How our plans for Smart London compare to other world cities

Chief Digital Officer for London
11 min readFeb 6, 2018


Dr Stephen Lorimer, Smart London Strategy and Delivery Officer, Greater London Authority

Today, I’ve been asked by members of the London Assembly what makes our vision different and unique from other cities. It’s a good question to ask at the beginning of the process. We know we want collaboration in data to fuel innovation to solve London’s challenges. We know that our approach can’t be driven by procurement alone with London’s local government budget of £34.6bn in comparison to, for example, New York’s £62.8bn.

We know we want a ‘living’ document for the long-term that is updated at least annually but the approach must be politically aware of the 2018 borough and 2020 mayoral elections. The ambition is to take a long-term approach with savings and payback longer than election cycles from collaboration, but we know that gaining credibility means taking an intermediate, facilitative approach to bring projects together and earning champions in City Hall, TfL, and the boroughs.

Finally, we have a partnership with Bloomberg Associates because we want to build on the best of what other cities can teach us. For example, we ‘living’ document is an evolution of the ‘roadmap’ method developed for Mayor Bloomberg in New York in 2010–2013. I myself with Dr Anthony Townsend wrote an oft-cited study in 2015 on smart city strategies, but with so many changes in political control since then, it’s worth an update to think about examples old and new and start to ask what London can learn from not just other world, but small cities.

Smart London

Our focus is on:

  • City-wide collaboration
  • A new deal for data
  • Digital skills and capacity
  • World-class connectivity
  • Inclusive technology

We say in A Smarter London Together that a ‘Smarter London’ uses data and technology together for the good growth of our city. It mobilises the power of data as the fuel for innovation to design and develop safe, open and inclusive solutions for city challenges London faces over the next decade and beyond.

To stay ahead of the technology curve, rather than follow it, a Smarter London needs new and effective city-wide collaboration between public institutions, utilities, our world-class creative, scientific research and tech communities by and for Londoners.

Effective approaches for smart city plans — Digital Master Planning

In 2015, I wrote a paper on what we called Digital Master Planning with Dr Anthony Townsend (author of, amongst other things, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia). We compared plans from eight cities — New York, Chicago, London (The Smart London Plan from 2013), Barcelona, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dublin, and San Francisco. We wrote about

  • what the plans were about,
  • how they were written (including who wrote them), and
  • who is in charge of implementing the plans and resources made available.

There wasn’t a ‘typical’ plan to be found, but we found that there were common objectives:

  • how to make more effective investments in infrastructure,
  • how to make more efficient investments in government services, and
  • how to support economic development through innovation in data and digital technologies

We recommended four different approaches that cities should take to make most effective use of their available resources, leadership, and timescale facilitative, learning, systems and interventionist. The kind of vision that a city takes depends on choices they make on.

  • Facilitative: When a city needs results before the next election with scarce resources under leadership from a city’s economic development team. It is most effective in promoting digital skills available to the public sector by the tech sector and coordinating and reporting previous commitments in technology without making any long-term commitments.
  • Learning: When a city needs results before the next election with substantial resources that can manage public-private partnerships under leadership from a service delivery team. It is most effective in pilot projects that amplify and and/or coordinate previous public sector initiatives and tech talent by uncovering technologies available and/or already being implemented.
  • Systems: When a city needs results before the next election with moderate resources to invest in new public sector IT and IoT under leadership from a technology team. It is most effective in focusing the public sector on what it can build and deliver in the short-term.
  • Interventionist: When a city is looking for long-term results with substantial resources to leverage pilot projects into more advanced projects under leadership of a project management team. It is most effective when the public sector can wait for payback longer than an election cycle and to create ‘living’ documents that drop and add projects that are robust enough to test the goals of the plan.

The ‘best’ way for London is always evolving. These recommendations were made in 2015 under public sector funding and delivery models in place at the time. We should think carefully about the effect of the 2017 London Devolution Agreement covering skills, infrastructure, transport, health and social care. We will use the listening exercise to help us determine if, for example, the desire to have a ‘living document’ requires a choice by the Mayor to accept a long-term payback horizon, commit substantial resources, and host a project management team (e.g. a London Office of Technology and Innovation) to deliver, test, add/drop, deliver, and test again.

