- Published: 02 June 2023
Raj Mack, head of Digital Birmingham at Birmingham City Council, explains how the West Midlands city is building an international digital brand and reputation.
SmartCitiesWorld (SCW): What have been your main areas for focus around digital innovation over the last 18 months and did the pandemic influence some of that direction?
Raj Mack (RM): Birmingham City Council recognised early – even as broadband first started up – the impact that digital technologies would have on people and businesses. In 2006, we created the Birmingham Digital Partnership to take that further forward. It was very much around supporting businesses and citizens to recognise the value of being connected. That journey has continued as we’ve seen how important digital has become – it is transforming the economy and how people live, learn and work. We knew it had to be something that we embedded in the local authority and through our partnerships across the city.
During Covid, we recognised that digital technologies were playing a significant role but that there were structural weaknesses within the fabric of our society that stopped people maximising their use of the internet so we revisited how we support our communities.
We recognised that this could not be done by the city council itself and brought in a consultancy to help us and work with stakeholders and city partners to identify the key foundational things the city should be doing to support inclusive, economic growth.
And the word inclusive is really important as this is not just about gross profits or SMEs but about how we uplift the capabilities of the city, both citizens and businesses, to be able to exploit digital technologies and improve their capabilities and economic opportunities for the city.
SCW: What else has shaped your direction?
RM: We also noted that Birmingham and the West Midlands were seeing growth in digital technology companies with tech expected to bring something like £2.7bn of investment into the local economy by 2025. We wanted to make sure that we’re capitalising on this and supporting those businesses and organisations out there.
The city council also recognised that we were in a golden decade of opportunity. The pandemic had opened up new opportunities that we didn’t have before. As part of our work in the Place, Prosperity and Sustainability team, we set up a number of programmes and digital was seen as one of those cross-cutting, enabling technologies that would support both city council and citywide transformation.
We were able to create two constructs: one for the city council, which is our internal IT function, and the Digital City and Innovation team, which is the team I lead. This focuses on outward-facing opportunities, works with external partners, and brings that ecosystem together so that we can then tackle some of the systemic issues and look at the opportunities that enable the city to become more economically viable and more sustainable moving forward.
SCW: What did you learn from the consultation period?
RM: Through our consultancy, we interviewed around 40-50 different stakeholders across the city to really get an understanding about what they think the city needed to be doing and how it could support economic growth in partnership with all the different organisations out there. Through this consultation, we identified a roadmap that set out what the city could be doing in partnership with other organisations.
The Digital City Roadmap set out our vision and ambition, based on a number of activities. These include increasing the digital investment in the city to establish it as a preferred place for innovation and creating testbeds for ideation and experimentation. We also want to improve the skills capability of the city and ensure there is leadership and facilitation to enable Birmingham to be recognised as a leading international digital city under the brand of Digital Birmingham. What we’re trying to do is not just about digital technology and data, it’s about ensuring technology has a positive impact on both businesses and citizens where they live, learn, work and play, and enjoy every facet of the city.
We found there were many siloed activities going on and needed something to bring this capability together. So we decided that the Birmingham Digital Partnership that brings together a number of different organisations, which all have a vested interest in the city, would be accountable for helping us deliver against some of our grand challenges.
We also wanted to further engage with our citizens and make them part of the fabric and ecosystem of delivery. For example, our matchmaking process puts community opportunities onto a platform and enables businesses to provide funding. We’re doing huge amounts of work on digital inclusion with a team set up to support the most vulnerable, as well as help develop their capabilities and skills. Another strand of activity looks at how we develop things like vertical food farms, and urban food systems to reduce our footprint in terms of imports.
One of the things I want to emphasise is the way our partnership has come together, recognising the sort of challenges the city had, and working collectively to identify some of the key things that we ought to be doing. We’ve got the roadmap as a starting point but our board and partnership is working with other stakeholders across the city to identify and respond to emerging challenges and opportunities.
SCW: What is the next phase of development for your digital strategy and initiatives?
