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.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”