Questions cities across the world are asking themselves

The state of play in world cities in 2018

One thing that Anthony Townsend and I didn’t do was to take into account the impact of a city’s budget to think about how and why resources were allocated by the city and how much funding is needed from collaboration with other public sector providers, the third sector, and the private sector. The variation in budgets available and the services that each city’s mayor oversees varies widely. For example, the size and scale of the New York City budget dwarfs other cities, and even smaller European cities have budgets much larger than in the direct control of the Mayor of London. In comparison:

New York City — from roadmap maker to sensor regulator

We take inspiration from the experience that New York had from 2011 to 2013 creating their ‘roadmap’. It was made as a once-yearly updatable document and took a facilitative approach, identifying available talent in the tech sector and coordinating the city’s tech commitments into a single story. It was focussed on digital talent and Mayor Bloomberg kept a single vision: that all the city’s tech activities promote more jobs for talent (current and future) as an outcome. It made sure that all New York’s information was in one place — 311. Finally, it turned service providers commissioning this technology into champions for the roadmap and the mayor’s vision. We will write much more on how we are working with Bloomberg Associates to use their experience developing the roadmap to make a new Smart London Plan.

The current New York administration focuses on delivering OneNYC, city plan for New York. The plan’s name ‘Smart Equitable City’ moves the city’s approach from facilitative to systems by moving its focus from investment in digital talent to technology investment. The plan guides the city’s connected device and Internet of Things (IoT) implementation and coordinates deployments across all City agencies. The goal is to have smart and connected infrastructure systems interoperate with each other to improve the user experience of citizens of city services. A recent interview with the new CTO, Miguel Gamino, gave the example of a smart lighting system knowing from parking payments that the street is being used more and to up the lux. New York’s £62bn budget enables this approach with so much deployment under the city’s control and with an administration ambivalent to previous commitments made under Bloomberg.

Paris — open with corporate cooperation

Paris’s Smart and Sustainable Plan focuses on being open, connected, and sustainable. It takes a learning approach as it focuses on co-creating digital products with citizens but on partnerships that can optimise resources without making any major interventions. One of the ways that they deliver their strategy is through their Datacity programme. Datacity is a public-private partnership between city service providers with several corporate contractors that recruits tech companies to propose data and digital technology pilot projects to implement in Paris. Examples include using data to estimate pedestrian overcrowding and connecting residents with waste collectors to get a message to retrieve wheelie bins. With a relatively modest £8.5bn budget, Paris is somewhat dependent on collaboration with other public sector service providers (e.g. health, transport, and nearby borough councils in ‘Grand Paris’) to amplify changes.

Boston / Mexico City — R&D labs and spin-offs

Boston’s New Urban Mechanics programme and Mexico City’s Lab for the City are similar municipal innovation offices focused on research, development and piloting with ambitions for scaling. They take a learning approach in their ‘core’ programme, but are adapting to being interventionist as they develop ‘spin-off’/scale-up programmes. Instead of having a formally adopted plan, they have ‘living’ documents, such as Boston’s Smart City Playbook inviting tech talent emerging from Route 128 and its world-famous universities to approach them with innovations. They deliberately(?) give the impression that their work is done when they eat their own innovation business. When a pilot scales up, a permanent office is ‘spun off’ — such as Mexico City’s open data platform or Boston’s housing innovation lab. Their implementation models as they do more scale will be different as Boston is a small city with a £2.2bn budget surrounded by several borough councils and Mexico City is a huge local authority with a relatively high £8.1bn budget for a developing country.

Amsterdam — a deeper public-private partnership

Amsterdam has developed an interventionist approach through a public-private-research partnership to accelerate smart technologies in the city-region. Amsterdam Smart City is a company with a project management team from 11 public, private, and research sectors to test innovative ideas and solutions for urban issues. It has a ‘living’ list of requests for partnerships that is curated by the team. One of the partners is the technology team of Amsterdam City Council, with its CTO the chair of the board and another is the Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, a university collaboration funded to carry out R&D. For example, it was one of the first to use GPS data from a private navigation app to help manage traffic flow in real time — something that London now does with its data partnership with Waze. With a large £4.8bn budget for a medium-sized city, Amsterdam on its own can scale and replicate, this create new markets and profits for innovative solutions. It is already thinking about when it can’t scale solutions on its own and has an association with Rotterdam and The Hague to procure more data and digital technologies.

