Urbanization is one of the major forces shaping the 21st century - right up there with the digital technology revolution and globalization. Over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and as the 2014 UN World Urbanization Prospect noted: “The continuing urbanization and overall growth of the world’s population is projected to add 2.5 billion people to the urban population by 2050,” with the proportion of the population living in urban areas increasing to 66 percent by 2050.
Just about every study that’s benchmarked the competitiveness of major urban areas ranks London, - along with New York, - as the world’s two top cities. But despite, - or perhaps because of, - their leadership positions, both cities face major challenges as they deal with economic growth and a growing population.
London has been much in the news lately. First came the election of Sadik Khan last May, - the first Muslim mayor not only of London but of a major Western capital, followed by the recent Brexit referendum, where London voted to Remain in the EU by an overwhelming 60% of its vote while the UK as a whole voted 52% to Leave.
At this point, it’s very hard to predict where Brexit is heading over the next few months, let alone what it’s long term consequences might be. But, given its many strengths I have little doubt that London will remain among the world’s very top cities. So, let me put Brexit aside for the moment and discuss instead what London has been doing to address its major population and economic challenges.
In December of 2013, the Board released its Smart London Plan. The report articulated some of the growth challenges that London faces, including:
- “Its population is set to grow by one million people over the next decade, and the city’s infrastructure is struggling to cope with the increasing demands placed on it.”
- “Congestion on London‘s roads cost the economy an estimated £2 billion, with Londoners spending 70 hours on average in traffic jams annually.”
- “An ageing population is changing the capital’s health, social care and educational needs.”
- “There is a pressing demand to create new jobs alongside skills so that Londoners can access the new opportunities that advances in technology bring.”
- “A (projected) population of almost ten million by 2030 will increase stress not only on healthcare and transport, but the management of energy and utilities - such as water, electricity and heat, and the need to deal with growing waste and pollution.”
“Without new approaches, including new business models and new ways of investing in new approaches, London will not be able to grow whilst maintaining and improving its lead as the greatest city on earth, and as a liveable city, offering a good quality of life.” The 2013 report outlined seven specific objectives to be further developed over the next few years.
In March of 2016 the Smart London Board released its follow-on report, - The Future of Smart: Harnessing digital innovation to make London the best city in the world. The report evaluated how much progress had been made on the Smart London Plan in the intervening two years. Here’s a brief summary of the progress made in each of the seven objectives:
- Increase the number of Londoners who use digital technologies. Smart London is experimenting with a number of digital tools, including the ability to engage online in policy development. “We’re also increasing Londoners’ digital skills… . The number of Londoners using digital technologies to engage with City Hall is increasing. We want it to grow even faster in the future.”
- Provide open access to London’s data. A number of initiatives have been started, especially Data for London, which is aimed at developing a dynamic, productive City Data Market. “We are building data products and platforms to show the tech sector what is possible and to test growth scenarios for London and its infrastructure.”
- Leverage London’s research, technology and creative talent. Smart London has supported a number of smart, connected business initiative through its Export and International Business Programs, Super Connected Cities scheme, connectivity toolkit, and connectivity rating scheme. “We want to improve our support for London’s SME tech community as the number of employees in the technology sector moves past 200,000.”
- Establish a Smart London Innovation Network. The Smart London District and Infrastructure Innovation Networks are identifying and bringing together London’s tech talent to work on London’s challenges… It aims to show how innovative uses of technology - for example, using the River Thames to heat homes, testing electric bikes and trialling state-of-the-art smart parking bays - can improve the lives of residents.”
- Enable London to grow its physical infrastructure. “We’re promoting new and smarter heating, electricity, waste and water networks that use resources efficiently and do more with less investment. The Infrastructure Mapping Application and our work in speeding up London’s transition to a circular economy are other ways we’re helping the city to grow and adapt.”
- Help the London Government to better serve the complex needs of its population. “The Smart London Borough Partnership is increasing data sharing between the boroughs. It identifies opportunities to roll solutions out at scale.”
- Offer a Smarter London experience to all through digital technologies. Smart London is working hard to improve the lives of Londoners through digital technology. “We are demonstrating this through projects in sustainability and transport in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as part of the Smart London District Innovation Networks. London’s connectivity is improving, but we still need faster networks to capitalise on the digital talents of Londoners and businesses.”
In addition, the Smart London Board identified specific recommendations for Mayor Khan in three key areas: engaging citizens; enabling growth; and working with business:
- Wide, inclusive digital engagement with Londoners and businesses. “Citizen engagement in the development of digital services should be part of the democratic process. Londoners and businesses should become digitally included and both the public and private sector need to scale-up proven efforts to overcome digital exclusion.”
- Enabling good growth. This includes “harnessing data and digital technology to meet the growth challenges facing London’ s infrastructure, environment, and transport systems.” In addition, the report recommends that “The Mayor should create an innovation investment programme that supports scalable smart environmental solutions and services as market opportunities for the technology and data sector.”
- Working with business. “The Mayor should convene all parties and pilot innovative solutions to resolve real world challenges that affect London and Londoners. It should pave the way for solutions to scale-up from pilots to wide distribution by connecting with and supporting London’s expanding community of tech entrepreneurs… The Mayor should campaign to improve basic broadband networks and support alternative connectivity providers to prevent small companies from paying for expensive bespoke digital solutions.”
Professor Gann summarized the challenges ahead in the report’s Executive Summary:
“We have succeeded in keeping London at the forefront in a data-driven world. We have funded and launched a range of new projects. We have also developed a wide community of participants. However, there is more to be done.”
“The twin challenges of economic growth and a growing population are putting a strain on London’s housing, healthcare and transport infrastructure. The environment remains a challenge, particularly air quality. Technology is changing apace… In these tough conditions, standing still is not an option.”
“We must invest more in London’s data infrastructure. Doing so will help the city be brilliantly placed to make the most of the Internet of Things. It must be better connected too. That means making super-fast broadband available to everyone in London and investing in digital skills.”