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Springboard to smart

He might not know what will become of the Smart London Board, of which he is Chair, once the new mayor is elected, but in an exclusive interview, Professor David Gann CBE, Vice President (Innovation) Imperial College, speaks about Smart London, its achievements so far, and what needs to happen next.

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Prof. David Gann CBE
Prof. David Gann CBE

SmartCitiesWorld: The Updated Smart London plan calls for superfast broadband for all Londoners. The incumbent mayor expressed an aim for superfast broadband throughout the whole of London by 2018. How near are we to this? What are the blocks?

 

Prof. David Gann: We’d all like to see that, but of course by 2018 what we think is superfast now, will be even faster! This is the problem with infrastructure, whether its broadband or transport in a growing city, it tends towards congestibility. Things tend to get congested as increasing numbers of people want to use it and find new things to do with it and then, what looked like a nice, new, shiny thing becomes something that you want to reinvest in pretty quickly. It’s always a challenge to keep up to speed.

 

I think London really hasn’t been served as well as it could have been in terms of its superfast broadband throughout the city. There are good parts and there are not so good parts. The Connectivity Report says that. You know we keep pushing and our role as advisors is to push the Mayor’s Office and all those concerned to deliver on this.

 

We thought long and hard about 2018 and we thought, well, this is a realistic date by which the new mayor can come in, activate investment and upgrade to make this happen. So that’s what we’ve been pushing for. I hope it will happen, but the blockages are manifold in terms of the technical nitty-gritty, finance issues, getting different operators working together and inter-operability.

 

SCW: In the Future of Smart, the update report of the Smart London Plan, you call for more investment in data infrastructure. What else would you like to see achieved in terms of data for London and its Boroughs?

 

We’re really proud in London’s leadership in making its data available. Probably, the great highpoint of Smart London is the London Data Store and the access that we’ve made to public data, which hitherto would not have been available. We stand out in the world of great cities in terms of having done that and done it very well, and we’re investing more in that.

 

The Data Strategy was launched a few weeks ago and I think all of that signals very well as it is a good platform to build on. Data has been one of the upsides in what’s been happening in London, so much so, that other international cities have come to us to ask how can they learn from it.

 

However, there’s more we can do and the Boroughs is one area. More fine grain data that comes from the Borough level of activity would be really helpful. That discussion is ongoing and I think the new mayor would be well minded to find ways of interfacing with the 32 Boroughs and the City of London to find ways of bringing data through that would be useful to all.

 

You could look at the other end of the telescope and say that Whitehall is another area where we would like to pull data currently not on the London Data Store. Data from central government about London’s impact on the rest of the UK would be useful – so there are some significant areas we could improve.

 

The third area is private sector data, and we’re already in discussions with some of the mobile phone operators and so on, about putting their data up anonymously. That would be useful in the London Data Store context. This is an area we can build upon and I’m really hopeful about this.

 

SCW: A recent report Big Data in the Big Apple: the lessons London can learn from New York’s data-driven approach to smart cities, recommended that the mayoral office should appoint a Data Tsar and small analytics team. How do you feel about this, and what do you think London could achieve if it followed these recommendations?

 

PDG: Both the frontrunner mayoral candidates are signalling that they appoint someone in this position. We already have good people running the Data Store and I’ve just mentioned the delivery of the London Data Strategy, so in a way, I think this report is already calling for something that is well understood here. Actually, it is partly in place already so it’s more of an alignment. Not having a Tsar is not a big weakness or an impediment in terms of London. We understand this and are advocating it already.

 

SCW: How much funding has been won for London in terms of Smart City initiatives since the original London Smart Plan was published in 2013?

 

PDG: It’s an interesting question because to really get into it you have to understand that this is a board of advisors who in each of their roles have significant institutions and organisations that they represent and work with. The power of the board has been to bring some of them together in new ways that otherwise might not have come about, and London has got an extraordinary number of smart city type initiatives now up and running.

 

One of the projects the board guided through to success is a European funded lighthouse project Horizon 20:20 which is about €25m and there are several projects in the multiple millions of Euros that the board has been party to cultivating and helping to win in the last year and half. It’s tens of millions of additional demonstrator type funding that has come through because the board has been coherent in supporting the city to bid for new things.

 

SCW: Lots of smart city initiatives have taken place and are taking place in London. How do these scale and what is needed to facilitate this?

 

PDG: This is partly to do with standards and interoperability. In fact, some of the projects scaled because they are in the private sector side. Things like Citymapper or YoYo that came partly from Imperial College – this is the digital wallet idea on your mobile phone. Those scale naturally in the market when they’re new and useful.

 

I think there are certain areas in the infrastructure where we need standards and interoperability. We need government and industry to get together to make sure there are no impediments. I think we’re reasonably fit for purpose for scale once we realise what can work. Even when you get down grass roots, how, for example, do we describe the various assets at Borough level, and at the level of the GLA, so they can sit on the same database and mean the same things to people? All these sorts of things take time to churn through but it’s all do-able.

 

SCW: In a recent report by Osborne Clarke, Smart Cities In Europe, the biggest impediment to smart city development in Europe was identified as funding. What funding models and governance structures are needed for London?

 

PDG: If you ask anyone if they want more money they are going to say yes. The fact is, there is a heck of a lot of money if you craft the right business case and business model for these things. So when you’re building really big infrastructure projects and capital investment projects inside London like Crossrail or Thames Tideway Project almost by default there is a lot of digital that goes into those, a lot of data infrastructure. So it’s a question of having the suppliers and owners developing those projects in the right way to make the best use of those funds which are already being invested in in these cities, rather than thinking, oh we need a separate budget for smart cities standing alone from everything else.

 

I would suggest that the way we have done this so far – and it’s working quite well – that’s its part of our capital renewal programme and its integrated with. I don’t spend much time talking to people who are asking for big pots of money who are asking for something special, we’re already spending lots of money.

 

SCW: What do you think have been London’s greatest achievement to date in its continued drive towards smartness?

 

PDG: Our greatest achievements are firstly, the Data Store. Secondly, fostering the conditions where entrepreneurs can thrive and giving them the conditions where they can get their hands on that data so they can build their own apps. Government and organisations like the smart London Board can keep out of their way but just champion what’s going on.

 

I think just the multicultural density and dynamic of a city like London and its population and its ability to adopt new ideas and new technology is part of the success here. You know we have more people living and working in London with degrees per capita than any other major city in the world. Those sorts of people, well-educated people using apps working in the city, working in the universities, working in the health service, they are busy. They want to navigate through the city quickly and smoothly.

 

TfL has been excellent in creating platforms for people who want to do that as well. Despite the population growth, TfL is still moving even more people on the same assets every day, so we should be really celebrating what’s happened. It’s brilliant, it really is. We’ve got people from other cities coming to learn from London because all of these things have been done so well here. Of course, we can always improve. I’m not saying everything’s perfect but we have done pretty well.

 

SCW: You talk about the city not standing still, what areas of smart city life do you regard London as a leader and pioneer and how do you see these further developing in the next 5-10 years?

 

I think there’s a lot more to do to provide information about what it is like to love, work and play in London, to improve the health of London. I think nutrition, health and data about air pollution and about how we live and work is going to be something we’re ready for now. It’s about helping people in the right way, so we have a healthy vibrant city into the future. The IoT, data and mobile are the key things technologically and we’re ready to get on with these.

 

 

 

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