New London Architecture

What does Smart London’s programmes mean for the built environment?

Tuesday 25 January 2022

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Camilla Siggaard Andersen

Urban Research Lead
Hassell

London is already a well-established global hub for technology innovation and smart city solutions. While the public sector is driving initiatives to increase the volume of open data, develop online tools for citizen engagement, and prompt business-led innovation, the private sector is producing some of the fastest-growing tech companies in the world and continuously attracting record-high investments.

To further this development, the GLA’s Chief Digital Officer has created a set of key priorities for the 2021-2024 mayoral term. For the second meeting of the NLA’s Built Environment Technology expert panel, we interrogated exactly how this programme aligns (or doesn’t align) with the needs and ambitions of our industry.

Before we go into the details of this review, there’s an important point to be made about the panel’s area of expertise, which came out of our very first discussion; namely, that technology can only be an answer where there is a clear question to respond to. In other words, technology is a means to an end, never an end in itself. With this in mind, the panel is broadly interested on how to use built environment technology to unlock a more democratic, pleasant, and sustainable city – and this approach is reflected in our response to the GLA’s Smart London priorities.

1. Many pieces do not always make a whole

To enable London’s “smart” future, the GLA has outlined an impressive list of initiatives, ranging from an update of the London Datastore to the launch of open innovation challenges to the promise of an Emerging Technology Charter.

Yet even with the Smarter London Together Roadmap, it is still largely unclear how these pieces are going to come together, and to what end. As one panellist put it, “the initiatives read like a list of solutions looking for a problem”.

From a built environment perspective, there’s no shortage of problems to address; areas at risk of flooding, housing shortages, struggling high streets, toxic levels of air pollution; the list goes on. How do these very real challenges connect with each of the Mayor’s initiatives, and what’s the ultimate (citizen-centred) aim of our city’s “smartification”?

In our next panel discussion, we will aim to establish some of these link, providing guidance on how the Smart London programme could bring built environment objectives into sharper focus. 

2. Data and insight are not two sides to the same coin

The London Datastore is a repository of more than 700 data sets, making it one of the largest publicly available city data platforms in the world. As a single source of diverse information, the Datastore is uniquely positioned to unveil synergies across the city’s operating layers, theoretically providing citizens, planners, and policymakers with the evidence they need to make sound decisions.

In reality, the impact of any platform is always going to be limited by the quality of its contents, functionality, and user friendliness. “The world is awash with data, but useful information is hard to come by,” said a panel member with long-term experience working in the public sector. What are the data sets that we need to make better decisions for the future of our city, and how might we present this information as true insights that are easily accessible to everyone, from expert to citizen? 

In conversation with our colleagues in the NLA network, we’ll be discussing the potential for the London Datastore to become an Insightstore for city-shaping projects.

3. Greater connectivity cannot make up for missing links.

At its core, digital technology is a communication tool enabling information flows between people, products, and places. The GLA’s list of priorities are all built on the assumption that greater connectivity unlocks collaboration and innovation, which in turn will benefit the city and its citizens. To a certain extent that may well be the case, but it’s not a solution that goes all the way.

Issues ranging from a high degree of loneliness reported amongst urban dwellers to the massive amounts of carbon still being emitted by the built environment industry all point to a missing link between technological innovation and actual patterns of information-sharing and communication. 

“While we’re globally connected, technology is not creating a sense of local community,” one panellist rightly pointed out, while another remarked “we don’t know enough about how to scale green tech in the built environment.”

In working with the NLA’s other expert panels, we’ll be aiming to shed a light on some of these key missing links standing in the way of our industry using smart technologies to achieve the city’s wider socio-economic and environmental needs.

Unlocking the potential of London

Between our first and second meeting, the panel has identified a set of objectives for the development and use of built environment technology, and a series of opportunities and gaps in relation to the GLA’s current programmes and priorities.

In our coming meetings, we’ll be focusing on aligning our own ideas with the thoughts of other expert panels, and on drawing up clear recommendations to inform the NLA’s work on a New London Agenda.


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Camilla Siggaard Andersen

Urban Research Lead
Hassell


Built Environment Technology

#NLABuiltEnvironmentTech


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