Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that London is setting bold ambitions for the future. Last year, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said it was his intention to turn London into the world’s leading “smart city”, a city, put simply, that exploits recent developments in data collection and wider technology to make the lives of their inhabitants easier. And the more populous the city, the more significant the impact: London is home to 8.7 million people.
The Mayor’s goal has been crystallised in the Smart London Plan, which is in development under the leadership of Theo Blackwell, London’s first Chief Digital Officer, and the newly created Smart London Board. It follows similar approaches to those of New York’s Digital Roadmap and Oxford City Council’s Digital Action Plan.
The infrastructure of success
Needless to say the possibilities for London are hugely exciting, not only because of London’s existing position as a leading global city, but because the city’s tech sector is thriving. Forbes reported this year that London’s tech scene continues to attract investment, something that Rajesh Agrawal, Deputy Mayor of London for Business, says is proof that London is “the best place to start and grow a technology business.” In other words, London has both the infrastructure necessary to make the plan a success, and the size, reputation and population for its impact to be far-reaching.
But smart, critics say, is a word repeated so often it has ceased to have any real meaning. Just as the prefix “i” has evolved from describing only Internet-related items into something that covers all of tech and even science-fiction, smart can refer to homes, phones, even coffee machines. In the context of cities, “smart” implies inclusive and tech-driven development., meaning that potential improvements in infrastructure or services are approached from a digital perspective. It also suggests e-governance, offering more government and public services online, and in particular on phones, and increased mobility: improvements in public transport and the gradual integration of all public transport under the “mobility-as-a-service” heading. Already, there has been talk of London’s famous red buses using technology that measures pedestrian footfall to alter routes on the go, reducing congestion and the time it takes to bring a group of passengers from point A to point B. And it goes without saying that smart, in the context of cities, also implies sustainability. Efforts will be made to reduce waste and generate clean energy, to have fewer or no diesel- and petrol-fuelled vehicles on the roads, and to manage water resources in an effective way.
Can London solve its housing problem?
Perhaps most impactful, at least in the initial stages of London’s development into a leading smart city, will be the transformation of the city’s neighbourhoods. In a smart city, there must be room to live, and live well - something especially relevant to Londoners. This, of course, is easier said than done. It is one thing to use video surveillance and other forms of technology to reduce crime, but liveability, it is widely agreed, also means a greater number of green spaces and parks, leaving less room for housing. It is the issue of housing in London that has been an intractable problem for government over the years. But if city administrators can find a way to surmount this high hurdle, then Mr. Khan may get his wish.
But this transformation, or evolution, of the capital is not only in the hands of London’s politicians. In point of fact, the Mayor has called on the public to talk about the ways in which technology affects their lives, and how it might improve them in future. He has been speaking to the technology community on various related issues including how best to ensure productive digital collaboration, reliable connectivity and the constant development of digital skills so that no Londoner is, as it were, left behind.Despite the developments in tech over the past few years, we can still only make predictions, even if those come with increasing accuracy. We cannot know precisely what the future holds; in the realm of technology, there may be soon be changes of which we can barely conceive. But Mr. Khan’s goal for London is attainable, and his plan is a good one. It may take some time, but Londoners can surely look forward to living in a city that is cleaner, safer, more comfortable and smarter.