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CIO interview: Theo Blackwell, London chief digital officer, Mayor of London’s Office

London CDO Theo Blackwell talks about cross-council collaboration, London’s role as a data-driven city and the importance of ensuring the capital won’t lose out on talent post-Brexit

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: London plans to be a smarter city

London chief digital officer (CDO) Theo Blackwell has only been in post since September 2017, but he has settled well into the role and is already making a mark, creating a strong, collaborative digital London voice.

It was a gloomy, rainy Monday morning when Computer Weekly sat down with Blackwell in a windowless meeting room at City Hall, but the weather cannot dampen his enthusiasm.

He happily chats about how to create an active digital policy approach, ensuring collaboration across councils, coping with Brexit and the use of data in the capital.

Part of Blackwell’s role is to help the London mayor to develop a Smart London Plan. A draft of the plan, published last year, sets out a vision to make the capital “a pioneering smart city with world-class digital connectivity supporting more digital devices to improve the lives of Londoners and enable businesses to thrive”.

The plan is now out for a lengthy consultation, which Blackwell says is necessary to ensure that the views of residents, organsiations and local councils are all taken into account.

He says the boroughs themselves “should be thinking more deeply about taking an active approach and the impact on their citizens”.

Blackwell is something of a veteran in local government IT. He has long been well-known on the circuit for his gumption and advocacy of technology and innovation, and before taking up the role as London CDO, he was cabinet member for finance, technology and growth at the London borough of Camden, where he served many years as a councillor.

So it is no surprise he is very passionate about collaboration, and getting all of the boroughs on board with working together. “What we don’t want,” he says, “is to force local authorities to do it.”

Local collaboration

One of Blackwell’s key priorities is to ensure that the London Office for Technology and Innovation (LOTI) becomes a reality. The idea of LOTI was first floated by a group of London boroughs last May, when they launched a scoping exercise to look at the appetite and potential to join up digital initiatives in the capital.

“We are now taking the next steps in order to set up a collaborative function, which, with a fair wind, hopefully we will be able to set up this year,” he says.

Blackwell hopes that the LOTI will provide a common framework, first of all for the city’s 33 boroughs, but also, in the future, for other London public services to engage with “some of the big challenges”, such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), how to promote better standards on cyber security and how to deal with the many legacy systems floating about in local councils.

“Despite Brexit and austerity, we also have a moment where we can be real actors in shaping our future”

Theo Blackwell, London CDO

“The average metropolitan borough has 650 lines of business supported by an array of technology, old and new,” says Blackwell, adding that it needs to be easier for councils to learn from each other.

Greenwich council, for instance, is an EU leader on the internet of things (IoT), while Hackney is leading the way on service design. No one is perfect, he says, and there is something to learn from everyone.  

The LOTI could play a role in this, says Blackwell, with digital leaders saying “this is what I’m doing to solve a specific problem” and then publishing it online for others to learn from.

“That is just the first step we need to take in order to make this much more transparent,” he says. Local government in the UK is very fragmented, but Blackwell sees this as an opportunity, not a hindrance.

“Coming together and coalescing creates a situation where we can have the benefits of fragmentation, which is the ability to pilot projects on a small scale and then scale them up later,” he says. At the moment it is far too fragmented, he says, but that is not an issue that can’t be solved by boroughs coming together and understanding what each of them is doing.

Joining forces

But it’s not just local councils that can work together. Blackwell is keen to increase collaboration and foster ideas across the capital, and so has decided to host City Hall’s first-ever “unconference”, a Smart London Camp, next month.

“For the first time, we will mobilise the expertise of public service practitioners, service design and technology from right across London,” he says, visibly excited about the idea.

Blackwell also points to a joint project between Transport for London (TfL) and a group of London councils to tackle connectivity issues across the capital.

TfL and the councils, supported by London mayor Sadiq Khan, have put in a £20m bid to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to extend full fibre-optic connectivity on the London Underground network to local public buildings in not-spot areas.  

