Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
“That's no easy step—it involves investment in human beings, not just systems,” says the city’s newly-appointed chief digital officer.
In his speech at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, London Mayor Sadiq Khan cautioned the world about the perils of the ongoing tech revolution: Social media has helped proliferate fake news, popularized online hate speech, and created ideological silos. Tech companies seeking to disrupt the status quo have had negative, unintended consequences, he said.
“There’s been a dereliction of duty on the part of politicians and policymakers to ensure that the rapid growth in technology is utilized and steered in a direction that benefits us all,” he said.
He outlined his vision for a smarter, better-connected London. The city has had the Smart London plan in place since 2013, but what Khan laid out was Smart London 2.0. In this vision, the city will encourage and guide innovation and make public services more efficient, he said, but it will also guard the interests of the most vulnerable, and ensure that the benefits extend to all residents.
Four months ago, he hired the city’s first chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell charged with implementing its new vision.
At SXSW, CityLab caught up with Blackwell for a conversation, the highlights of which are below.
Mayor Khan read out some of the many hateful tweets he receives, as a way of making a statement about the dire need for digital protection. He also mentioned penalties Germany has imposed to get social media companies to remove hate speech from their forums. What role do cities play in the fight against internet hate?
The metropolitan police [in London] have invested quite a lot of resources into hate crime, but what Sadiq did ... was that he showed digital leadership by saying to social media platforms that they haven't been responsible enough. This is something Sadiq is reflecting from the parliament itself, which has looked into the issue and is clear how much it can do. We know that there are protocols with social media platforms where they take down, for example, images of breastfeeding and stuff like that or copyright infringement. So the question is: How have we drifted into a territory where it's alright to basically threaten and intimidate people constantly and to break civil discourse without due consideration by these companies? That's the question Sadiq was really asking.
Nations can decide laws around freedom of speech and around privacy. Cities have a special role to serve citizens in the diverse populations that we have. And so we do have a role, as those who provide services, and [London’s leaders] are under obligation to ensure good community relations. If we're seeing something acting against that, also based out of our city, we have the moral duty to say, “Hang on just a second, you've got to check yourself on this.”
Are there specific plans you are excited about implementing?
In addition to the kind of traditional innovation around smart cities—things like smart mobility, sensors for air quality, which are being progressed in any case—there's a need to link together innovation that happens to respond to things all across the city: better data sharing, better adoption of common standards across citywide services, and emphasis on service design.
We’re looking to design services around the needs of every citizen by bringing technologists in the room, using systems thinking, and agile approaches. Through that, we hope to make services that are much more respectful of the diversity of the city—in line with the themes that the mayor’s set out. His big campaign, Behind Every Great City, emphasizes the centenary of the first votes for women. Within the technology sphere, it means us working within our own public services and the tech community to ensure that the services that we design are not designed with one sort of consumer in mind, but designed around the diverse needs of our citizens. We think that's a very important opportunity to use design principles to make our services available and responsive to everyone.
That's no easy step—it involves investment in human beings, not just systems. We're taking the concept of smart city away from the idea of these faceless systems designed by engineers to make dumb traffic lights smarter. We're expanding it, and putting it into the debate about how we build the human capability for the use of data for civic benefits.
One big discussion that's happening—certainly among American cities—is about privacy of vulnerable populations in the data revolution. How are you thinking about that?
There's a really interesting debate going on in U.S. cities, which have a different approach to data and they have different national data laws. In Europe and the U.K., we're about to introduce new data laws, that are going to come in on the 25th of May. They include things like the right to be forgotten, getting consent for data maintenance from companies, new rules for sharing with third parties, and new rules for privacy by design and new technologies. There's really interesting safeguards that we're building into the systems.
So, it's right that we talk about privacy. But what I'm concerned about to some extent is that criticisms of smart cities that happen in one jurisdiction don't leach into another that has a different set of laws [alluding to the differences between the U.K. and the U.S.]. And there's an element of hypersensitivity to privacy [by smart city critics], which I think needs to be addressed by city leaders. Cities are, after all, big bundles and agglomerations of data which could be used for civic benefit. If we only adopt the approach which has the precautionary principles because we are afraid of corporate takeover or those arguments, we miss an opportunity for the full use of data to benefit the most vulnerable in our society.
