Tech-Savvy Cities

Do our cities have the people they need to thrive in a tech-enabled future? A number of conversations recently have bought home to me the importance of having smart technology skills in city administrations.

We all know waves of technology change are crashing over us. As VC firm Andreessen Horowitz say, ‘Software programs the world’. As chips continue to drop in price, they will be embedded in everything, and all these things will be networked. Soon, they argue, the whole world will be programmable.

Digital technologies will shape how city administrations interact with citizens, how they deliver services, and how they enable new companies to grow. City leaders I talk to know that this digital future is upon us. But most are still not investing enough in the people and facilities they need to harness these technologies.

Of course, there are high profile exceptions. In New York, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics is a civic intelligence centre that allows the city to aggregate and analyse data from across agencies, to more effectively address crime, public services, and quality of life. In Amsterdam, the redoubtable Ger Baron works as Chief Technology Officer to lead their smart city efforts. While in Singapore, the new GovTech Agency is deploying the Smart Nation Platform to help public agencies deploy sensors, collect data, and use analytics to run the city more efficiently.

But what about the next tier down of cities, the smaller places that don’t have global cachet, that face tough budget cuts, that lack tech-savvy staff, that are fighting to deliver the daily priorities?

A UK government official said to me a while ago: ‘If this is smart agenda is so amazing, cities will do it themselves anyway. They shouldn’t need any central Government support’.

This ignores the fact that there is not a perfect market, with economically rational actors. It ignores the fact that local authorities are often populated at the senior levels with a pre-digital generation. And it ignores the fact that city administrations can’t know what they don’t know.

As Theo Blackwell, London Borough of Camden says in his recent report ‘the Start of the Possible’ local councillors are not ‘digital dinosaurs’. They mostly hold positive views about technology, automation and data and how public services can benefit from them. However, digital is not usually led by the very top decision makers in local councils, and there is thirst for councils to be better supported to understand more about technology and transformation.

If they are left behind, administrations may miss opportunities to proactively shape the future. They will find their cities changed under their noses. Uber will decide how people move, AirBnB will shape the property market, and a myriad of companies will swallow up and profit from the city’s data.

So what should be the response?

First, invest in digital skills. I know local authorities face painful cuts, but digital should be a core part of how they respond and reshape for the future. Recruit a senior person with responsibility, co-opt a trusted advisor, appoint experts to the LEP. London is currently following other global cities in hiring a Chief Digital Officer. Belfast is implementing a Smart Belfast Framework, further investing in its team, and launching a ‘Smart Belfast Collaborative Challenge’ to harness start-up expertise.

Second, share learning and resources. There’s some great sharing of best practice and intelligence already through the Local Government Association, Core Cities Group and the Scottish Cities Alliance. And cities are also starting to share human resource. Twenty-seven Scottish local authorities have joined forces to appoint a chief digital officer and chief technology officer to drive digital transformation. The Greater London Authority and London councils are considering setting up a London Office of Technology and Innovation to co-ordinate their innovation efforts.

Third, universities can help. They are a major employer, a big property developer, a deep well of intellectual capacity, and a source of continuity through perennial changes in city administrations. UK Universities are increasingly engaging in their host cities. Two of the preeminent examples are how Professor Enrico Motta of the Open University helped drive MKSmart in Milton Keynes, and how Mark Tewdr Jones of Newcastle University is galvanising Newcastle City Futures.

Finally, Central Government should act to support capabilities, rather than wait for the market or city collaboration to deliver. If there aren’t people to act as intelligent clients for smart city technology, the private sector won’t solve the problem. And as cities are increasingly asked to compete, there is a risk that the leading players will want to maintain their advantage rather than share. Whitehall could support training, help fund Chief Digital Officers, and more proactively support digital transformation through city deals and further devolution.

For city administrations, investing in digital capability, even in difficult times, will be vital. Harnessed cleverly, new digital technologies can lower a city’s operating costs, protect the environment and improve quality of life both for current residents and for potential incomers.

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