During a keynote speech at last month's South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, TX, London Mayor Sadiq Khan warned the audience of the rapid technological revolution sweeping cities around the globe.
"In this fast-paced change, city government can cope better with digital disruption, turning technological upheavals to our advantage," he said. He later outlined the many ways London is coping with this digital disruption — most notably through the work of the city's recently-appointed chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell.
Blackwell settled into his new role as the city's first CDO in late August 2017, following more than 20 years of technology experience in the public and private sectors. The decision to bring on a chief digital officer, as opposed to a chief technology officer, was driven by the city's aspirations to bring together local authorities and bridge fragmentation among public services — a job that calls for enhancing digital capacities.
Smart Cities Dive spoke to Blackwell during last month's event to collect his top insights on building a data-driven city, gathering public input and making London a "home to the world."
1. Cities must build digital capability of public services
From paying parking tickets to checking home energy-efficiency, many city residents around the world have been exposed to the benefits of digital public services. However, those services do not stop at mundane clerical operations. Common challenges including addressing air quality or combating criminal behavior can now be addressed using data collection and analytics, but only if cities build digital capacities for such services.
"I mean, city administration is essentially a massive agglomeration of data," Blackwell said. "If data is transforming how customers relate to private firms and new services are being offered, think about the potential for civic benefit that arises from that. All cities are thinking about how things are designed, what standards they approach, how there’s commonality, because commonality means you can scale innovation."
2. Citizens need to have moral ownership over innovation
Earlier this year, London called on the public to offer ideas on how to better collaborate across the city's boroughs, how to better share data and how to make London a more connected city overall. Blackwell noted offering citizens a sense of moral ownership over innovation will establish a level of trust between city residents and government, and will enhance the overall digital experience across the city.
"It's kind of like we want to say there's a new array of products that are made by Londoners, because it’s their data. And I think the proximity between people’s use of data and what they see the benefits arising from it is something that [will] keep people close to the technological revolution," he explained.
Blackwell said championing "open and transparent discourse" around city data, perhaps by hosting a civic discussion on how data is used, is crucial to making the current tech revolution an inclusive, visible reality for citizens.
3. Common standards are key
Blackwell said that one strong theme from the city's "listening exercise" with its residents has been the need for common standards, and how they apply across neighboring cities around the world.
"If we take a closeted view of regulation or a clichéd view of regulation, of 'government, just get out of the way and let a thousand flowers bloom,' we’ll miss an opportunity for innovation," Blackwell said, pointing to a number of historical rules and codifications that have sparked transformation. He also pointed to the recent efforts of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and others to roll out the Cities Open Internet Pledge, suggesting that these collaborations between political leaders on the local level — not state or federal levels — will pave the way for innovation.
4. Not all innovation challenges are universal
Despite efforts to achieve common standards, Blackwell also highlighted that not all challenges — and therefore not all initiatives — are universally prioritized. "Sometimes I fear that some of the challenges that are being based around data within some jurisdictions such as the United States are bleeding over, which undermine trust in what we aim to do," he said. "And of course, this sort of hypersensitivity about the use of civic data, I think it's incumbent upon city mayors, who are responsible and data custodians for a lot of citizens to basically set out clearly and transparently the benefits of that so that we can maximize those benefits for our citizens and not get lost in it."
5. There will never be one city that reigns 'smartest'
During London Tech Week in June 2017, Khan announced a bold objective to make London the world's leading smart city by addressing a number of global issues, including air pollution and climate change. This ambition has led Khan and fellow government leaders to draft an abundance of "smart" plans over the last year aiming to help the city eliminate traffic emissions, reach zero waste and boost its digital economy.
When asked about this ambition to become the world's "smartest" city, Blackwell said it is less of a competition and more of a fulfillment of potential — and also highlighted the importance of city collaboration.
"Our idea is that we’re like a home to the world. That we can take the benefits of digital revolution and apply them right across the board. And that's kind of what we mean by that," he explained. "It's not to say we're in direct competition with any other city because I think the way the tech community works ... is that people want to collaborate to just create world class services. And create something they're really proud of. And the way we see civic problems is that we're going to work with cities across the world to try and make our cities more livable. The tech communities like fixing problems and we share the same problems, so we’re going to work together."