Innovation

Inside London's brilliant plan to update its smart city technology

The chief digital officer of the city of London talked to TechRepublic at SXSW to discuss what's next in smart city technology in order to make London the "smartest city in the world."

London is in the midst of change with a new plan being developed to push the city forward in the smart city realm.

Five years ago, government officials developed the Smart London Plan to help the city manage its transport, social, economic and environmental systems, but that plan is dated and needs an overhaul.

Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer for the city of London, sat down with TechRepublic at the Four Seasons during SXSW in Austin, Texas, to discuss how the city is working with citizens to figure out what is needed.

"We're updating our Smart London Plan from 2013. it is very much a creature of it's time and we need a new plan for the next five years. So we're in the midst of a listening exercise to develop a new smart London plan and it has two main elements. One is to develop our innovation in what would traditionally be called smart city expertise such as innovation for autonomous vehicles and the big systems that are happening across the city. And secondly, and this is the new element, really building the digital capability of our public services by focusing on digital leadership, common standards and data sharing," Blackwell said.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the rise of smart cities, volume 2 (Tech Pro Research)

The original plan was put in place the year after the 2012 Summer Olympics was held in London. That spurred the city to make changes to improve the lives of Londoners and visitors.

"Now we're focusing not just on systems, but also on the quality use and management of data so that we can improve innovation for our city," he said. The city is interested in working with innovators and startups of all sizes, not just large companies.

One of the challenges is the vast size of the city and its diversity. It's made up of 33 boroughs, and the city provides 650 areas of service to citizens in the boroughs, which each average a population of 250,000 citizens, Blackwell said.

"So, London's kind of below the surface, there's an extraordinary level of complexity to the city and for us to make London the smartest city in world. There's a tremendous opportunity to work with all of these boroughs, but also we need to focus on the collaboration between the various elements in the city, and that remains really big focus of my job, to bring that collaboration together so we can express citizen needs in a way that the tech community can understand more clearly," Blackwell said.

Open data has long been important for the city, he said.

"We at the moment have 700 open data sets that are used by thousands of app developers. Services like Citymapper essentially have been created off the back of the open information coming from Transport for London, London's transport network. We have a community of over 13,000 developers, 80 live data feeds just from transport information alone," Blackwell said, calling it the "tip of the iceberg" of what is possible.

"The real thing that's going to help cities is management use access to public data. There's sort of innovation that we don't even know of that will arise from that and so an important part of our strategy is not just traditional smart cities and smart traffic lights and things like that. But it's actually built in the digital capability of our public institutions so that when we bring together these vast data sets that we can actually use them," he said.

The National Health Service (NHS) is London's state-run healthcare. "So when we talk about serving the citizen, we're also talking about how we integrate the data that we can get around health and adult social care into the mix," he said. "The possibilities for improvement extend beyond discussions around transportation well into a fuller view of the citizen. And if we can crack that with the appropriate safeguards around privacy and respect for personal data, there's tremendous opportunity in London."

Personal data and privacy is an important consideration. "Privacy is built into the heart of the new system that's being discussed. In the UK there's been a very, very strong push, not only because of new data laws ... but also a national discussion around people's rights and if we strike the right balance, will be able to make the healthcare system much more effective and to work in a much more integrated fashion with the wider public services serving the people of London," Blackwell said.

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Image: iStock/S.SONNET, Getty Images

About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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