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Theo Blackwell: smart cities should be about empowerment

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A ‘smart city’ means different things to different people around the world.

To its advocates, it’s the promise of new technologies and platforms to make cities more liveable, as well as showing openness to innovation for new products and services. Its critics point to expensive pilots, while others question accountability and ethics.

The term can variously refer to integrated city-wide systems such as data platforms like those used by Transport for London. It can mean specialist innovation zones known as ‘smart districts’. Or deploying smart technologies from air quality sensors in the new generation of lampposts, through to the development of autonomous vehicles.

But ‘becoming a smarter city’, as expressed in various new city strategies such as our Smarter London Together roadmap, also refers to how we use technology and data to meet our city’s needs. In other words, it means digital transformation on a city-wide scale.

London’s approach can be summed up with a simple question: how can digital, technology and data empower Londoners from all backgrounds to lead healthy lives?

Our city is already a recognised leader in mobilising open data for public benefit. The London Datastore enables London’s public bodies to tackle some of the most complex urban challenges, such as poor air quality, the housing crisis and inequality. And nearly half of all Londoners regularly use travel apps made possible with live data provided by Transport for London.

Smarter London Together, launched last June by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (Lab), champions a new approach to the way data and technology serve those who live, work in and visit the capital.

We have adopted five missions: championing user design, city data sharing, mobilising public assets for better connectivity, digital skills and city-wide collaboration. Across these missions we have developed 20 initiatives. Many are already underway and their progress can be tracked through our report card.

The Crowdfund London platform supports Londoners in collaborating to improve their local neighbourhoods. The Mayor’s Civic Innovation Challenge calls on the tech community to work with the public sector to develop and scale solutions to London’s biggest problems. Through the Mayor’s Digital Talent Programme we’re supporting the next generation of tech pioneers by enhancing the digital skills of young women and Londoners from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

We are collaborating with other European cities and entrepreneurs to share new energy saving and mobility ideas designed around citizens’ needs for low-carbon, connected neighbourhoods and cities. With the growth of the Internet of Things (where internet-connected devices can talk to each other and transfer data), transparency around how we use people’s data is paramount. This is why London is piloting a new data trust with the Open Data Institute so we can share data while safeguarding Londoners’ privacy and security.

One of the big barriers local government needs to address is our limited collaboration infrastructure. Sharing best practice is limited and efforts are often duplicated. Existing models, such as shared services, often suffer from too much governance and are rarely scaled beyond a handful of authorities.

Working with London Councils and a number of forward-thinking boroughs, we are preparing to launch the new London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) this summer. This will be a new city-wide body which will build common capability and the opportunity to collaborate and scale digital and smart technology across the capital’s public services.

LOTI will be focused on ‘fixing the plumbing’, a term championed by the Local Digital Declaration movement within local government. This captures our ambition to break the dependence on inflexible, expensive technology and facilitate greater collaboration.

By focusing on our core capabilities first, understanding what technologies support our services and encouraging stronger leadership in data and service design. We aim to create a fresh approach to smart thinking that enables us to better meet the needs of our citizens together.

Theo Blackwell is chief digital officer for London

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