London is widely-recognised as the global ‘information capital’ and the 32 boroughs which make up our great city have embraced digital and public service innovation.
From the computer-aided design that shapes the layout of London’s town centres, to the data analysis that allows targeted interventions in support of those in long-term unemployment; from borough-provided wireless internet, to the council-run websites that help people access planning applications or get their benefits, boroughs have been among the pioneers of many services we now take for granted.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of the 32 London boroughs. The boroughs were born in the febrile environment of the Space Age, increasing consumerism and rising living standards. But, it was also a time when Britain’s economy was faltering and many were struggling to adapt to a new world order.
In 1963, Harold Wilson delivered his seminal ‘White Heat of Technology’ speech. In it, he promoted a vision of a new Britain forged by technological and scientific revolution, predicting many of the innovations that have changed irrevocably the landscape of our lives.
He also voiced many of the fears of the time; that the advances in technology would lead to mass unemployment and that inevitably man would not control machine, but that ‘machines are going to assert their control over man.’
Wilson talked in a mixed tone of awe and apprehension about the technological leaps that had already been achieved and were to come. Yet, no-one back then would recognise the world we live in now.
Now we can access information from the mini-computers in our phones or tablets, but in those days computers were large-scale affairs. ‘Mainframes’ filled entire rooms, required specialist training to operate and could only carry out specific types of calculation.
Technologies like the teleprinter, which connected a mechanical keyboard and printer to a modem, were in use in the 1960s, but these could only communicate with machines of a similar nature. So, by and large, if you wanted to speak to the council you would need to visit them in person or write them a letter; and if the council wanted to speak to its residents, it would have to send a press release in the post to the local paper.
Of course, people still ring up their council today or pay a visit to their town hall. In Brent, anyone walking through the doors of the civic centre will be greeted by a hologram. ‘Shanice’ directs people where to go to register a birth or death, get married or apply for a marriage licence, and she can provide instructions in a variety of languages.
However, the growth of email and the World Wide Web has seen many interactions shift online. In December 1995, Wandsworth LBC became the first local authority to make all new planning applications available on the web. Today, this is standard practice, but at the time it was revolutionary. Previously, if you wanted details of proposed developments, you had to head to your local council offices or library and request to see a paper copy.
In fact, a vast array of council services is now available from your mobile phone or home computer. For example, ‘mylambeth’ is an online portal which provides residents of the borough with 24/7 access to their benefits and landlord accounts, details of their library use and allows them to arrange garden waste collections. Similar portals are available in other London boroughs and councils in the UK.
Fifty years ago you bought a newspaper or switched on the ‘wireless’ to get news. Nowadays we access and receive information from a plethora of sources at all times of the day and night.
In this information-rich age, councils have had to become increasingly sophisticated in communicating their work and priorities. From badges and branding to Twitter campaigns and live-streamed council sessions, over time the focus has shifted towards using technology and innovation to identify, target and reach an increasingly diverse range of audiences.
Councils are also taking the lead when it comes to inspiring future generations. In my own borough of Hackney, we ran an initiative last month to raise awareness of the importance of coding in the school curriculum. As part of #HackneyGetsCoding (see below), we ran a competition calling on younger residents to design their own computer games and enlisted local tech businesses to help teach after-school Code Club sessions. The response has been hugely encouraging, and I hope will lead to more youngsters considering future careers in the tech sector.
So it seems, far from the fears articulated by Wilson, that man would become disempowered and redundant in the face of increasingly advanced computers, technology has brought about huge and liberating change.
It has allowed councils to provide services that are better integrated through networks and better targeted through data. The decisions and plans of local leaders have gone from discussions people could only read about in committee papers, to conversations that are shared with the community.
Most importantly, it has allowed London boroughs to place more power in the hands of their communities, to make the impersonal, personal.
Jules Pipe is chair of London Councils
The MJ Case Studies
Hackney LBC is taking a leading role in inspiring future generations to consider careers in the booming tech industry.
February was dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of coding in the primary school curriculum in Hackney, home of the original dot.com boom in Shoreditch and now Tech City, the UK’s largest technology cluster.
