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Nordic CIO interview: Ann Hellenius, City of Stockholm

Stockholm’s CIO is relishing the challenge of trying to make the Swedish capital the smartest city in the world

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When Swedish capital Stockholm set out its SKR545m (£49m) digital transformation strategy in April, its ambition was high – to become the world’s smartest city by 2040.

This was an undertaking welcomed by the city’s CIO, Ann Hellenius. “We have a more holistic view on what a smart city is compared to many other cities,” she says. “The goal for Stockholm is to become democratically, ecologically, financially and socially sustainable.”

Hellenius says the city already has 200 digitisation projects in progress across these four themes, ranging from legacy system updates to new digital tools – and there is more to come. For the next two years, Stockholm has earmarked £26m to improve digital support in schools, £12.6m to modernise IT support in social services and elderly care, and £10.4m to invest in innovation.

One of its early successes is the deployment of more than 150 solar-powered “smart bins” across the city. The bins are equipped with waste compactors and sensor technology to notify collectors in real time when they need emptying. This has allowed the city to schedule significantly fewer collection runs.

“The need to empty the bins has been reduced by 80%,” says Hellenius. “It has really made the process much more efficient.”

Another success is the introduction of a self-assessment tool for digital maturity given to 12,000 teachers in Stockholm. The city reckons the tool has helped raise digital maturity in all its secondary schools through knowledge-sharing and the use of digital content in teaching.

It is these kinds of results that Hellenius would like to see replicated across Stockholm. It is a huge push for the city, but one she sees as crucial for its development.

Hellenius has spent most of her career in management consulting and made the leap to the public sector in 2011. She started as the City of Stockholm’s head of education development and was made CIO four years later. In the two years since then, Hellenius has transformed the city’s IT from a traditional support function into a digital development department.

Read more Nordic CIO interviews

“The pressure for public services to be offered digitally is constantly increasing,” she says. “For those of us who work with digitisation, it is no longer a question of implementing different IT solutions, but more about identifying needs and looking for opportunities and development for how businesses can be better at providing services. In our case, this is to Stockholm’s residents and visitors.”

Today, Stockholm’s digital department employs 70 people who work closely with various service providers and the city’s 50 internal business units, which each have their own IT team. With a 95% outsourcing rate and more than 40,000 people working for the city, there is a lot to juggle, but Hellenius believes she has the tools to succeed.

One of the key changes she has introduced is a bimodal working model, in which fast, agile experimentations are executed alongside longer, more traditional IT projects. The same model is applied at the digital department’s new innovation-focused project office. It acts as an internal incubator, where the city’s business units can apply for funds and guidance to test new products and services. If successful, the project office offers support in scaling these initiatives up.

“This has given really good results,” says Hellenius. “Our business units can speed up processes and try new ways to use digital technology to improve their organisation. This happens much faster than before.”

Public-private collaboration

The successful transformation of Stockholm’s IT department has also been recognised by Hellenius’ peers. In 2016, she was chosen as the European CIO of the Year followed by the Swedish CIO of 2017 title in March this year.

Hellenius puts a major part of this success down to a more open approach to collaboration. She doesn’t just mean closer ties between Stockholm’s IT team and its business units, but also within the private sector and academia.

A case example is an innovation project called Digital Demo Stockholm. It is a joint effort between the City of Stockholm, the Royal Institute of Technology and Swedish industry giants ABB, Ericsson, Scania, Skanska and Vattenfall to test and use digital technology to solve societal challenges.

A similar collaborative approach is seen in how Stockholm’s new digital strategy was realised. During a four-month dialogue phase, Hellenius invited large corporations, startups, academia and citizens of all ages to the City Hall to discuss what the digital strategy should be about and how the city could be improved.

Also, various digital channels were used to give Stockholm’s 2.2 million residents a chance to give their views on the strategy plans.

“We also sent the strategy draft out to the private sector and universities to get their feedback and incorporate the feedback in the final version,” says Hellenius. “We are a digitisation department that works as a part of the city ecosystem.”

Common infrastructure

Stockholm’s ambitious digital plan also puts greater pressure on its IT infrastructure. The city’s answer is to build common IT systems – such as platforms for data collection and control of internet of things (IoT) devices – that allow several suppliers to develop and operate them.

The aim is to improve data sharing within the city and with other stakeholders, as well as to facilitate the development of new data and sensor-based services.

This is a model where Stockholm already has experience. For more than 20 years, the city has run an open fibre optic network, Stokab, which rents dark fibre infrastructure to anyone interested on equal terms. Today it is used by hundreds of companies and operators for their connectivity needs. According to Hellenius, almost all of Stockholm’s households have access to broadband speeds of 1Gbps.

“Stockholm has already reached the European targets for 2025 regarding connectivity,” she says. “But the model of open networks needs to be developed to include 5G and IoT, which is our next step.”

Asked about the challenges in achieving Stockholm’s grand vision, Hellenius laughs. It isn’t something she gives too much thought to. She stresses that technology is never the problem because it is always far ahead of us; instead, the focus should be on building the right organisation to persist with its adoption.

“Of course there are challenges, but I try to create an organisation that isn’t occupied by thinking about challenges, but sees the possibilities and the value we create,” she says. “The whole aim of our strategy is not about technology – it is about improving the quality of life for the citizens of Stockholm.”

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