Councils have been urged to take on a new “digital place-making” role – or risk seeing the task undertaken by private sector corporate giants instead.
The call came on Friday from Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of the innovation charity Nesta, in the final session of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers summit in Brighton.
Mr Mulgan, a former Blair-era Downing Street director of policy, said digital place-making was likely to become a “really important role for the whole of local government” within the next three years.
Advances in areas like artificial intelligence would make it possible for “a town or city to think like a human brain,” he said.
He suggested advances could be made by councils through the mapping of education, training and work opportunities and the scraping of data from Google and LinkedIn. This could be used to help those out of work to understand their best opportunity of finding work and those at risk of losing their job, for instance as a result of technological change, to plan to acquire skills that would keep them in employment.
Mr Mulgan said: “What this is suggesting is a quite new role for local government that goes beyond the old digital services and data problems.
“It points to a new future where your job is digital place-making and curating the best data about things like labour markets and adult social care to enable everyone in your system to make the best possible decisions.”
He told senior officers that unless local government embraced the role, it could be filled by others: “If not you, who? Google? They will want to do it but they are a private company and will not have the same values that you have.”
Nicola Yates, chief executive of the government-funded urban innovation agency Future Cities Catapult, expressed concern that councils were preoccupied with coping with cuts and not planning ahead sufficiently for a more connected world.
“What do we do about bandwidth and thinking about things in two or three years’ time when we are worrying about what we do next week?” she asked.
“There is no real community of sharing information about planning and about what works,” said Ms Yates, the former chief executive of Bristol City Council.
She also spoke of the likely dramatic impact of 5G technology and called on councils to acquire skills to know where to site new 5G masts, even though they may have “absolutely no headspace to do this”.