I was at an event recently where someone said that when the public sector gets its systems “fully synchronized, automated and cloud-managed” there won’t be any need for digital officers, chief or otherwise. What’s striking about this comment is the perception that “digital” is somehow only about technology and the transformation of services from complex internal legacy IT departments to streamlined managed platforms. If that’s the role of a chief digital officer, then count me out – there are much more experienced and talented teams engaged in transformation inside councils than I could ever hope to emulate.
But don’t get me wrong, I am a passionate technophile and spend a proportion of my spare time assessing new technologies, working with startups, engaging with accelerator/incubators and helping to guide some of the smart new companies shaping all of our futures. But I believe being a CDO for a defined geographic region or urban centre is less about tech and predominantly about people. There’s a place-making, human-centric challenge embedded in the role – the fundamental question being: how does “digital” add value to people’s lives.
This is the one of the questions we looked to answer at a recent New Statesman-Virgin Media Business round table with me and other chief digital officers and representatives from government, Whitehall and the private sector. It’s a question that many tech entrepreneurs genuinely wrestle with too. A cursory glance at the thriving UK tech ecosystem reveals an underlying narrative around AI-driven, data-driven services that will personalise our experiences, enable us to make better decisions, save us money, help us to stay healthy and so on. Also within this narrative, business to business tech will change and disrupt supply chains and payment platforms, streamline warehousing, manage logistics, save energy, move towards carbon neutrality etc. Nearly all of this is articulated by entrepreneurs as “opportunity” and, without being too rose-tinted-glasses about it, on the whole they’re probably right. I’m optimistic about the potential of technology and, apart from the negative macro-economic headlines of a few players, also the integrity of emerging tech companies to change the world.
The problem for any CDO is that, as seductive as such tech innovation is, on a day-to-day level too many of our citizens are simply not able to engage or benefit. In the UK approximately 5m people, usually the most vulnerable, are not online or don’t have the skills to access digital services, and 12 per cent of 11-18 year olds have no internet access at home. On top of this the promises of super-fast fibre connectivity or next-generation networks may be out of reach financially for significant proportions of the population. Nearly a fifth of UK homes are already mobile-only, and pay-as-you-go options are often the only connectivity option for the most vulnerable sections of the population. In order to be successful, digital connectivity needs to be thought of an essential utility, one as integral to modern life as water, gas or electricity, and one that holds enormous scope for positive social impact.
Take 5G, for example, which (amongst many things) will enhance new ways of managing networks through virtualising processes and infrastructure. While our largest private sector companies explore use-cases to uplift productivity and commercial advantage across a range of verticals, the way is wide open for cities themselves to explore how they can use the technology to connect city assets and people. 5G will eventually become the network of networks and many UK towns and urban centres are already innovating around transformative technologies to deliver smart efficiencies for urban mobility, energy management, public safety, cleaner air and sustainable services. The problem we have in the UK is that much of this dynamic effort is cautionary and piecemeal. Funding, policies and governance structures that can quickly make our cities smart simply don’t exist, meaning that innovative councils and city leaders necessarily concentrate on specific projects, test-beds or social impact use-cases which tend to be tightly geographically ring-fenced.
Meanwhile, in any one day in an average-sized northern city like Salford as many as 300 people will present at hospital A&E and as many as 3000 per day will attend GP surgeries across all wards and communities. There are probably thousands of applications, interventions, software platforms and devices that could begin to reduce these numbers, and countless startups and innovators willing to engage. But, regardless of the internal machinery of the NHS, without a city-wide integrated baseline managed digital infrastructure and new operating models that enable specified digital access for all residents and enhanced resident digital services then the pressure on our health service is likely to remain high for some time. Also, Salford has the fastest growing economy in Greater Manchester but not enough of our young adults leaving school are equipped with the right skills to benefit from it. New thinking in how we slice next-generation networks and provide targeted education provision would be an amazing positive step. These are some of the ambitions and strategic priorities in Salford, predicated on formulating a city-wide operating model which can begin to deploy and manage baseline shared infrastructure and data. Such a model would also provide a rich resource for new applications and smart city innovations.
Digital infrastructure technologies (5GRAN, LTE, fixed wireless, NBIoT, multi-sensors etc) to enable widespread community and economic benefit have arrived. But our challenge, a CDO challenge if you like, is one of finding new models of scalable deployment, operation, trusted data management and incentivised multi-agency partnerships to make such quality of life benefits a reality. And inside any new city-wide digital operating model we need to ensure that the most vulnerable and disconnected are directly addressed. It will almost certainly entail a different dialogue with the private sector and a new way of qualifying the physical assets of a city. It will require massive engagement and inclusive dialogue with residents and disruptive ways of working between public sector organisations.
This is not really about the tech. It’s about people finding ways to look after people and the environment we share.
For more information on the New Statesman and Virgin Media Business round table on smart cities and digital transformation, click here.
A full write-up of the New Statesman-Virgin Media Business round table will appear in the 11th October issue of the New Statesman.