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London and Helsinki digital partnership challenges big IT platforms

CDOs of London and Helsinki meet at London’s City Hall to sign a city-to-city digital declaration around AI, open data and digital innovation

London’s chief digital officer Theo Blackwell has met with his Finnish counterpart Mikko Rusama at City Hall by Tower Bridge to sign a joint city-to-city digital declaration exploring open data, artificial intelligence, 3D modelling and digital twins, among other things. The initiative will bring together citizens and local startups in the UK and Finland to enhance smart city government and perhaps start to break civic reliance on big IT platforms.

Blackwell said the declaration – the first of its kind that London has signed, although he hopes not the last – will serve as the basis for enabling both London and Helsinki to collaborate on smart city projects that address challenges facing them both.

“In the future, instead of spending money on expensive platforms and consultants, we would like to be able to share our expertise building stuff that works for citizens,” he said.

The declaration sets out a formal framework for co-operation between the two cities to develop in-house expertise within the two local administrations, and build deeper links with the technology sector to improve citizens’ lives. Although not legally binding, both parties hope it will go on to serve as a blueprint for collaborations with other cities in Europe.

For London, Blackwell noted, the collaboration serves as a “deepening” of ties between the city – which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union (EU) in 2016 – and its European friends and neighbours ahead of Brexit, and helps cement mayor Sadiq Khan’s “London is open” policy.

Although less exposed to Brexit than London, Helsinki’s city government is driven by similar motivations, Rusama told Computer Weekly.

“Our mayor, Jan Vapaavuori, is very much emphasising  collaboration with other leading smart cities to solve common problems we are facing,” he said. “That emphasis is coming from the very top of our city organisation. We have also partnered with New York City on cyber security challenges, and we are seeking a similar type of collaboration with London.”

Like London, Helsinki is home to a thriving startup scene, with more than 130 telecoms companies – many run by ex-Nokia employees – and 1,900 software development firms, and both Blackwell and Rusama want to activate these ecosystems to follow through on their plans.

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“We are both leaders in open data, we are both publishing things using open APIs and the market is stepping in and creating products – the most famous of which in London is Citymappr,” said Blackwell.

“How can we create together or learn from each other about how we relate to that ecosystem, so we can break our reliance on big technology solutions? When they are appropriate, they are appropriate, but they shouldn’t be the same meal all the time.”

According to Blackwell, a philosophical shift is taking place in city administrations all over Europe – such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Milan and The Hague – whereby local governments are starting to think about how to build their own technological capabilities so that they can act more flexibly in the future. This is a shift away from big platform IT deployments, which do still exist in the worldwide smart cities debate.

“We are just thinking about how we can build the common building blocks, which involves us working together as cities,” said Blackwell. “There is someone somewhere in the Helsinki city administration no doubt turning a dial on a vital problem that we need to solve in London – we just haven’t met them yet.”

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