Unlocking the promise of digital

Digital infrastructure has long been considered an engine for economic growth and a beacon for private sector investment. The launch of the Mayor of London’s ‘Smart London Plan’ highlights the degree to which local authorities are now turning to data and technology to provide better public services and more broadly improve the lives of citizens. Unlocking the promise of digital in this way requires new, unfamiliar levels of collaboration at scale, between public and private bodies and underpinned by shared values.

Once considered peripheral, how we embed the right digital infrastructure to shape urban spaces is a growing priority for planners, local authorities and investors alike. And if we combine our shared values with a real commitment to practical execution, we can create communities that enjoy:

1. Greater economic participation

Even in wealthy countries, many regions suffer from unreliable or slow internet service – with poorer areas often the last to receive network upgrades. Without common levels of connectivity, equal opportunities for all to participate in the digital economy cannot be realised.

To solve this problem, smaller regions or districts are joining forces across boundaries, aggregating their demand so it’s more attractive for telecommunications suppliers to respond, and for digital skills development programmes to engage. This in turn increases the opportunities for local communities and businesses to participate in the digital economy.

Initiatives like the Creative Digital City in Guadalajara, Mexico, have done this. Demonstrating how district-level regeneration can thoughtfully blend physical and digital elements for the benefit of the whole community.

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2. Improved public services

Consumer apps already offer commercial services, but public services have often been slower to adopt new technology. What often inhibits innovation is a lack of a digital plan that links available data sources and infrastructure to opportunities to generate valuable services that can be scaled.

Some authorities are making headway in this area. On the edge of London, the One Epping Forest partnership has brought together members of adjacent boroughs to coordinate digital innovation initiatives that will provide better services and attract investment through technology.

3. Fair and sustainable governance

New technology also requires a new approach to governance, specifically the rules around data use and management, to allow authorities to fully apply the emerging power of digital tools reliant on big data and artificial intelligence.

Defining effective governance must itself be a collaborative and inclusive process. In London, the Mayor has run a city-wide consultation with the public, regional leaders, businesses and tech firms, to understand what will make the capital a digital leader. Progress is reported openly, and policies can be debated by anyone. This approach shows that with the right rules and shared values in place, everybody involved gains the confidence to innovate.

Finally, governance is also about practicalities. Investments in technology must be on the basis of interoperability and common data standards, to ensure solutions create agility and don’t result in “lock-in” to one way of doing things.

4. Enhanced social connectivity

Digital technology’s ability to instantly connect people, issues, knowledge and places also makes it a powerful tool for solving social issues and strengthening community ties. Social start-ups like BorroClub in Birmingham, an app that allows people to share tools with each other, show how communities are benefitting from simple yet effective apps – saving money and meeting neighbours. By having a clear digital plan in place, local regions or authorities can encourage these ideas to operate and scale, contributing to local community objectives.

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Digital for all

We know that digital masterplans created with sustainable, values-led objectives help to create more prosperous and equitable societies. This period of unprecedented collaboration is a positive step towards ensuring every community benefits from the promise of digital technology for years to come.

 

This article is written by Rick Robinson, Digital Property and Cities Leader in Arup. Originally appeared in Arup.

 

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