First-ever London CDO Theo Blackwell lays out smart city plans

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We sat down with London's first chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell, to talk about the importance of data

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The mayor of London's first-ever chief digital officer Theo Blackwell has hit the ground running since being appointed in September 2017, setting out his plans to make Britain's capital the smartest city in the world.

With two decades working in the tech sector under his belt, Blackwell also brings to the table a wealth of government, policy and digital experience. He hopes to unite London mayor Sadiq Khan's new Smart London board to effectively digitise the capital.

Computerworld UK visited London's City Hall to discuss the role with Blackwell, whose signature beard and horn-rimmed glasses make him look more like a tech exec than a government minister. 

"It's the first job of its kind for an English city," Blackwell pointed out, holding an iPad and nursing a cup of coffee. "We've worked really closely with other cities and across London, and I've found that there has been a tremendous amount of goodwill and enthusiasm to start getting things done together and that's why it's called 'Smarter London Together'.

"We've been part of a collection of things that are good in London, but we haven't taken it to the next level and that's what people are really excited about."

According to Blackwell, a smarter capital will mean using data as a foundation for innovation, and for the benefit of all Londoners.

"We define a smart city as something that harnesses the power of data from public and private sources for the benefit of Londoners and people who work and visit here," he explained. "We see that as enabling us to seize the opportunities of a city that's growing and dealing with its challenges as well.

"That means using data to find solutions and mobilising the different bits of brain centres of London together is how we envision a smarter London – and fundamental to that, which is a key part of my role, is doing that collectively."

Plan of action to build togetherness

According to the mayor's office the capital is expected to grow to more than 11 million people by 2050.

"Applying data- and technology-driven solutions to urban services will help London to manage these pressures better," Blackwell wrote in a Medium post.

Planning ahead, Blackwell suggests that city-wide collaboration between public institutions, the private sector and technology communities will be crucial to harnessing data and creating a truly smart London.

"The first phase will be gathering all of our potential data, leadership, talents and connectivity and bringing all of them together," he explained. "So that instead of following the past, where there's been a propensity of smart cities to jump straight into pilots and go for the shiny things, we have the foundations so that all inventions can be sculpted, modelled and piloted to suit the citizens."

Impact of data

The Smart London plan follows three crucial themes: harnessing the power of data, providing solutions to challenges, and creating opportunities for collaboration.

From these themes, Blackwell suggests that data usage has the most potential impact for innovation and making the city a data-driven capital of the world.

"More open data sets, more applications of public benefits and more tech jobs," he said. "All of these things are how we measure success at the moment with a new Smart London plan.

"First is working collectively together, secondly is really looking at the issue of data not just in terms of GDPR compliance but actually the question of how we can have proper data management and data sharing across London, third is world-class connectivity, fourthly skills, and fifth, responsible tech." 

On this point of responsibility Blackwell emphasised the need for defined guardrails to be put in place to prevent the abuse of civic data.

"Imagine harnessing the power of civic data for civic goods, and by good I mean growth of jobs and also solutions to Londoner's problems like poor air quality or housing," Blackwell stressed. "There is a tremendous opportunity there and I think some people who are interested in data have either seen it being run by big companies for their own benefit or as used by the state in a coercive capacity.

"If we're going to be a data capital of the world we want to lead the way in having those debates about how you can create the trusted system for data where it's transparently used and people can see the benefit of that.

"We can't have discussions about the use of data that we get from transport and health particularly without having those locks in," he added. "We work very closely with the Information's Commission Office for this, but the first step is to make sure people are applying these laws consistently and considerately right across London."

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