Smart technology has played an intrinsic role for London, helping people to work, travel and live more efficiently. The capital’s Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell outlines what City Hall are planning to improve outcomes for Londoners and keep them better connected.
A ‘smart city’ describes how digital, data and technology together respond to citizens’ needs in new and improved ways. In other words, the technology sits alongside an approach to citizens’ data, how to identify need and design services. In a large and complex city like London, there is also a need for innovation to be shared easily across administrative boundaries and in partnership with others. So in 2018 the Mayor of London’s Smarter London Together Roadmap set a new direction focusing on better city-wide collaboration around design-thinking, joining up useful data, digital infrastructure improvements, growing local talent and innovation collaboration across the 32 boroughs.
London’s smart history over the last two decades includes the Congestion Charge, contactless payment and the Ultra-Low Emission Zone: all smart city technologies now part of London’s (and Londoners’) everyday way of life. Open data platforms at Transport for London (TfL) and the Greater London Authority drive services vital for the city to plan and promote jobs and growth through to mobile apps helping Londoners’ plan their daily commute. We have growing expertise in piloting emerging technologies such as connected autonomous vehicles and advanced smart energy systems as well the large pilot-at-scale of e-scooters announced last year.
City Hall’s open innovation calls enable swift, design-led prototyping of new products and services by the tech sector in partnership with boroughs or agencies and using publicly-held assets or data. Examples since 2018 include reducing congestion by heavy goods vehicles; curb-side electric vehicle charging trials; 3D modelling for planning; and a successful mobile app, Go Jauntly, promoting healthy walking routes around the city.
The arrival of 5G networks makes internet speeds faster, provides vast amounts of real-time data and allows the processing of data quickly and support a new generation of services and applications above and beyond those already in place. In a 2020 report commissioned by the Mayor on London’s ‘advanced tech stack’ over the next decade, the Digital Catapult anticipates an acceleration in the availability of smart city emerging technologies including networks of sensors, cameras, drones, robotics, mobility services, augmented and virtual reality, and automated and algorithmic decision-making. Take-up is also expected to rise rapidly as capability grows, costs lower and even more uses are tested and developed.
Alongside the growth of consumer and industrial application of these emerging technologies they will also play an important role in our ambitions around Net Zero, tackling congestion and improving air quality, culture and public art, personal health and law enforcement.
TfL and BAI Communications are currently deploying more than 2,000km of cabling across London’s Tube network. This will provide uninterrupted 4G mobile coverage on the Underground and create a new backbone of mobile and gigabit-capable digital connectivity across London by linking this fibre network to a network of local public sector buildings identified by councils. In turn this stimulates ‘last mile’ private investment to connect directly to homes and businesses historically underserved by the market, or facing digital exclusion, and establishes the foundations for further 5G roll-out.
The new London Plan in March 2021 set the strongest connectivity policies in the country by making full fibre connectivity and mobile infrastructure mandatory during the planning process for all new builds and, for the first time, supports the use of environmental sensors to enable the collection, analysis and sharing of data to meet climate change goals. This creates a benchmark for London’s future connectivity and a more permissive environment to deploy public and private networks.
City data for public benefit
The pandemic highlighted the importance of joining-up data across the city to improve insight, decision-making and create useful new products and services. As smart technology, AI and internet of things networks advance, more data feeds will be available from sensors embedded in the public realm, enabling deeper insights into local economies, air quality, mobility and energy consumption.
Working with the new London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) at London Councils, we are starting to enable London’s public sector organisations to better use their collective data legally, ethically and securely for the benefit of all Londoners. This includes a new city data platform by the end of 2022, governance model and support for data sharing across the city.
London should also continue to innovate with data to help plan for the future, using advanced analytical methods and pioneering new approaches that combine different techniques such as the creation of digital representations of the city in various ways (from 3D digital models of the built environment to dynamic models of the city as an urban system – and many more) that can be used as testbeds for new policies, investment and other decisions.
Public trust in technology
New data-enabled technologies must be grounded in public trust if they are to be sustainable. The Emerging Tech Charter for London (2021-) represents the next step in City Hall’s thinking about innovation, and the new digital infrastructure enabled by 5G and AI . The Charter provides four principles for implementing technology in London – working in the open, respecting diversity, trustworthiness with data and sustainability. We are creating the UK’s first city Privacy Register of Data Protection Impact Assessments for smart city technologies deployed in the public realm, to ensure that there’s proper public transparency.
Collaboration and common platforms
City Hall is uniquely placed to create valuable tools and resources for Londoners, for example: Talk London (public engagement) and Make London (crowdfunding) ; the new city data platform; or specific services for users, like the Planning Datahub (live planning feeds from 32 boroughs) or High Streets Data Service (data on neighbourhood economies). The foundations for collaboration built by LOTI present an opportunity to deliver common digital services that directly benefit Londoners and easily answer questions for Londoners wherever they are in the city – “Where can I charge my electric vehicle? “Where can I report fly-tipping?” – or promote collective or personalised behaviour change such as recycling, energy saving and healthy living.
Our pivot in smart city thinking towards collaboration in its various forms – not just the technology – involves building new the infrastructure, teams, programmes and spirit to ensure that the city can make, buy, share and re-use as effectively as possible.
Theo Blackwell MBE is London’s first Chief Digital Officer. Appointed in 2017, Theo leads on London-wide digital transformation, data and smart city initiatives at City Hall.