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Building an ecosystem for innovation

A truly digital city needs citizens, governments, businesses and industries to work together.


Nearly every major city holds a 2020 digital city strategy. While the topic of digital cities has been gaining popularity, we are still seeing a major disconnect between strategy and execution. Without a clear market definition, the digital city and smart city terms are often interchanged. We have all seen the perfectly designed simulation of buildings, cars, people, and public transport all centrally connected, hoping to create seamless life for people in congested urban locations.

In theory, a perfectly designed, centrally controlled digital city is easier to manage. However, from our experience of building thriving digital enterprises for the past 25 years, designing a master plan years in advance is simply not feasible.

This vision of a digital city originated from the world’s largest technology companies, and therefore was pushing technology first, rather than putting citizens at the core of the design. Having few vendors controlling the infrastructure and flow of information, could have compromised citizen data and their ability to influence change.

Becoming citizen-centric
Any organisation believes that they are customer-centric, or in the context of a digital city, citizen-centric. A citizen-centric organisation is about putting citizens at the core, and working backwards from their needs to innovate on their behalf and define solutions that satisfy their needs. While the concept of citizen-centric organisations is not new, the industry has been struggling with the implementation of citizen-centric strategies.

GDS (the UK’s Government Digital Service) is a great example of an organisation that transformed from citizen-aware to citizen-centric. We helped GDS deliver, a single hub for all of UK’s departmental sites. A citizen-driven design resulted in a 62 per cent increase in weekly visitors, and reduction in yearly operational cost by £50m.

Services for citizens
In the meantime, the digital revolution has hit our shores and the internet created a global village; one world interconnected by an electronic nervous system. Start-ups such as Uber and Airbnb were able to design their products with a “global first” mind-set. They tried to solve problems that real people face, regardless of their location. The ease of use led some of these platforms to gain a status of an operating system, as they unintentionally defined a new best practice for developing technology solutions in their space.

However, the challenge of local authorities trying to solve problems for their citizens, is that they are restricted to designing solutions within the boundaries of their geographies. The fact that single countries end up with multiple digital city strategies for each of their major cities, highlights the issue of groups that have a similar vision but run with a siloed execution.

As technology removes geographical barriers for people, there is an opportunity to leverage innovation from around the world, rather than duplicate effort.

City as a Platform (CaaP)
At the end of the day, it all comes down to data. These new digital platforms are the new brokers of information, which allow them to connect to a large number of ecosystems, and by that provide even more value to their users.

With the right data, nearly any problem can be solved. In Manchester, a small team of passionate ThoughtWorkers used publicly available data to address the challenge of planning a trip within the city. Developed in six weeks, Tramchester is an award-winning mobile app that models Manchester’s tram network using a graph database. It calculates the best route between two tram stations using a path finding algorithm. The technology behind this app means that Tramchester quickly processes data and is ready to face the future of more complex transport demands.

Given that Tramchester was brought to life in just six weeks, why aren’t we seeing more data-driven innovation in our cities? The challenge is that only some data is open, and the format of the data is inconsistent. Rather than try to own the innovation process, cities should take the role of a facilitator and bring together public and private sector, as well as citizens, to create a unified approach for data sharing. Unlike the utopian state of digital cities where information is centrally collated and owned, CaaP is a secured, scalable innovation approach. CaaP means that the city only facilitates the flow of data between parties, so it can have an unlimited number of people and organisations create innovative solutions using data.

Under this approach the city will create a cloud-based API (Application Programing Interface) that standardises data and gives read-only access to approved parties. Technology methods such as blockchain guarantee secured data flow, as well as data authenticity. Operational efficiency is another advantage under this approach, as organisations only need to sign a security contract between their business and the city, rather than have a separate contract between each of the entities.

ThoughtWorks is part of a consortium group under NESTA called Decode, which is working to build just this for the cities of Barcelona and Amsterdam. Decode is citizen-centric platform that gives people ownership of their personal data. This model is focused on privacy and democracy, before technology, vendors and “owners” of the platform itself. By starting with the end user and beneficiary in mind, we stay true to the purpose, rather than the owner. The platform allows users to manage their data, including sharing it anonymously for the public good.

What’s next?
In the coming months the hype around digital cities will continue to grow. Successful cities will be able to put technology aside, and focus on designing a platform of collaboration that puts citizens first. Courageous leaders that will embrace the City as a Platform approach will need to work with organisations on their data strategy, and help them understand the implications of operating in a “co-opetition” mode. Advanced cities will have a global mind-set and will allow popular platforms to use data to provide a rich experience for their user base in a city.  A well-conceived, designed and engineered Digital City platform will succeed based on its purpose and by being open. A technical design model that captures funding, contribution and culture from many different sources will be its mainstay.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.