I helped produce the London Olympics opening ceremony: the spirit of 2012 is no antidote to Brexit Britain

The Olympic stadium, Stratford, London. Image: Getty.

A misplaced nostalgia continues to grow around the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. Chuka Umunna’s recent policy document for his think-tank The Progressive Centre used Danny Boyle’s production to define “progressive.”  Yvette Cooper almost cried contrasting the idyllic evening to our current predicament. Eddie Marsan pre-empted Chuka and suggested the ceremony could form the basis of a party political broadcast for a new centrist party, while JK Rowling set an entire novel in the halcyon days of the 2012 Olympics.

Our 2012 nostalgia harks back to a time of momentary unity, before we voted to leave the EU, before our government was in complete collapse and before the opposition proposed ripping up the economic status quo.

I worked on the production team for the ceremony. I look back on that night with sincere affection and remember the period with clarity. Until the night of the opening ceremony, the public mood towards the Olympics was one of grievance and pessimism.

On the following morning the entire country did a double-take; I sat on a bus strewn with double-page spreads of the molten Olympic Rings while everyone around me chatted feverishly with pride about the portrait we had created of Great Britain. So it is understandable to transport this fleeting pride beyond those four hours of entertainment. But it is delusional to confuse that moment in time with a mode of politics that is somehow superior to the present day.

Olympic ceremonies are made with the unambiguous agenda of selling the host nation’s virtues to the rest of the world. To employ one as a reference point for reality is irrational. Any project that has the express aim of celebrating modern Britain, availed of an £81m budget, an Oscar-winning director and a cast of 10,000 volunteers would be largely successful, regardless of the political moment in which it was made.

The ceremony was the culmination of six years of planning and the work of more than 2,000 people. My small role saw me organising the movements of the thousands of cast and crew, a speed boat, a helicopter and the Red Arrows. I attended meetings with the Civil Aviation Authority, the Metropolitan Police and COBR. The sheer level of ambition was intoxicating, its coordination staggering; to be a part of it was exhilarating and, mostly, joyful.


This was a heavily choreographed and purposefully innocuous performance – which was precisely the reason for its broad appeal. Each iteration of the government-funded production was vetted by the International Olympic Committee. Non-profit in law, if not in spirit, the IOC trades in the abstract notion of achievement. The end result was a colossal theatre show that left scant room for critical viewpoints.

Beneath the ceremony lay the success of propaganda. While it celebrated many of Great Britain’s most noble traits and achievements; the industrial revolution, our literary history, the Women’s Suffrage movement, our multiculturalism, our working class and our first broadcast lesbian kiss, it omitted less virtuous ones, including Britain’s history of colonialism. Incredibly, the ceremony concealed the politics of the time.

Umunna invites us to remember how we celebrated the foundation of the NHS, 600 working nurses amongst the cast, but it was well known among the production team that David Cameron had explicitly requested this segment be cut from the show. The producers were brave enough to override their prime minister's opinion, unlike my next experience helping produce the Olympics ceremony in Russia.

Nevertheless, Cameron’s attempt to suppress praise of the NHS shows that off-stage the government, far from celebrating the health service, planned to run it into the ground to justify its subsequent privatisation. This political agenda existed as much then as it does now.

The Military were brought in to provide security for the event, including the months of rehearsals, after G4S failed to meet their contractual obligations. Since then, the same government has continued awarding G4S controversy-ridden contracts amounting to millions of pounds.

As Yvette Cooper points out, the show’s opening tableau, charting the dramatic transformation from a feudal to an industrial nation, gave a heartfelt moment of focus to the Windrush generation. Beyond the walls of the stadium, however, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, had announced her hostile environment policy two months before the ceremony.

Crucially, in 2012 the total sum £9.3bn spent on the Olympic Games indicated that austerity, which then chancellor George Osborne was already selling as a necessity, was indeed ideologically founded. Austerity catalysed the economic inequalities that have fuelled social divides in Brexit Britain.

We should be in no doubt that the policies which led us to Brexit were already in place as the world smiled at the Queen jumping out of a helicopter. The political terrain established in 2012 led us directly to the economic inequalities currently dividing present-day Britain. Nobody – not even JK Rowling – should look back at the year of the Olympics with an uncritical eye. 

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.