CREtech London 2021 Theo Blackwell
Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer for London, gave the keynote address on the first morning of the conference

CREtech London | 4 principles behind London’s smart city ambitions

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Karl Tomusk

“How do we negotiate a data rich environment?” That question, posed by Theo Blackwell, London’s first chief digital officer, set the scene at the opening keynote at CREtech London 2021.

Blackwell leads London’s digital transformation, data and smart city initiatives, following the capital’s Smarter London Together Roadmap, launched by mayor Sadiq Khan in June 2018.

Khan’s mayoral manifesto in 2021 pledged to create an emerging tech charter for London, setting out four principles to guide the deployment of new data-enabled tech in public services and the public realm.

Blackwell said: “We know from experience in London that the guidance on what the right thing to do hasn’t been as clear as possible, and that’s led to some confusion. We want to address that.”

He added: “It’s not just a public sector play. It’s also something that’s aimed to help those who own private land and are thinking about introducing technologies. What’s the right way the city wants us to do that?”

The four principles are:

  • Be open: set out in plain English what the tech is, what it can do, why it is being used and (where appropriate) the ethical basis for doing so
  • Respect diversity: think about who your users are and create services with them in mind
  • Be trustworthy with peoples’ data: ensure privacy by design, making it easy for people to opt out of data collection; ensuring that any collection of personal data is justified; maintaining high quality data standards to make it clear where the data comes from and how it was collected
  • Be sustainable: consider the entire lifecycle impact of the technology

One reason these principles are particularly important is because London supports more tech and more data collection throughout the city – especially because of environmental concerns.

“We encourage the use of sensors, because they are really, really important for us for fighting climate change in our city,” Blackwell said, highlighting energy and water consumption as two areas that benefit from data collection.

He went on to encourage the private sector to engage with London about these principles and on working together to make the capital a true smart city: “It’s an often complex area. But we think that this is the start of a really good conversation with the public sector, private sector and civil society about how we can do this in a way that reflects values of our city.”

A brief history of digital London

Earlier, the keynote took the audience through London’s modern history of integrating technology, starting in 2002 with the congestion charge.

Blackwell said: “The funny thing about the congestion charge is that it’s just a normal way of life for Londoners now. We don’t really see it as a smart city technology, but basically it’s cameras and a database that enable us to charge motorists and ease congestion.”

Theo Blackwell London smart city CREtech London

A timeline of London’s evolution as a smart city (click to expand)

From there, the city introduced a centralised data store where all relevant city data is collected and held; contactless travel and smart street lighting, eventually culminating this year in Connecting London, the city’s initiative to use public assets to improve digital infrastructure.

The capital is now laying a “full-fibre spine” through its tunnels, linking up 600 public buildings and other assets. But the private sector will also benefit: “That lowers the cost for private investments to do that last mile of fibre connectivity directly to your home,” Blackwell said.

“In the next few years, we will see a step change in our fibre infrastructure.”

With 5G reliant on fibre being in the ground, Connecting London, Blackwell said, signals a break from the past, creating a new generation of technology in the city by enabling AI, more IoT, augmented and virtual reality and automation.

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