• Q&A
  • September 18, 2018
  • 12 minutes
  • 1

London’s chief digital officer on his first year transforming city government

Q&A with Theo Blackwell on fixing the plumbing and putting the citizen first

For Theo Blackwell, appointed London’s first Chief Digital Officer in August 2017, it’s a good time to be in city government. Though the challenges of transforming services for the digital era are many, cities, where public servants are comparatively close to citizens and the delivery of services they rely on, are the perfect places for reform to prosper.

In this first year, he’s embarked on a city-wide listening exercise, consulting Londoners on what leadership they want to see from city hall. He launched the Mayor’s Smarter London Together Roadmap, a multi-year strategy for government transformation, in June.

Apolitical caught up with Blackwell to ask how cities can fulfil the promise of technology, guard against its dangers and build effective services in-house.

• For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


This summer the Mayor launched the Smarter London Together Roadmap. How has the consultation influenced the final plan?

The listening tour took place during a really interesting time. The Cambridge Analytica incident was taking place at the very same time, so there was a very heightened awareness of the agency of the citizen in discussions around smart cities. That became the number one recommendation: that when we talk about smart cities in London, we need to put the citizen first.

“City government needs a sense of data leadership”

That’s not a glib thing to say, it’s because citizens’ agency comes more and more from the devices that they have on their person, i.e. mobile phones. Discussions will be about the data that derives from how people move around the city: it’s less about abstract systems and more about human beings, so modern strategies must have that firm emphasis on the citizen. So we took what civil society said and put it right up there, right at the front.

In recent years it’s sometimes seemed that the threats of technology are greater than the benefits. How can cities act to make sure that this is reversed?

Cities will play a number of roles that cross over and which sometimes might contradict each other, and that’s OK, because that’s the nature of city government.

On the one hand, we are a promoter of technology; on the other, we have concerns about privacy and the use of data. In many places we’ve got influence over how companies operate, regulatory powers and some standards-setting powers. We are an agglomerator and consumer of citizen data as well — we probably have more access to an overview of what services citizens engage with on a day to day basis that a Whitehall department would.

City government needs a sense of data leadership here. That’s what we’re trying to provide, and that’s why a really important part of our roadmap was the surveys on public data. It’s the beginning of a discussion, posing a series of questions about people’s awareness and comfortableness around the use of their data, collectively, for civic benefit.

How much of London’s work will revolve around data, and how easy is government currently finding it to work with it?

High volumes of high quality, clean data are fundamentally important.

It’s what Paul Maltby, the CDO of the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government quite rightly calls “fixing the plumbing.” Over the last 10-15 years, most of our operations have had a piece of technology wrapped around them, or we’ve created new ones with new pieces of technology. Sometimes that data is completely locked within proprietary software that doesn’t enable us to easily gain access to it, or it’s not held in a form that makes it computable.

Our job is to forensically examine that technology estate. It’s not a question of blame — it’s grown up [this way] in order to make systems more efficient — but not to make systems together more efficient. If we really want to be a city that really takes advantage of its strengths in artificial intelligence, you can’t build AI on legacy, you need something new.

How do you get tech talent into local government? Is it about training what you have, or recruiting in talent?

Quite often, the idea that you have to buy-in talent is actually not necessary — you’ll usually have someone in the organisation who can do it, it’s just that they’re probably in the wrong team, or you’ve thought about it in the wrong way.

Does this mean that we need to have more capacity within the public sector? Often we do have capacity and we don’t necessarily deploy it. And we want to have better relationships with smaller suppliers, to enable us to act nimbly in this.

What currently prevents government procuring from small, innovative businesses?

It’s a cultural issue; it’s a risk aversion issue; there’s a very confusing marketplace. Sometimes, I think it was seen as a back office thing, something you didn’t really have to think about too deeply.

“London leads in one thing, which is the provision of open data”

So with greater digital leadership, I think we will also have more emphasis on buying or making the right things. That, in the interim, offers us an opportunity to shape the market, because the big suppliers, who’ve provided many closed products, will take heat. If they want to carry on doing their business they need to think about interoperability, they need to think about how their data can be made more open.

Which cities do you look to for inspiration? And how does London compare?

There’s great innovation in Amsterdam and in the Hague around smart infrastructure. The city of Helsinki has got a whole history of accessibility, and the innovation prizes that New York has put out, under a previous CDO Miguel Gambino, are really interesting. I like the freshness of Francesca Bria’s approach in Barcelona, it’s very, very forthright, almost ideological in its advocacy of open source, and Athens has done some great work with start-ups.

London of course, out of all of those, leads in one thing, which is the provision of open data. And our city data store, which has over 700 datasets and Transport for London’s unified API and it’s 80 live data streams really sets London out as a leader in open data.

What particular challenges does London face in getting work done?

London’s got two things, one is fragmentation and secondly it’s got scale. We’re just a bit smaller than Moscow, and there couldn’t be two more different cities. Moscow, unified, does everything together. In London, the relationship between the boroughs has not necessarily been with their neighbours, but with Whitehall.

I think that austerity has proved a burning platform for many boroughs, and now they’re thinking of ways in which they can collaborate on innovation that doesn’t mean spending a lot of money, which means doing things at scale.

“The second thing which we’ve been working on is essentially the renewal of the humble lamppost”

There are aspects of London where you could say, yes, that’s a smart city. Contactless payment right across London, our city datastore — bits of knowledge that we can give people city-wide. Our job here is to ensure that they develop in a more coherent and consistent way, not uniform, but consistent. So we can have a diversity of coherent innovation, that joins up.

I think that’s what excites people, that they’ve got enough agency themselves, but they also know that their idea can take root somewhere else.

What’s next on your agenda?

So there are two things that are coming up for us. One is creating this collaboration vehicle for London, called the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI), which will focus on how you scale a great smart city idea or a digital service. That will be a major step forward in addressing the collaboration deficit.

The second thing, which we’ve been working on with European cities, is essentially the renewal of the humble lamppost. The next generation of lampposts will effectively be ones which are electric vehicle charging points, environmental sensors, potentially security cameras and certainly 5G. Those will be assets that would effectively be owned by the taxpayer, giving us tremendous leverage over what kind of smart city we will be in the future. — Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit:Flickr/Fred Dawson)

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