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Camden’s Theo Blackwell: ‘No London borough really has a handle on tech’

Earlier this year, Sadiq Khan vowed to transform London into the world’s leading smart city. It’s an admirable ambition, but despite the rise of smart city incubators across the capital, it’s currently a rather distant one.

“We have 32 boroughs going through a significant period of digital transition,” says Camden council’s Theo Blackwell. “But no one really has a handle on what tech supports their operations now and in the future.”

It’s an issue that Blackwell, cabinet member for finance, technology and growth at Camden, hopes to address with the creation a new body: the London Office for Technology and Innovation, or LOTI for short.

“We’re doing a scoping exercise for a virtual institution which would fix the collaboration deficit that we see in London’s digital public services,” he says.

But it’s not just a case of boroughs not talking to one another.

“There’s a concern that we’re not open enough to solutions from the tech sector, that we’re over-dependent on big IT and that we’re not expressing our needs in the way that the tech sector can respond to,” he adds.

Blackwell and his fellow founding members of LOTI have now appointed a consortium of firms, including Futuregov, Arup and Stance, to assist with the scoping exercise.

One of the ambitions for LOTI will be to encourage joint procurement of technology between boroughs.

“At the moment, we’re a very fragmented set of buyers. Joint procurement is the exception rather than the rule,” says Blackwell. “So can we make the market together? Can we set up open competitions where we say – here’s a problem we’re all facing in terms of social care. Please come and help us solve it.”

Whatever form LOTI takes once the three month scoping exercise has finished, it will connect London’s new chief digital officer with the capital’s boroughs.

“How do you link the mayor exercising his proper strategic function with what boroughs do in terms of delivery?” asks Blackwell. “We think we need an institution that will help us collectively engage with innovation.”

It comes at a challenging time for London boroughs.

“We think there’s a wider government role in London which basically asks, ‘how open are we to technology at a really crucial period when we’ve got some very signifcant spending restraints and rising population challenges and citizen expectation?’ That’s the original proposition.”

Given that 80 per cent of services are delivered at a local level, a successful LOTI could go a long way to helping Khan achieve his aim. London could yet dethrone New York as the world’s leading smart city.