Barcelona — from corporate sensor collaborations to giving data to the people

Barcelona’s Digital City Plan commits the city to make digital channels the priority for delivering public services by 2020. It takes a service approach through its Open and Agile Digitalisation Programme by focusing on increasing the capabilities in the public sector to regain control of digital services. Before 2015, the focus on developing sensor networks in transport (e.g. parking sensors) and environment (e.g automated irrigation). Investment in more sensors is on hold after a change in political control while the city learns how to give citizens control of data and information generated by digital technologies. It does this by building public digital infrastructure — a City Data Commons (with London’s Nesta through their DECODE partnership)— based on free and open source software, open standards and open formats. It seeks collaboration with other public services (regional and nearby boroughs) in building this infrastructure with its relatively low £2.3bn budget.

Toronto — Sidewalk Labs as instrument for intervention

Toronto has a new partnership with Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to create a masterplan for its Waterfront district, but with city-wide implications for data and digital technologies. There have been recent links with the Toronto City Council and Board of Trade in sharing knowledge of smart city approaches and technologies, including a recent delegation at London & Partners in September 2017. From the release of Sidewalk Labs’ engagement plan, the city is not yet committed to one approach due to the evolving nature of the public-private partnership, with systems and interventionist approaches the most likely. Interventionist approaches will require significant outside resources as Toronto has a relatively modest budget, compared to American cities, of £6.0bn.

Singapore — classic piloting and enabling plan

Singapore’s Smart Nation (as it is, of course, a city-state) is one of the most effective enabling plans focused on pilots in service delivery. It is the best example of a learning approach with pilots focused on service rather than cross-cutting domains. In data, the Smart Nation Sensor Platform is designed to share data between sensors and service providers in housing, energy, and transport. Projects include Smart Housing, test tracks for autonomous vehicles, and healthcare robotics. With its national budget of £38.6bn, the resources made available are admittedly modest, but can accelerate rapidly with a single tier of government regulations (and effectively a one-party state) to adapt and change.

Looking beyond world cities

And there is a new generation of plans that are emerging from medium-sized cities across Europe and North America. These include Kansas City (for digital equity), Vienna (for project management), Montreal (for citizen engagement on sensors), West Hollywood (for its own adaptation of the New York roadmap method), Saratoga Springs (in another roadmap), Louisville (for citizen engagement in data), and Cincinnati (for performance management). As we develop the Smart London Plan, these (and the plans above) will help us along with the ideas that we get through our listening exercise. After all, being smart, and unique, is to build on and credit the work of many.

London’s approach

What does this mean for our approach? Our ambition in the long-term is to take an interventionist approach to create long-lasting savings in the GLA Group and boroughs as central government funding is expected to remain low. This means gathering together enough resources through (1) city-wide collaboration to scale-up projects that can test smart city goals (e.g. (2) A new deal for data (3) Digital skills and capacity (4) World-class connectivity and (5) Inclusive technology.).

This means that we want to start putting pilot projects into a ‘living’ document, but also put resources into studying how we leverage those pilot projects into substantial projects with city-wide collaboration. For example, we want to learn how Amsterdam, Toronto and Paris leverage private sector resources and how New York and Singapore leverage sensor data for the long-term; how Boston and Mexico City spin out projects from its research and development lab; and how Barcelona and Kansas City are building citizens’ trust in government data sharing. We have funding to start doing this through our EU-funded Revolving Investment in Cities (RICE) project. RICE monies will be used to further the development of new financial instruments which increase private sector investment in innovative technological products and initiatives aimed at smart cities issues in urban areas.

In the short term, must be politically aware of the 2018 borough and 2020 mayoral elections and gather together existing projects into a coherent whole. This means credibility means taking an intermediate, facilitative approach to focus on saving money in urgent issues the GLA Group and the boroughs are facing right now. Examples include the social care and temporary housing budgets that historically didn’t get enough attention from digital transformation and channels. This will earn us champions in City Hall, TfL, and the boroughs.

We are already started on this journey with a scoping study for a London Office for Technology and Innovation. It will gather resources to turn the transformative effect of data, digital and technology on the quality and efficiency of public services into tangible outcomes for senior political and managerial leadership in London’s frontline public services. After the borough elections in May 2018, around half of London’s boroughs are due to publish or update a digital strategy. We are writing a review of the current digital strategies in place to recommend approaches they can take based on their own leadership, resources, and time to the next election in 2022.

Learn more about Smart London and respond to A Smarter London Together.



Chief Digital Officer for London

@LDN_CDO & Data for London Board @MayorofLondon using data to support a fairer, safer and greener city for everyone​