Blackwell says the boroughs were asked where their not-spots are, and which buildings are in not-spot areas, in order to “start eradicating those not-spots through a  combination of basically mobilising public assets”.

He decribes projects like these, with organisations collaborating for a common benefit, as “common sense wins” and adds: “The next stage is how we develop specific use cases that boroughs, or public services themselves, have identified that we can take forward.”

Public sector innovation

There is often a perception that public sector organisations are Luddites when it comes to technology – something that doesn’t sit well with Blackwell.

“There is a challenge sometimes, where the disruption in the tech community gets slightly carried away with itself and just kind of goes‘yeah well, we’re just plucky upstarts surfing the wave of innovation’, and characterising the public sector as behemoths saying no to innovation, when actually the public sector in its own right has been massively innovative, especially in London,” says Blackwell.

He says Londoners have already “been on the smart journey” and the public sector has played an important part in this.

“Contactless payments was essentially popularised for the world via TfL and its partnership with the private sector,” he says. “Other people are adopting what we started here, and it has also had massive spin-offs in consumer benefits.”

Data-driven capital

Another key part of Blackwell’s remit is looking at the use of data cross the capital, which is already a data hub. Blackwell says the Mayor’s Office is using TfL’s data to make judgements on how to spend money or provide services across the capital. More philosophically, he points out that there is a future role for cities, particularly tech hubs such as London, to discuss data as a whole.

Blackwell refers to research from the Open Data Institute (ODI) that looked at why and how people trust organisations with their data. The NHS, banks and local government are among the organisations most trusted to handle people’s personal data, according to the research, but there is still hesitance among people to share data, often because there is not enough education and literacy around it.

Blackwell says the ODI research is “on the money” and “exactly the kind of conversation we should be having”. It’s about how citizens trust institutions, and what they think about them using their data. London has massive bundles of data, and so has a role to play in talking about data and trust, he adds.

“The great technology cities have a role in discussing data, talking about its civic benefits”
Theo Blackwell, London CDO

“The great technology cities have a role in discussing data, talking about its civic benefits,” he says. It is important to break out of what is “quite a sterile argument” that some private companies are harvesting illegal data and the state can’t regulate them, while at the same time the state likes data as a means of control, says Blackwell, “whereas in fact there is this huge space in the middle, which is the civic use and benefit of data for growth and city flourishing”.

He adds: “There is this big leadership role here, where cities can lead discussion around increasing trust in data and people seeing data used more transparently and for public benefit. It’s sort of a civic data discussion.”

Blackwell points out that the much-feared GDPR can be used as an opportunity “to have a new deal on data for our citizens because active consent about the use of data, people being satisfied about privacy and vulnerabilities is fundamental to a data-driven city”.

He describes London as “essentially on the cusp of being a, if not the data-driven capital of the world”, adding: “Despite Brexit and austerity, we also have a moment where we can be real actors in shaping our future.”

Threat of Brexit

It is impossible to mention the word “Brexit” without delving into what it could mean for London’s talent and workforce, particularly in the digital sector.

Despite Brexit, the UK capital is still a popular destination for tech workers migrating from both inside and outside the EU, according to research from the Mayor of London-led agency London & Partners.  

However, both mayor Khan and Blackwell are concerned about what a hard, or no-deal Brexit could mean for the capital. “Brexit’s biggest impact, potentially, on us is threatening our ability to have access to the best talent in the world,” says Blackwell.

“In the vision of a Brexiteer, you will have an island that can trade with the world with lower tax rates, so therefore that will stimulate investment.

“But in the British economy, investment means people going: ‘great, I’m going assemble the best team in the world to develop the best products and services to sell to the world’. If we place strict limitations on people coming in and don’t respond to the tech sector’s needs, this will impact London in fundamental ways.”

This will not only have an impact on the tech community, but on public services too, says Blackwell. “If London wants to be the smartest city in the world through its public services, but also wants to be that global, data-driven capital of data, then talent is far and away the top issue. We have got to make sure London maintains its liberal approach to immigration.”

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