The long read: An intelligent leader fit for a smarter world

15 min


No matter the technology in place, a smart city is nothing without intelligent leaders to guide it through its change journey. At the helm of the UK’s digital transformation is Jacqui Taylor, smart city tsar and chief executive of FlyingBinary, who has taken it upon herself to help reboot the national agenda in the hopes of refocusing our efforts where they matter most

It has only been 30 years since the invention of the World Wide Web, and it’s hard to wrap our heads around everything that has happened since then. Take this quote from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the very idea of the web, back from a 2012 article written for Wired: “Originally, the acute frustration which led me to invent the World Wide Web in 1989 was all about documents. The frustration was that all kinds of documents were sitting in disks on machines. Even at a very advanced place like the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, a networked world in which most computers in my environment were connected, one couldn’t easily browse through all the files. The WWW design offered a solution, and the world of linked documents exploded dramatically.”

If you told someone today that you primarily use the web as a way to browse documents, one of two things would happen: you’d either be laughed out of the room for such a basic, almost primitive relationship with the internet, or – and this is quite likely – you would realise you’re talking to someone who has never even lived in a world where documents aren’t all digitally stored in the first place. Either way, they would be wondering which rock you’ve been living under for the past decade.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is himself a formidable figure. As well as creating the web and founding the World Wide Web Foundation, which seeks to make the web a public right designed to serve humanity, he has also helped establish the Open Data Institute and has advised a number of governments and corporations on their digital strategies. Besides his spotless and enviable educational background (Tim holds academic posts at Oxford University and MIT), the web inventor has also received more than 100 honorary doctorates, was given the prestigious A.M. Turing Award (dubbed computing’s Nobel Prize), and is one of just 22 living recipients of the UK Order of Merit.

But what will perhaps be remembered as Tim’s most notable legacy is not necessarily his own accomplishments, but the army of talented web scientists that have followed in his footsteps since the very idea of ‘web science’ was willed into existence.

One of these such mentees is Dr Jacqui Taylor, a global web scientist who has taken it upon herself to deliver Tim’s vision for a web that works for everyone – by using technology as an enabler to transform our cities.

Jacqui is the CEO of FlyingBinary, a UK web science firm that has been named amongst the top 20 most innovative Internet of Things (IoT) companies to watch according to a 2018 report. She herself has also been named one of the Top 10 IoT innovators in the world. With a history of advising governments across the globe on their digital strategies and IoT implementations, Jacqui even made an appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year – attended by thousands of celebrities and business and political heavyweights, from Sir David Attenborough and Prince William to the prime ministers and presidents of the world’s top economies – to talk about the intersection between fake news and cyber security. But perhaps most notably, in part due to its exclusivity, Jacqui is the world’s first-ever smart city tsar.

Failing forward fast

According to the tsar, born and bred in Manchester, the unique title came about unexpectedly, as a result of her dedication to showing that the world was embracing a lopsided smart city agenda that wrongly focused on technology as the outcome rather than the enabler. Harnessing her distinctive professional background – a coalescence of aerospace engineering and web science, topped with a relentless passion for digital inclusion – Jacqui was given the title after a series of national and international press articles which named her a tsar for her ability to understand how many of the socioeconomic issues can be resolved with a new strategy. Ever since the title caught on (and given the success of her work in demonstrating how the smart city agenda needed to be revamped and refocused), she has been hellbent on developing key ‘un-blockers’ that will help organisations redirect their energy towards an approach that embraces technology as simply a means to an end.

The Internet of Things doesn’t just change the technology industry; it changes our society

More formally, as well as leading FlyingBinary, Jacqui wears a number of different hats: she’s the cities lead for Digital Built Britain, she has worked with the BSI to author both UK and international smart-city-related standards such as the PAS 183, and she is a strategic advisor in this field to both the UK and the Chinese governments. In a nutshell, she has enough job titles to make even the most accomplished senior leader feel slightly inadequate.

“People often ask me how long I’ve worked in smart cities, and I would say that I’ve done it for 35 years. And then people go, ‘How is that possible?’ Well, as an engineer for example, I worked on launching the BAe Whisper Jet to solve noise pollution issues in our cities. For me, it’s always been about people. The Internet of Things doesn’t just change the technology industry; it changes our society.”

