“London is flourishing – but there are no guarantees that it will remain so”

Tower Bridge and City Hall, London. Image: Getty.

London is a prosperous and flourishing mega-city – but there are no guarantees that it will remain so. Great cities fall, as well as rise. New ideas and long-term planning are needed if the capital’s current global status is to endure.

The King’s Commission on London, whose report, London 2030 and beyond, was launched last week with mayor Sadiq Khan, has produced recommendations to help guard against the city’s decline in three key areas: its economy, health policy and skills training & apprenticeships.

London’s economy over the next 12 years and beyond could take a number of paths. The report maps out four, based on two key variables: the role of the UK in the global economy, especially how open and international it remains after Brexit; and the role of London within the national economy – essentially how supportive of the capital the UK government continues to be.

First, it could become a more inward-looking economy, with higher trade barriers, a relatively weak currency, the loss of some businesses to the EU and elsewhere and reduced foreign investment. At the same time, however, the UK government could continue its extensive support to the capital. The report calls this scenario “Paris on Thames”.

Second, on both the international and domestic front, London could be disadvantaged – an inward-looking economy post-Brexit and withdrawal of UK government support in an effort to “rebalance the economy”. This is called “1970s London”. We have been there before – and we don’t want to go back.   

The third scenario is “Modern Rome”: still a very international city, but lacking domestic government support, so the quality of life and services deteriorate.

The fourth is essentially the status quo: “super city”. London both retains its international openness and standing, and continues to receive the support it needs from the UK government. This requires, after Brexit, continued membership of the customs union and single market, or their equivalents in practice. A regional-based immigration policy – as in some other countries – would also be helpful.

As the report shows, this fourth scenario gives the best outcome for London in terms of employment, output and productivity, and it is what policymakers in both national and London government should be aiming for.


On health, poorly planned reorganisations have left London’s healthcare services fragmented and complex. Accountability has suffered as a result. A city-wide strategic body, overseen by the mayor, should be established to manage clinical networks and joint planning of services.

Giving the mayor such oversight, and control of the budgets to go with it, could also enable a necessary shift of resources to primary care services, and relieve the pressure on the city’s hospitals.

Equally, more powers for the mayor and London government would improve the state of skills training and apprenticeships in the city. The planned devolution to London in 2019 of the Adult Education Budget is a step in the right direction. The mayor should also be given a share of any unspent apprenticeship levy funds – which are currently just sitting in the Treasury – to supplement skills funding and help address the fact that London has the lowest number of apprenticeships starts per head in the UK.

But funding alone is not enough. An Apprenticeship Levy Council, chaired by the mayor and comprising members from the boroughs, London businesses, colleges and City Hall, should be set up to assist companies in spending their levy.

The mayor should also use both existing and already-planned powers, as well as those additional ones which the Commission advocates, to help further education colleges adapt their provision to meet changing skills shortages. They need to provide both apprenticeship training and non-award-bearing courses to meet these shortages, as and when they arise.     

Extending the scheme for Advanced Learner Loans, with better terms for those seeking training in specialities with higher shortages, such as biotech and construction, would also benefit the capital.

The Commission is clear: London can continue to prosper, ultimately, if it has more power of decision and autonomy to raise and spend the resources needed. The current over-centralised management of health and skills is damaging to London’s prospects and ability to succeed in the decade to come. Make these changes and the capital will be able, much more, to thrive.    

Tony Halmos is director of the Commission on London in the Policy Institute, King’s College London.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.