Digital leader - London CDO Theo Blackwell on diversity, Brexit and smart city priorities

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett June 26, 2018
London’s first Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell, is already making a mark on the capital and has some interesting views on the role of tech.

London CDO Theo Blackwell Chief digital officer
London CDO, Theo Blackwell

Often when I pose the question to my latest interviewee – what’s been your biggest achievement so far, they’re unable to pinpoint anything specific or simply summarise all the big projects they’re currently involved in. London’s first chief digital officer (CDO) didn’t hesitate when I asked him to name his, and it wasn’t one that I’d have expected.

My interview with Theo Blackwell coincided with the launch of the Smarter London Together roadmap and his appearance at the recent CogX Artificial Intelligence Conference. Alongside his tech credentials – former cabinet member for Finance, Technology & Growth at Camden council, advisor at GovTech accelerator Public Group, head of Policy & Public Affairs for video games industry trade body Ukie - I would have put money on him choosing some kind of smart technology project. Instead, Blackwell said:

The best project I’ve been involved in is sitting with young school kids from inner city schools doing Wikipedia pages to write successful women back into history that predominantly male Wiki editors never put in in the first place.

The project, which was hosted at Bloomberg’s office, saw young girls from four London secondary schools identify, research and write Wikipedia entries for 50 great women who previously had no or very limited profiles.

Many organisations are very vocal about the need for diversity and inclusivity, but are less forthcoming when it comes to taking action within their own walls. So it’s great that London’s first CDO chose to highlight a project focusing on promoting historical women as his best moment so far. This is an attitude Blackwell shares with the boss, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is keen to see more businesses signing up to the Tech Talent Charter and report on their diversity efforts; and is using his own budget to train computing teachers and find more engaging ways to retain girls’ interest. Indeed, the Mayor’s Office is leading by example on diversity. Blackwell added:

And by the way, we don’t sit on all-male panels. I was actually invited in my first week to an all-male conference where every single speaker was a man. The Mayor’s advisory panels, including the Smart London Board, are all 50-50.

Politicians have a real role to play in this. It’s just absurd that you can be running London government without actually factoring these things in.

The driving factor for this focus on diversity is two-pronged. Firstly, it’s a question of fairness. As Blackwell notes, technology is an immensely wealth-creating industry, and with 80 percent of jobs in the sector taken by men, women are not getting equal access to these high-paying careers. And then there’s the issue of creating products and services that meet the needs of a diverse city like London.

At the extremes, people have talked about services with bias. It’s really a question of, are we seizing the opportunities to increase and open up markets by understanding the needs of our customers and citizens. Bringing more voices to the table is common sense.

Post-Brexit access to talent

With the shadow of Brexit hanging over London – a city where 60 percent of residents voted to remain in the EU – the Mayor’s steps to tackle the gender imbalance in technology become more prescient. London has certainly matured as a technology hub – Blackwell highlighted clusters around AI, medical science and creative industries – but the city will certainly face challenges around access to talent post-Brexit.

If we are the place to create products that are world class and can be exported across the world, and people want to invest in companies with that vision, those companies and those investors also need to have access to world class talent. We can give lots of financial incentives but they’re to create teams, and teams have to be created from the very best. That means open access to talent. This is fundamentally important for the technology sector.

While the Mayor is providing investment in digital skills and has taken on responsibility for London’s colleges to ensure a pipeline for home-grown talent, Blackwell acknowledged that there is already a shortfall of experienced tech experts, which is why the immigration and visa issue has to go hand in hand with any investment in Londoners’ skills. He noted:

The momentum created by so many tech clusters in London surrounded by access to finance puts us in a great position, but we need to sort the talent issue.

Demographic challenges

Another challenge for Blackwell and the Mayor’s Office is supporting a rapidly growing population - London is forecast to increase from the current nine million residents to eleven million by 2040.

Technology plays a core part in providing more appropriate services. Blackwell cited a current Transport for London (TfL) trial, which involves collecting more data on how people use buses via anonymised mobile phone tracking – bus users can be tracked via their Oyster pass or contactless payment as they get on the bus, and by their smartphone as they hop off. TfL will be able to use the results to increase the frequency of buses in certain areas or amend timetables to better serve people as they actually use the service.

More data collection will also lead to improvements around planning, making it easier for London boroughs to check whether building companies have actually built the number of affordable homes they committed to, for example, an area Blackwell said is proving quite challenging at present.

Public sector collaboration

Blackwell views collaboration between the public sector – the 32 London boroughs, 50-plus NHS trusts and big organisations like TfL – and the tech industry as the cornerstone of success for these projects. His efforts here are already paying off. Since Blackwell started the job last August, the Mayor’s Office has won an additional £16m in government funding from two bids: one to extend fibre connectivity; the other to integrate data between councils and the NHS for social care.

They have come about through unprecedented collaboration between the boroughs, which didn’t necessarily exist before. The fact that we’ve been able to get people to work together has brought in quite a lot of money to London to improve services.

AI is the next area set to benefit from this kind of working together. It’s not practical, of course, to expect City Hall to create its own algorithms for use across London; but it can create rules and transparency for how these systems are used for the capital’s services.

People could feel disempowered and that they don’t have any agency because something secret is offering them something that they have no control over. The Smart London board, which advises me and the Mayor, will look into trust and public understanding of what their data is used for, and suggested codes and principles for drawing up algorithms drawing on all our major London institutions.

We’re mobilising people who are thinking about these things independently. Other cities are creating the space for people to talk about these issues so it’s not just talked about by people who are designing the products or by those people whose main concern is privacy. There’s a really big space between privacy sensitive and techno utopians, where we can talk about the trade-offs between the applications, data and digital services that are being created for the benefit of citizens in our city.