundant” when deciding skills provision.
“I’ve seen in the last 6 or 12 months a real upturn in interest and awareness in cities that they need to be planning for that now,” she said. “You don’t plan for the future when it happens.”