RM: We are taking two different approaches now. As a city council internally, we now take an agile approach and the whole team has been reshaped and reorganised to respond in a more effective way. We are really focusing on user-led research and user-led challenges and working with people to develop an iterative approach about how we improve and how we then create new applications to support delivery.
We’re also doing a number of projects where we have a city focus but which also impact on the city council. When it comes to waste management, for example, we know sensors and the right infrastructure will enable us to monitor our trucks’ waste and find out where we have missed a bin collection. We’re working with social housing to see how we can put sensors within housing stock to monitor humidity and damp conditions and gain insight so we can respond much earlier.
We are doing a number of enabling projects that will help others to develop as well as specific projects that we are leading on. We are about to launch a project around full fibre as we recognise it is the backbone of future innovation and it will help businesses accelerate their capabilities. We’re about to have a tender go out and will be looking to see how we can work with the private sector. We’ve already rolled out a framework to accelerate the 5G capability of the city and have relationships with a number of host suppliers who are using our street lampposts and our other city infrastructure to accelerate small cell deployments.
We’ve also been successful in securing an Internet Exchange in Birmingham. It means we can start creating a capability for future gaming companies and creative industries to have faster speeds and low latency. And we are looking to see how we can roll out an IoT infrastructure across the city.
Under the data theme, we’re looking at creating a data charter to bring together different organisations and explore how data can be shared. We are also working with the University of Birmingham on a digital twin. And we’re doing a big project around the city-as-a-platform, which is all about creating the technology environment that enables us to take data from different sensors and bring it onto a common platform. We can then anonymise that data and get it out to the private sector so they can use it for creating new application services.
We’ve also created something called the Birmingham Device Bank, which has almost 5000 devices that we’re allocating to charities, communities, and other organisations free-of-charge so that we can support those most vulnerable communities and citizens.
And then we have a whole set of activities that we’re doing as proof-of-concepts and are working with the Birmingham Knowledge Quarter, which will become one of our testbeds. We are also putting challenges out to the SMEs and the market to find brand-new applications.
SCW: What is the process you go through to choose partners to work with on the roadmap?
RM: Our priorities are based on the grand challenges of the city so if the activities of an organisation are aligned to the challenges, we will look at them. Birmingham has set out its levelling up strategy and one of the accelerators in there was to create a green and digital infrastructure so we would talk to organisations which can enhance that capability. If a business comes to us and says what they want to do, we may lend support as long as it’s aligned to the overall vision of the city and it supports the decade of growth, building on the back of the success of the Commonwealth Games. We will shortly be launching Our Future City Plan 2040, a vision for the city, and what we are trying to do is make sure that digital is embedded in all the other regeneration projects taking place across the council.
SCW: How important are digital technologies to making operational efficiencies?
RM: The full fibre underpinning infrastructure means we will have a modern wide area network and we are also investing in robotic process automation (RPA). We’ve already got some really good examples of automation. For example, we are looking at robotic capability within adult social care. We’ve also been delivering some really innovative applications, such as Guardian, which was built in-house and brings together all the different field worker activities.
We are also revising and changing the way services are being delivered internally. We are no longer designing applications based on what we think but going to our citizens and building applications looking through their lens. We want to make sure citizens feel that the services have been delivered in the way they need them rather than the way we’re structured as a council.
SCW: With living labs capability and your ability to test new technologies and experiment, what can we expect to see next?
RM: It’s a very exciting time. We are openly looking to our partners and stakeholders to address some of the challenges across the city. We have an open door for innovation. We are exploring 3D modelling and how we create a 3D visualisation of the city and use virtual reality. We want to be at the forefront of emerging technologies so we can show people how they make a difference.
But we also want to make sure we are learning from others, including other cities, as we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. This is about creating sustainable development and putting in place the foundations to innovate across the city. We want companies at home or overseas to think: “I have a new application and want to go to Birmingham to test it”. That’s the environment we’re trying to create. Similarly, local authorities have come to us to ask about our models around the 5G and digital neighbourhood work we’ve done and we’ve openly shared them. We are a city that is both very open to sharing and open to learning from others.
Autor(en)/Author(s): Luke Antoniou
Quelle/Source: Smart Cities World, 25.05.2023