The council, working with global tech giant Samsung, encouraged people to share their coding experiences via twitter using the hashtag #GetHackneyCoding, achieving an estimated social reach of 6.2 million users. In addition, a series of free training sessions was launched for 80 primary school teachers and a competition was run asking youngsters to think up new computer games.
More than 40 volunteers from the borough’s vibrant tech and ‘makers’ community also put their names forward to help teach after-school Code Club sessions. They will support young people interested in learning how to code.
The initiative ended with a business leaders’ event at the new Opportunity Hub in Hoxton.
Mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, said: ‘The “month of code” is a clear demonstration of how the council is helping to broker opportunities between businesses and our wider community to support young people to get the education, work experience and support they need.’
Andy Griffiths, president of Samsung Electronics UK & Ireland, said: ‘Get Hackney Coding has been a resounding success, not only in how many young people have enjoyed coding this month, but also in finding teachers to pass on these core digital skills. We’d like to thank Hackney LBC for putting digital literacy in the spotlight and we’re looking forward to seeing the continued success of this year’s coding campaign.’
Other partners involved were Code Club; Tech City UK; Here East; Union Developments; Tech City News; Education Foundation and the 3Beards.
Wandsworth planning website
In 1995, the internet was an emerging technology, yet that did not stop the planning team at Wandsworth LBC harnessing its powers for the benefit of residents.
Twenty years ago, people in Wandsworth, like elsewhere, had to go to their council offices or library to look at paper copies of planning applications in their area.
After plans to install computer terminals in libraries so that residents could view the applications electronically failed to get off the ground, the idea was then formulated to develop a Wandsworth planning website.
Though the internet was still at that stage relatively small-scale, in more affluent parts of the borough home computers were common.
Initially, just new applications and decision notices were available online, but by 2000, so were additional documents, such as objection letters and committee reports, and data, such as case officer, consultation dates, consultees, and committee recommendations.
The benefits were immediately apparent. Service delivery was improved for members of the public, officers enjoyed easier access to data, and another by-product was that the comments planners received were better-informed.
Martin Howell, group planner for policy and information at Wandsworth said: ‘People were able to sit at home and comment on what they could see their neighbour was proposing, not what they feared their neighbour was proposing.
‘Other councils have followed suit. In fact, when the DCLG wanted to encourage other councils to take up planning websites, they funded us to help with the national roll-out.
‘Today we process over 5,000 planning applications a year, which means our office has one of the highest turnovers in the country.’ n
Lewisham LBC was ahead of the curve when it launched its ground-breaking app a decade ago that allows people to report on environmental issues in their community.
The LoveLewisham app first came on the scene in 2005, after being initially trialled in 2004 as Cam2Web.
The app allows residents and staff to post geo-tagged images of littering, graffiti, fly-tipping and other environmental problems to a public website. The council then posts updated ‘after’ images once the issue has been resolved.
LoveLewisham has achieved some impressive results over the past 10 years, including a significant reduction in graffiti, less overall complaints and fewer people calling the contact centre. Not only has LoveLewisham helped deliver the authority’s ‘Channel Shift’ agenda, moving people away from reporting incidents on the phone, it has helped reduce the number of reports overall from the public, by encouraging staff to be more proactive.
Since 2005, a number of other services have been created that emulate and build on the LoveLewisham idea. MySociety’s FixMyStreet was the first national implementation of the idea, launched in 2007. FixMyStreet now have successful versions of their site in a number of other countries.
An equally successful generic version of the app, LoveCleanStreets.org, was also launched in 2010. A variety of other branded versions of this system are in use in several London boroughs and other major UK cities. LoveCleanStreets was recently adopted as the platform for the new Keep Britain Tidy app.
Plans are to develop the LoveLewisham app further, by launching an ‘app-to-app’ model, which will reduce the administrative process and improve front-line productivity.
Nigel Tyrell, head of environment at Lewisham and founder of LoveLewisham and LoveCleanStreets.org, said: ‘The success of LoveLewisham has created an abundance of different apps, each firing-off reports, in different formats to cash-strapped local councils.
‘We need to evolve beyond this approach to focus on worker-integration and productivity.