This article is part of our Essential Guide: Essential Guide: Digital transformation in the public sector

How tech leads local government innovation in Vienna, Helsinki and Belfast

Digital leaders in the cities of Vienna, Helsinki and Belfast are innovating new services to help citizens and local economies

Local authorities have to provide a vast range of services to everyone in their area, making innovation difficult. But a new breed of city officials are borrowing ideas and working methods from private-sector innovators, as well as collaborating with both companies and other cities in an attempt to at least match the digital services people get elsewhere.

One technique used by innovative officials is to create new teams, empowered to work in different ways. In early 2016, the Municipality of the City of Vienna established Pace, an in-house digital innovation organisation, to fulfil ideas for a city app from a group of 150 Viennese citizens. Robin Heilig, who worked in IT for the Austrian capital, reckoned there was no way it could build such an app by October that year, as the deputy city council director had promised. But two weeks later, he and two developers were responsible for doing just that.

And they succeeded, with an early version of the Sag’s Wien (Vienna Calling) app ready in September 2016 and in live beta-testing in October. They met the deadline by using agile development and fast responses from senior managers, who took decisions quickly through messages and phone calls, rather than in meetings. The app was formally launched in February 2017 and by early June 2019, it had been downloaded 43,850 times.

Pace now has 11 staff, and while it remains a separate entity, it will eventually take what Heilig describes as “a backflip into the rest of the IT organisation”. He adds: “We’re taking it step by step, trying to bring back the learnings from Pace into our IT department and see what happens on a larger scale.”

Meanwhile, Pace is working on Mein Wien (My Vienna), a citizens’ portal and digital assistant service launched in beta in November 2018, which the city plans to integrate into its homepage. The aim is to bring together localised information on Vienna covering the likes of arts and events, as well as provide access to city council services. “We will integrate everything that is of interest to citizens in one presentation layer,” says Heilig.

He says public authorities are not usually at the forefront of innovation, and citizens do not expect this. “But what they do expect from us is that we offer a similar user experience to what they are used to in their private digital lives,” he says, adding that there are particular opportunities in life events such as moving house.

“I think in the future we will have to think how to integrate, not only our own services, but also talk to banks, insurance companies and so on,” he says. Heilig feels local authorities are ideally placed to manage such processes – but will need to collaborate to do so.

Helsinki meets London

Meanwhile, Finland’s capital, Helsinki, is focusing on collaboration to enhance its digital work, with other cities and with companies. In February this year, the City of Helsinki’s first chief digital officer, Mikko Rusama, signed a “city-to-city digital declaration” with Theo Blackwell, his counterpart in London, and the two cities are looking to arrange joint civic innovation challenges and staff exchanges.

Blackwell and Rusama recently wrote a joint article on the ethics of cities using artificial intelligence (AI) in providing services, following an April conference in Helsinki on data and AI ethics that included Blackwell and delegates from Amsterdam, Utrecht, Estonian capital Tallinn and other Finnish cities. Helsinki is also working with New York on cyber security projects.

The city is also working with local companies. Rusama chairs Forum Virium Helsinki, which is working to develop smart zones of the city through public- and private-sector projects, and Helsinki is testing internet-of-things technologies with three companies in a pre-procurement exercise. The city has also turned a 19th-century hospital that it owns – originally built to treat cholera – into office space for more than 100 tech startups.

“We need to understand our role in the ecosystem,” says Rusama. “A city is a platform. If we use our assets smartly and open them up for the ecosystem, we can really help that ecosystem thrive.”

“We don’t have the money that Amazon, Google or Chinese companies have for developing AI. The innovation can happen in how we provide services”
Mikko Rusama, City of Helsinki

This can be achieved through opening access to data, he says, and Helsinki is looking at how it can use citizens’ personal data to provide them with better services. Rusama says such work will have to go beyond just complying with data protection laws, demonstrating transparency and generating trust – which was a reason for holding the data and ethics conference.

But if that trust can be built up, Rusama believes cities could provide much more convenient services, such as by proposing options to citizens rather than waiting for them to choose. For example, Finnish parents and carers usually send their children to the nearest school that speaks their language (some Finns speak Swedish), so the city could offer this automatically, but with the option to make a different choice.

Rusama is also working on ways to make healthcare – run by local authorities in Finland – proactive, such as by offering personalised support to people whose data suggests they may develop diabetes.

He concedes that companies have been generating personalised recommendations for some time, but says cities can do things that such companies can’t. “We don’t have the money that Amazon, Google or Chinese companies have for developing AI,” he says. “The innovation can happen in how we provide services.”

If done right, the public sector can also take advantage of its access to personal data. “Innovation can also be on the legislative side, or the way legislation is interpreted,” says Rusama. “That can be a real asset for Helsinki.”

Smart Belfast

Like Helsinki, Belfast is setting up a smart district, and like Vienna, over the past two years it has created a special team to handle innovation. The Smart Belfast programme is setting up a 20km2 smart district incorporating the city centre, the port, the Titanic quarter and the Royal Victoria hospital. It will include alternative energy, electric vehicle charging and technology-supported assisted living.

“Basically, we’re turning it into an outdoor lab for our businesses and universities,” says Deborah Colville, Belfast’s city innovation manager.

Rather than building its own technology, the team focuses on collaboration with other organisations, including small businesses via the Small Business Research Initiative, a government scheme that enables public-sector organisations to provide funding to test ideas and develop prototypes.

More generally, the council is working with local companies to tackle a range of problems, such as testing the use of mobile device connection attempts to estimate visitor numbers to the city’s Botanic Gardens park, sports pitches, and the city cemetery.

Colville says the advantage of having a specific team is its focus, “In the council, this typically wouldn’t be anyone’s day job,” she says. The council does not aim to manage projects, with a “challenge owner” appointed in each department running services.

Read more about digital transformation in local government

One of the city’s programmes involves establishing a digital currency, Belfast Coin, to strengthen the local economy. Last August, a fire at Belfast’s Bank Building closed the city’s Primark store and blocked a major junction, reducing the number of shoppers. Grainia Long, Belfast commissioner for resilience, says: “That was the trigger for us realising that, as a city, we needed to find much better ways of building, sustaining, encouraging and rewarding spending in the city centre.”

The city chose Israeli-UK startup Colu to manage the project through 100 Resilient Cities, a network funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Although Colu has set up services in other cities, including Tel Aviv and Liverpool, the city council wanted it to be official – hence Belfast Coin.

“We wanted to build an ecosystem that allowed us to participate as well,” says Long. As part of this effort, although the council will be a key user, it will present the scheme as belonging to the city itself. “It’s important that residents don’t feel it’s done unto them,” she adds.

Long agrees with other cities that collaboration is a vital part of innovation. “Belfast as a city is very open to learning from others,” she says, referring to its links with Dublin and Limerick in the Republic of Ireland as well as cities across Europe and beyond. “We’d be mad not to.”

SA Mathieson edits In Our View magazine for Socitm, a professional network for public-sector digital leaders. The magazine features a longer interview with Helsinki’s Mikko Rusama.

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