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.


The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.