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

After more than a year in post, London’s chief digital officer reflects on changes, collaboration between boroughs and developing a smart city

It’s been a little over a year since Theo Blackwell became London’s first chief digital officer (CDO) – and it’s been a busy one.  

London mayor Sadiq Khan has set out a plan to make the capital the smartest city in the world, harnessing digital skills and seeking out digital talent, and it is up to Blackwell to ensure that the digital transformation goes smoothly.  

Blackwell says that the mayor’s roadmap is based on agile and collaborative principles, such as user-centred design, the importance of data sharing, and working collaboratively on connectivity – “which hasn’t really happened before”, he says – mobilising public assets for that to happen, and ensuring the city invests in leadership and becomes a smart buyer.

“These are all fundamental things that will prepare our city to be more open to innovation in the future,” says Blackwell.

The mayor also recently published the final version of his Economic Development Strategy, which includes helping small businesses acquire the right skills to take advantage of technologies.  

The aim is to ensure small businesses can continue to grow and are not left behind by a lack of digital skills and technologies. Companies will be offered help through an online service.

This is part of a plan to ensure no one is left behind as London increasingly becomes a technological hive. 

“These are all fundamental things that will prepare our city to be more open to innovation in the future”

Theo Blackwell, London’s chief digital officer

Blackwell says that the basis of the mayor’s roadmap for the city is “essentially a pivot from what we would see as quite traditional smart city thinking around systems and platforms”.

“What we’re doing over the next 18 months or two years is, in a sense, stepping back, essentially focusing on fixing the plumbing, rather than racing ahead towards any given technology or relationship with a supplier in order to become smarter,” he says.

Part of the reason for that is that London is not just one city – it has 32 boroughs, each with its own population, infrastructure and leadership. In the mayor’s London plan, there are also 40 “opportunity areas”, such as Old Oak Common and Rotherhithe, which will go through a huge regeneration in the next 10-15 years.

“The kind of technologies that will be built into those environments, and the data that will be gathered from citizens, will be radically different even from developments that are being built now, or were given planning consent 10 years ago,” says Blackwell, adding that this requires some thinking on “how that all fits together”.

“We are many smart cities across boroughs and these areas of opportunity, so our role as a strategic authority is very much to look at how we create the basis for that through standards, culture and leadership,” he says.

“We want to make the most of it and really mobilise the tech community to help us out. That requires City Hall for the first time to have a really big approach to digital leadership, as expressed by how we view design, data, connectivity, skills and collaboration.”

Innovation and connectivity

In June this year, the mayor launched his Civic Innovation Challenge, which aims to spur innovation from the tech sector, and in October, eight startups were awarded £15,000 each to help London become a world-leading smart city.  

Blackwell describes the challenge as “a new way of us posing civic problems to the tech community, who then come and help us”.

He says there is also an increase in work on connectivity across the capital – a drive to boost connectivity and join up public assets.

Transport for London (TfL) has enabled passengers to get access to Wi-Fi at Underground stations, and is now forging ahead with a programme to introduce 4G mobile broadband services on the Tube from 2019.

“TfL has got a very strong programme of putting fibre down Tube tunnels, which are nice and pre-dug for us, and that programme will result in the roll-out of Wi-Fi for people on the Tube by the end of 2019, and enhance the capability of our city,” says Blackwell. 

There is also a programme, supported by funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), to identify public buildings around Tube stations where the fibre comes through, and be able to introduce better connectivity.  

“It’s really becoming core business for us and a real step-change in City Hall’s approach to connectivity,” says Blackwell.

Collaboration is key 

One of the biggest initiatives Blackwell is driving 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 in May 2017, when they launched a scoping exercise to look at the appetite and potential to join up digital initiatives in the capital. 

Now the plans are almost there, and “LOTI is coming”, says Blackwell. The final plans are currently due to be sent back to the London councils involved, as well as the Greater London Authority (GLA). If all goes well, LOTI will be launched in April 2019. 

The organisation will be funded by the GLA, London councils and “the digitally leading boroughs that want to collaborate with one another”, says Blackwell. Rather than forcing people to take part, it is bringing together a coalition of the willing, he adds.

Getting LOTI up and running “will be a massive boost, and a completely different institution with a different way of working”, says Blackwell. 

“It’s a digital institution for a digital transformation of London, supporting the digital transformation of London's public services.” 

LOTI will be run by the London councils and, as Blackwell says, most public services are delivered by boroughs, not City Hall, “so it’s right that boroughs are in the driving seat here”. 

The CDO is also keen to increase collaboration with universities, pointing out that there have been “very good conversations” with Imperial College London and University College London, and says he is working on “creating a much stronger link with universities than we have done before”.

“Universities themselves have invested in thinking about the use of data and the application of smart technologies to urban environments,” says Blackwell. “There’s this really important moment now where we can hopefully mobilise these big global universities towards real-life use cases in our city, and that’s one of the exciting things that will come out of LOTI.”

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Another expression of the same goal is the Local Digital Declaration, a joint initiative between the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Government Digital Service, which comes with a pledge of £7.5m in funding to help local government be smarter about how to achieve digital transformation.   

Blackwell says the declaration gives councils and the coalition of the willing “the ability to create a movement that emphasises design principles and to express our own digital vision for services, in opposition to dominant tech philosophies”. 

He adds: “We want to move fast and make things, and that’s what it allows us to do. It creates the space where we can discuss our needs together and look at what kind of partnerships we need with the tech community. 

“We are able to have conversations with the traditional suppliers to say: change your product to meet our needs and to be interoperable, or we can go off and make our own with some other people. 

“I don’t mean we’re going to create big teams of people just creating our own products within the public sector, it’s just that we’ll be able to move more nimbly, working with smaller providers to create better products. I think this potentially changes the nature of the market  in quite substantial ways.” 

Blackwell concludes: “This is the beginning of something really interesting in the sea-change of public digital services, and about time too.”

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