The Drum spoke to London’s first chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell ahead of his Future of Marketing panel, on 22 November, about why London needs a chief digital officer, his ambitions for the city and what initiatives he’ll invest in to make London ‘smarter’.
Blackwell was appointed last year by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who realised the capital’s need for smarter living.
How will the power of data and tech ensure that we keep London’s unique charm alive?
London’s diversity is character-defining but that’s something developments in tech and data can’t threaten – in fact, they present an opportunity to enhance our identity and shared values. London is leading the way in AI, data and the creative industries and this fusion of design excellence and data expertise sets us apart from other technologically-advanced cities. We’re starting to inspire future engineers in primary schools through our coding work with Lego. The Mayor's Digital Talent Programme is currently training 1,500 young people – focusing on women and BAME communities in particular – in digital skills for entry-level jobs.
What are the key initiatives that you plan to invest in to make London a ‘smart’ city?
Firstly, we want to promote the Government Digital Service Standard. We’re also developing data analytics and data-sharing agreements and setting up the London Office for Technology and Innovation. This will bring councils together to establish common standards.
You are London’s first chief digital officer, why does London need one?
Many of London’s advances in the application of data and smart technologies are already globally recognised. Transport for London popularised contactless payments in a model now copied around the world. The Met Police are pioneering body-worn cameras which help gather evidence and ensure accountability. And we use data to improve air quality and tackle fuel poverty. We’ve achieved a lot already, but can always do more to utilise data and smart technology.
Tell us what a typical day looks like for London’s chief digital officer?
We're focused on delivering the 20 actions in the Smarter London Together Roadmap, launched by the Mayor in June. This includes promoting design principles in digital services, better data sharing, laying the groundwork for 5G connectivity, establishing digital skills in young Londoners and setting up a collaborative vehicle to scale the city’s best ideas. It means working closely across London's 32 boroughs with the City of London, the police, TfL, NHS, the tech community and universities.
What are your ambitions for London?
We're keen on collaboration and mobilising city assets for change. Previously, we’ve gone about it a bit spontaneously – which didn’t always work – or we had initiatives that stopped prematurely. We need to create more formal and transparent foundations, like we’re doing through our report card. We’re prioritising public assets like the Tube and public buildings to extend fibre and mobile connectivity across the city to improve service and choice for Londoners.
What is your concept of a smart city? How long until London becomes one.
People think smart cities are about hardware – driverless cars or connected street furniture, but innovation opportunities come in various formats, across service design and data analytics.
A truly smart city harnesses the power of tech and data to make the lives of its residents better. But this evolves over time. Ten years ago, the focus was on systems and data-viewing platforms delivered by global companies. Now it’s about digital transformation, citizen-centred service design and city data.
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