Her engineering background also means Jacqui is a loyal disciple of the idea of ‘failing forward fast.’ In essence, the concept – widely adopted by pioneering entrepreneurs around the world – means that every mistake and every instance of failure is a valuable experience that can be learned from, built on, and quickly adapted in order to move closer to your final goal. In a sense, it’s the opposite of risk aversion: as long as you have the guts to try something new, your business will remain agile, innovative, and productive.

The rise and fall of smart cities?

Failing forward fast is particularly relevant to the market development of smart cities. Needless to say, what smart-city experts are doing the world over has never been done before: they’re charting a virtually brand-new, unexplored territory of ever-changing technologies fuelled by rapidly growing pools of data. Perhaps because of this, they have already made a lot of mistakes.

Many would say smart cities are now at a crossroads: focus too much on the technology itself and we risk supporting a future dominated and determined by the will of private corporations. In a foreword for the 2018 report ‘Intelligent leadership: How government strategy can unlock the potential of smart cities in the UK,’ the chairman of the APPG on Smart Cities, Ian Stewart MP, wrote: “The role of smart cities is not to create a society of automation and alienation, but to bring communities together. Indeed, ‘smart’ goes beyond technology to encompass any approach or innovation that works across industries, departments, and other silos to facilitate solutions to citizens’ everyday problems.

“The term ‘smart cities’ refers not to a sector, but to a cross-government and cross-departmental approach that should underpin the way government works at all levels. The private sector leads the way on the smart cities agenda. Their innovation is welcome and must be encouraged. There is also, however, an important role for government to ensure that, as technology develops and becomes embedded in our lives, innovations meet the most pressing needs of our citizens and reach those in society that may benefit from new solutions.”

The role of smart cities is not to create a society of automation and alienation, but to bring communities together

More than one year on from the APPG’s report, which called for a coherent public-sector strategy that aligns businesses with local and central government, the smart-city landscape seems to have remained largely unchanged. Rather than prioritising citizen needs and exploring how new products can help deliver services more effectively, we are veering towards a mindless attraction to shiny pieces of technology even when these don’t come with a good enough business case.

A philosophical renaissance

To fix this tech obsession and reboot the overall agenda, Jacqui is one of four leaders advising the European Commission on what is required to meet citizens’ needs in smart cities as part of Europe’s IoT strategy. This is being done ahead of the new commissioner, Ursula von der Leyen, assuming office later this year to replace Jean-Claude Juncker.

“Unsurprisingly, that report has been about what we need to do to put citizens’ requirement at the forefront of all this,” she explained. “The reality is that smart cities have been all about competition. It needs to become a collaboration. It’s a co-design exercise; when we shape future places, we need to be collaborating with citizens. Smart cities are not about competition. Technology is not an outcome, it’s an enabler. This is the state of play; that’s where we have got to, and it’s not worked. We’re not any smarter; essentially, we’re largely going backwards.”

The reality is that smart cities have been all about competition. It needs to become a collaboration

Despite her extensive involvement in Chinese and European smart-city affairs, Jacqui hasn’t allowed the UK to rest on its laurels (in fact, if her passion for this country was a city’s sole determinant, they would all have become smarter years ago.)

“There is only one thing that all of our cities in the UK have in common: they’re all different. The complexities involved are really key; they’re really unique,” the tsar said. “You have to be able to understand them at a helicopter level, and you have to be able to understand them at a community level. For example, we have Peterborough, a city where the east and the west have radically different needs – they require completely different interventions. And then we have Leeds and Bradford, two cities which share a symbiosis: 75% of the people that live in Leeds work in Bradford, and 75% of the people that live in Bradford work in Leeds. You cannot consider anything in those cities independently. You have to understand that symbiosis.”

The B-word

Naturally, any ambition to design a smart-city plan for the UK – which currently does not exist – will have to consider the country’s future in a post-Brexit world (whatever that might look like; we won’t bother speculating as any imagined scenario may already be outdated by the time this magazine hits desks). For many, this is an ominous prospect: not only are our laws around data sharing rooted in the European Union, but many of the technology companies that currently supply to the UK are based in the mainland continent.

