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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

London and Helsinki CDOs sign digital declaration on smart cities and data ethics

London’s chief digital officer Theo Blackwell and his Helsinki counterpart Mikko Rusama have today signed a ‘city to city digital declaration’, which will see both cities work together to share ideas on artificial intelligence, open data and other smart city initiatives.

According to the declaration, the parties will: “share best practices and expertise in the field of digitalisation, data and artificial intelligence use; share experiences on code and collaborating on joint-platforms; enable city staff to exchange experience on identified work streams to grow in-house talent; and explore possibilities to design digital innovation solutions to common challenges across the two cities”.

Blackwell told NS Tech that the two cities had discussed two months ago how they could work together more closely.

“The first question people ask about London on the political cycle is to do with Brexit, and we think it is important to accelerate our relationships with European cities who we have a lot of commonalities with. It’s the best time for us to strengthen those bonds and our relationship with Helsinki can be an example for the future of how we deepen our relationships with other European cities,” he said.

One of the key areas that the two cities will work on is on the ethical use of data.

“We’re planning to work on clarifying the ethical principles of utilising data and AI which is crucial in order to gain trust from residents, and we’re organising an event in Helsinki where we will invite Theo and people from other cities to discuss this,” Rusama explained.

“We don’t want to be discussing this alone as it is the same for all of us – we’re under the same GDPR requirements, and so as the AI offer gets more complex, so do the ethical challenges. It makes sense that cities take the lead, when governments aren’t necessarily in the picture as we will be the creators and users of many of these products on the front line,” Blackwell added.

While the declaration does not force either city into making any particular investments, Blackwell said that partnerships like this would become more common as part of a shift in city government.

“What we’re doing is building in-house expertise in both cities where previously cities might have relied on solutions from outside or third parties; we’re moving away from big tech solutions towards more investment in internal capabilities of the city though public servants and digital teams in order to create better city products at lower cost – and in order to do that, we need cities to come together to benefit from the power of a network,” Blackwell explained.

London’s CDO said that this network would be built with relationships with the likes of Amsterdam, Barcelona, Milan and many others, and that some collaboration ideas had already begun at an event in Athens last week.

“We are thinking about things like sharing code, creating common standards so that we can work together and share expertise, which in a commercial setting would come at quite a cost – so in a sense this is about mobilising our individual strengths in order to design better products,” Blackwell said.

London has had an agreement with Chicago in the past, while Helsinki has a partnership with New York for its Cyber Security Challenge. However, Blackwell said that this declaration is different as it is not a traditional memorandum of understanding (MoU).

“We wanted something a lot more proactive so we made it a declaration and it aligns with our work with other UK cities under the local digital declaration programme that is supported by government.

“This means all of the CDOs of UK cities are coming together and working in the way I’ve just described; building in-house capabilities and then coming together to create building blocks of future services,” Blackwell explained.