My sabbatical at the University of Toronto

In a few weeks time I shall be going on sabbatical from the Greater London Authority for three months, to be a Visiting Scholar at the University of Toronto. I shall be based at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG) and working also with colleagues at the Innovation Policy Lab. What will I be doing? I shall be looking at how cities are working with universities and other partners to respond to the challenges and opportunities of digital innovation and the use of Open Data. I shall be drawing on my own experience as Director of Economic Development for the Mayor of London, UK, together with research on Toronto, Chicago and New York.

World-wide, city governments are playing a larger role both in supporting economic development and in responding to citizen demands. Rapid developments in digital innovation and in the availability of large-scale data sets (‘Big Data’) create opportunities both for new economic activities and jobs, and also new and cheaper ways of delivering city services. It also holds out the possibility for new ways of government to engage with citizens, although at the same time raising concerns about data privacy.

From this, a number of policy issues arise, including:

  •  How can the use and release of city and other government data act as a driver for innovation, economic growth, and ultimately jobs and economic opportunity in the city?
  • How can data be used to improve transparency and accountability of Government to citizens, and promote civic engagement? For example, the Mayor of London’s Smart London Plan has a key goal of putting Londoners at the core of the smart city agenda. In addition, how can citizen concerns over data privacy be addressed?
  • How can city governments move towards more digitally-enabled services, using digital technology both to improve services and to drive down the cost of delivering services? This latter point is particularly important in an era of constrained public spending and ever-rising consumer expectations. Related to this, what innovations in the structure of city government might be needed to progress this agenda?

In practice, city officials and city politicians are often faced with a plethora of platforms, products and solutions from which they need to determine which initiatives and innovations are relevant to maintaining and enhancing a globally competitive business environment, and/or to improving the management and delivery of city services and potentially make a real difference to how citizens experience the city.  A key part of this has been the emergence of ‘Big Data’ as an urban driver, by which term I understand to mean not only (i) the availability of large scale data sets, but also (ii) the tools to interpret and use data in new and more accessible ways (eg city visualisation); (iii) the development of urban eco-systems of designers, developers, users and marketers which provide rapid real-time feedback; and (iv) the potentialities (often ill-defined but nevertheless real) opened up by the near-ubiquity and inter-connectivity of digitised information in homes, workplaces, energy and transit systems, universities, etc (the ‘Internet of Things’).

This project would look at how the city of Toronto is responding to this new agenda by way of a comparison and contrast with London and New York City. In London, the Mayor has set up the Smart London Board, which brings together world-leading academics, businesses and users to advise on how to take forward this agenda. Additionally, we have developed and are further investing in the “Datastore” at the Greater London Authority which has led the way for the UK public sector in releasing large data-sets and encouraging and supporting the developer community to develop tools for the exploitation of this resource.  In New York City, there are major initiatives such as the Centre for Urban Science and Progress in Brooklyn, as well as the wider Applied Sciences NYU project.

This research also relates to a wider story about innovation and cities. To what extent do these current developments in digital technologies represent a genuine innovation in economic development, how will they relate to the existing economic base in different cities, and what impact will they have on economic growth and job generation both in cities and in nations?

It will be a great opportunity to research and reflect on these issues in the context of another major world city which has many similarities to (as well as differences from) London.


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