As Sadiq said in his speech: If you're a political leader and you sit on your hands during the digital and data revolution, you're letting your citizens down. We need to have a full and active role for government—oversight, accountability, transparency and the delivery of services. It's not just the private sector creating products for consumers, it's us serving our citizens. So we have the role to explain the benefits of what people can do with their data.
It's almost like: When we create something from Londoners' data, it's made by London. But we want to make sure that that concept is morally owned by Londoners. It's their data; and they can see the benefits of it when we make sure the health care system is better or the transport system is better.
One aspect of Mayor Khan’s vision is an investment in digital skills and workforce development. Could you talk about that?
We can't talk about how a city can be smart unless we first talk about investment in skills for those people who are left behind. That program, in particular, is aimed at minority groups and women. We start off with a substantial investment in digital talent. And that's just the start. We also want to work with schools on their new computing curriculum, so that kids get immersed in an exciting curriculum from an early age. One of the main challenges, of course, is that girls in particular because of the way they were taught were turned off from computer science from the age of 10 or 11. We need to make sure that we teach the curriculum, we invest in pedagogy, we work with the tech sector to really make the way we teach subjects as inclusive as possible.
There's also a demand from our other city leaders. They see these big companies and start-ups happening, and they think, well, ‘how can our kids get access to those jobs?’ So our deal with them is to start with investment in skills. And on that basis, we win trust and consent to talk about issues that we think are important as well: common standards, design—things that are really important business-to-business characteristics of a smart city. But we've got to start with something which is really important to Londoners first, which is access to jobs.
Mayor Khan talked about the role of London in the post-Brexit world as a city open to talent and innovation. How do you see your work contributing to that vision?
Look, it's well known that during Brexit, London and Scotland voted in an outward fashion and the other areas of the country voted in an inward fashion. Other cities also voted in an outward way, and some lost only narrowly. Nevertheless, London is a source of a major amount of economic growth for the country—it needs to be open. Because smart cities for public services rely on international talent—the health service, universities, which have a large number of non-U.K. European nationals and internationals.
To maintain our status as a world hub, the traditional view would be that you can go offshore and you can have lower taxes, but with the tech community, that doesn't quite land. Because if you want to make good products, you go, “great, I want to create a world class team.” If you can't create a world class team, people will start voting with their feet. The number one issue is access to talent. The tech community has told us [this] and it's something that we've told the government. We know they're listening, there's obviously a moment of negotiation to happen still. But London's future relies on that.
I would also say to the tech companies, and this is really really important: Their investment in London is a vote for maintaining openness. They also have a role to play in our journey to make sure that London remains open. Being here, being with London, is also them exercising their own agency to basically say, “Yeah, We're pointing outwards to the world.”
In the future, we're going to have increasing tie-ups with what I call the great technology cities of the world: San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, New York, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin. These cities, especially in Europe and North America, will increasingly work together. The disputes between nations that happen at conferences with prime ministers will not play out with those [city leaders] charged with the actual delivery of public services and growth. We have a different agenda, and it's much more collaborative.
Mayor Khan emphasized the role of local regulations in the gig economy. How do you see that aspect of a city’s relationship with tech companies?
We're the creator of new rules. When we talk about the creation of common standards, we don't think about it in abstract terms: We're just basically saying, the great innovations of the world happen both because they're disruptive, but they've also happened because someone sat down and went, “We need to have some basis for innovation.”
Sometimes I think in the tech community, we get too carried away almost with the neoliberal idea of “regulation must be disrupted, the state is standing in my way.” No doubt, some old rules need to be changed. The alternative view is that active government and the active role of the state to create those discussions around common standards will be the fuel for future innovation and growth. So, instead of letting a thousand flowers bloom and waiting for one to grow into a massive tree and block out all the shade for everything—to use a terrible analogy—you've actually got a situation where you create a competitive market, with products that can compete for the customer or citizen's attention to serve them better. So it’s not disruption to create dominance, but disruption to create competition, choice, and public service.
Cities have a really important role to play in those things by developing standards. People are talking about autonomous vehicles; those won't happen without smart streets. And smart streets won't happen without having sensors that can securely share information in a way that is useful. And those things will come from people thinking about rules. We have a really important role to create the framework for the digital revolution to truly be a public benefit. Increasingly, the role of the chief digital officer in cities is to talk about that agenda.