London’s new ‘public digital infrastructure’ prepares city for future innovation and AI
London’s new public digital infrastructure is a term we’re adopting at City Hall to describe core smart city work by the Mayor of London and partners to prepare for future innovation at a scale that can truly benefit Londoners. As Chief Digital Officer for London at City Hall — London’s city-regional authority governing over 9 million people - our approach builds strategic capability through better digital connectivity, collaboration and joined-up city data to address the challenges faced by the city, such as achieving Net Zero, as well as prepare for advances in AI and other emerging technologies.
Better digital connectivity
The first element of London’s digital infrastructure is the establishment of a new connectivity infrastructure to support growth. To modernise London’s copper communications legacy, big efforts are being made to attract private investment to provide full-fibre and gigabit-capable digital connectivity to homes and businesses across the city.
The Connected London team has been instrumental in facilitating legal agreements between London boroughs and network operators, resulting in increased investment in full fibre network expansion to power gigabit broadband to homes and businesses and enable 5G mobile. Currently, 24 boroughs with the highest concentrations of social housing have signed such agreements, with the remaining boroughs expected to follow suit by 2025. London’s gigabit-capable infrastructure now stands at an England-topping 89% (with full fibre connectivity covering 59% of the city). This up from only 4% gigabit-capable/fibre in 2017. Planning policies have also been reinforced to ensure that all new buildings from now on are mandated to have full-fibre connections.
Transport for London (TfL) has partnered with Boldyn Networks to lay a new full fibre spine using TfL’s tunnels and street assets, enabling 4G and connectivity 5G for Tube passengers and extending fibre access to neighbourhoods the market previously considered too expensive to dig towards. This network also supports the future deployment of sensors, CCTV and other applications (as decided by local councils). This facilitates the implementation of innovative IoT solutions - like we’ve seen with the award-wining InnOvate programme across south London — to address local challenges identified by citizens and those who serve them such as: poor air quality, local flooding, fly-tipping and noise pollution.
New digital institutions for collaboration
Another crucial aspect of London’s digital infrastructure is the establishment of new digital institutions that foster collaboration. The London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI), which was formed in 2019, serves as a platform for collaboration among 27 out of 32 London boroughs. LOTI focuses on solving complex delivery problems through design-thinking, data analysis and technology and to date has delivered over 50 valuable resources and programmes.
Because LOTI works in a different way (see below), we can do more together. An important LOTI programme is Get Online London, the new pan-London digital inclusion service funded by the Mayor and developed in partnership with the Good Things Foundation. This service provides excluded Londoners with ‘no wrong door’ access to digital skills training, connectivity, and devices necessary to use the internet. Already nearly 2000 devices have been refurbished and distributed to those in need, along with thousands of Londoners enrolling in basic skills training.
City Hall has launched open calls to the tech sector, addressing specific challenges faced by the city and providing funding and support to innovators to develop impactful solutions. These collaborative efforts have already resulted in success stories such as urban planning innovator 3D Repo and electric vehicle charging firm Connected Kerb, both of which have attracted additional private investment as a result of prototyping services with local authorities and other partners. Open innovation, with the Design Council, also played an important role in our Recovery work during and just after the pandemic.
SHIFT, based in the Olympic Park, was established in 2022 through collaboration between the public, private, non-profit sectors, and leading universities. It leverages the Park’s physical and digital assets to create a living testbed environment, serving a population of 1.2 million. SHIFT addresses climate emergency, health, well-being, and advanced mobility challenges in cities. It supports innovative companies in testing and scaling technologies on the testbed, impacting innovation on the demand- and supply- sides and involves east Londoners in innovation challenges. The integration of fibre and 5G in the Park will enable enhanced Internet of Things (IoT, or sensor networks) innovation and links to a new curated data marketplace which will facilitate cross-sector collaboration and investment.
Finally, we’ve also sought to improve, expand and diversify online engagement with Londoners through Talk London, an evolving online platform that allows Londoners to discuss issues, propose ideas and participate in the improvement of their neighbourhoods and shape Mayoral policies. Citizen voice heard through Talk London was fundamental, for example, in grounding and improving London’s Recovery Programme as the city emerged from the pandemic.
Joining-up city data
London’s new public digital infrastructure is also characterised by a new approach to linking city data which combines the power of open data with negotiated access and discovery of ‘non-open’ datasets. Recognising data as critical infrastructure, the city is committed to using it for policy-making, developing new digital services and ensuring transparency. Emerging technologies like AI also benefit because access to good quality data is the essential ingredient.
In addition to publishing open datasets, the current London Datastore already supports various leading data services, including real-time open planning data, high streets vitality data based on collectively-purchased footfall and transaction data, the Infrastructure Mapping App brings together open and ‘non-open’ commercial data from 45 utilities and agencies so roads are dug up only once to install water, electricity and gas pipes, reducing congestion and costs.
The Datastore exists in an ecosystem of other data platforms, meaning collaboration on data can bring even greater value. TfL’s 80 open data feeds to improve wayfinding and the NHS One London Patient Care Record to brings together health records across the city for NHS improvement and research. And the Breathe London network (in partnership with Imperial) consists of over 400 sensors and a community empowerment programme and has significantly improved public awareness and action on poor air quality.
To further enhance data utilisation, City Hall is developing a new city data platform called Data for London to replace the London Datastore (est.2010). Like the Datastore this will act as a central registry of important city data held by partners (rather than a centralised ‘data lake’ seen in other smart cities). This will allow easier access to, and discovery of, datasets across the city, enabling the development of more helpful insights, products and services to Londoners.
Although the federated model adopted by the platform goes with the grain of London (and UK) local government, we require stronger data leadership from ourselves and all our partners to establish better standards and ways of working on data quality, ethics and public participation. To make a start, the Data for London Board and LOTI is supporting this effort by facilitating legal, ethical and secure data sharing among boroughs through its Data Ethics Service.
Following London’s first Data Week, a Data Users Community is being established for the first time. So as we develop the new data platform (which effectively is a digital service to link datasets: like a library book index) we meet the needs of data users from the public, private, research or from civil society.
Emerging technologies & AI
London’s new public digital infrastructure will act as a platform for emerging technologies. The city has already positioned itself as a global leader in the research, development, and innovation of 5G, future networks, IoT, and AI. These advancements in digital infrastructure have resulted in faster internet speeds, real-time data availability and improved processing capabilities.
As the deployment of emerging technologies accelerates, use-cases are proven and costs lower: London has learned valuable lessons from the past. The emphasis is now on collaboration, user-centred design, and ethical considerations rather than simply seeking show-stopper technological solutions which often don’t scale or meet user needs. London’s commitment to putting people at the heart of its technological endeavours is evident through initiatives like our support and design of the UK Local Digital Declaration and London’s Emerging Technology Charter, which prioritise user needs, ethical practices and public engagement.
It’s about fixing-the-plumbing for AI and future innovation
The progress made so far — and there is still much to deliver on — presents an enormous opportunity for decision-makers to work together toward identifying delivery challenges, adopting common standards and approaches in technology design, trialling and ethics: ultimately creating a pipeline for market-making and the deployment of new technologies across boroughs and others.
London’s strategic approach to building a robust public digital infrastructure is about ‘fixing-the-plumbing’ and sets the stage for further innovation and progress. While much of this may be under the radar the city’s focus on connectivity, collaboration and responsible data use has already yielded positive results, benefiting Londoners in many ways. But by defining urban problems and starting to understand user needs better (and more methodically), embracing innovation and leveraging data and technology London we are convinced we can build a fairer, greener and more equitable city for all our residents.