London’s TfL and Toronto’s Google Sidewalk Lab both show that cities need better ways of managing data

Clouds over Toronto. Image: Getty.

Cities are now fuelled by data. They depend on it as much as they depend on air or petrol. We see this in our daily lives, whether using Google Maps to get from place to place counting our steps with a Fitbit, or checking out a restaurant review.

But how this data is to be managed and governed is becoming ever more fraught and controversial. There is a continuing reaction against the way in which the Facebook’s and others harvest our data without our knowledge or consent, and Mark Zuckerberg has signalled that even he thinks this model is unlikely to last. But there’s also growing recognition just how much we could benefit from collecting, curating and linking data in new ways.

The transport sector highlights the dilemmas. Ten years ago, London started opening up transport data in ways that allowed hundreds of apps to appear helping us to plan our journeys much more efficiently. Yet when Transport for London (TfL) recently announced that it was using Wi-Fi to track passenger journeys across the underground with the aim of improving planning, many reacted negatively, fearing loss of privacy.

So who should own this kind of data and how should the users of this data be held to account?

An interesting example of what not to do has been happening across the Atlantic in Toronto. In 2017 Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an exciting partnership with Google’s Sidewalk Labs to create the world’s smartest city on the shores of Lake Ontario, using data to manage transport, energy and just about anything else. Google rushed in full of enthusiasm and clever technological ideas.

But last year brought a mounting backlash. The public turned out to be unconvinced that they would benefit. It was clear there was a massive accountability gap. Google belatedly tried to put this right and last year appointed Ann Cavoukian, a former privacy commissioner of Ontario, as an adviser. Late last year she and others resigned, unconvinced that the plans would stop data being misused. Many believe the project is now doomed.

So how could we get this right? I believe the answer lies in creating new institutions – let’s call them “data trusts” – which can create and organise data on our behalf, maximising the public benefit but also ensuring that our privacy is protected.

The shape these will take will vary. So, for example, as drones become much more a part of the daily life of cities, doing shopping deliveries or moving medical supplies to a hospital, it’ll be vital to pool data about where they are and we will need some organisation to do that, and to account for the judgements they make. In healthcare there are huge gains to be achieved from linking data about our health and genetic makeup with socioeconomic data and treatment records. But we lack any institutions which are quite trusted to be guardians of this data, and balancing the public interest in mining it with the interests of privacy.

Jobs are another example. Nesta has been developing new tools which look at millions of job advertisements to analyse what skills are being looked for, and make forecast about what jobs are likely to grow and shrink in order to provide more useful guides to everyone from teenagers deciding on their GCSEs or 50 year olds at risk of seeing their job automated.

In one future, this sort of work will be controlled by private companies like LinkedIn. But my guess is we will soon see the need to create public guardians of this data – enabling competitive markets in apps (as has happened with transport data) but ensuring accountability and high technical standards.

All of these are examples of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is creating new stresses and strains and forcing us to think about new institutions to fill the gaps. Something very similar happened after the first Industrial Revolution. Millions moved into cities like London and Manchester which became pretty unpleasant places to be, full of ill health crime mistrust the misery. Then, in the second half of the 19th century, new institutions were invented to fill the gaps: providing sewers and public health, schools and libraries, insurance and credit, to ensure we got the benefits of the Industrial Revolution but without the costs.

The technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are hurtling forward. The job of governing them well is only belated being addressed. Cities depend on data as they depend on air. But like air, data can become polluted and toxic. Data trusts will be one of the ways we can help cities to thrive in a data-driven age.

Geoff Mulgan is chief executive of the innovation charity Nesta.


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.