Cities do have the resources they need. They just don’t have the right plan

 

But for Jacqui, leaving the European Union will open up new doors of opportunity for our nation’s smart cities. “Brexit will allow us to make our own rules, and we won’t be bound by rules that we don’t control or that we don’t have much say in. I think that gives us a unique opportunity,” she defended. In fact, she is so confident in the UK’s ability to thrive after Brexit that her company, FlyingBinary, has taken it upon itself to create a Brexit plan for entrepreneurs.

“We’ve already had spectacular success with our own Brexit plan,” Jacqui noted. “Essentially, when we Brexit – and if the date moves again, I’m still going live with this – I am opening the doors to a brand-new offering, which I’m calling Cyber Smart Entrepreneurs. I’ve capped this to help one million entrepreneurs.

“As IoT companies, if we recognise that because of Brexit and globalisation our trade relationships are very different, then we can reposition our whole commercial strategy around that new world. Once we get Brexit done, we have many more options.”

FlyingBinary has this month shared its Brexit plan at a summit in London’s ExCeL and via a LinkedIn livestream. You can reach out to Jacqui online to get more details, but if you’re hoping to speak to her after Brexit takes place, temper your expectations: from November, she will be busy touring the UK’s four nations – with events hosted by a city in each country – during which she will sit down with city leaders to discuss pathways that can help meet urban challenges and reframe the entire conversation. “Essentially, we’ve proven with the smart cities interventions that we’ve done in the UK that actually, cities do have the resources they need – they just don’t have the right plan. The nations tour I’m doing from November through to April will allow us to have that conversation properly,” she argued.

Move over, millennials

Whether it’s spending time in London advising Cabinet Office ministers, in France with fellow European leaders developing the citizen requirements for smart cities, or as a science diplomat meeting up with Latin American representatives to better understand their digital ambitions, one thing is for certain: Jacqui will be concentrating on Generation Alpha.

When you’re looking at smart cities, you can’t be co-designing with any population other than Gen Alpha

If you, like us and thousands of other world leaders at Davos, had not heard of Gen Alpha until just now, here’s the gist of it: according to Jacqui (though there is always some disagreement on the exact dates), they comprise the people born between 2004 and 2014 – or, in a broader sense, the children of the so-called millennials. While they’re not yet too relevant economically – in contrast to Gen Z, those born between 1993 and 2003, who will influence 40% of the world spend from next year – they are the key to our next technology developments. “What they need from a technology point of view is radically different. They’re a hugely exciting cohort, as far as I’m concerned. I’m looking at smart cities from the perspective of Gen Alpha,” the tsar pointed out.

“Gen Z are our web entrepreneurs. If they can’t get what they need, they’ll make it themselves; they will create it. Gen Alpha know exactly what they need, and they don’t plan to use any of our current systems. When you’re looking at smart cities, you can’t be co-designing with any population other than Gen Alpha, otherwise nothing you do will work for them. We haven’t yet broken the relationship of trust between Gen Alpha and cities, but unless we pay attention to this, then we will.”

Where good ideas come from

Of course, to get Gen Alpha onboard, smart-city leaders must include them in the co-design exercises that Jacqui is so adamant must play a central part in the production of any future city strategy. This should, of course, come as no surprise given the general emphasis that smart cities place on their citizens in order to thrive – after all, a place is nothing without its people.

“The thing about being a smart cities tsar is that I have all this stuff I can put on the table, I can start these conversations, I can help people adapt to this new culture… But actually, the citizens are the ones who know their cities the best,” she stated. “There are some real key gains to be had by doing all of this in a co-designed, collaborative approach; smart cities are just ideal for that. Everybody can acknowledge the priorities and help to choose what the focus should be. You’ll have a roadmap that everybody is signed up to and that everybody is looking forward to participating in. That’s what we’ve done in Europe, so let’s see what we can do in the UK.”

I have all this stuff I can put on the table, but actually the citizens are the ones who know their cities the best

Throughout Jacqui’s hour-long conversation with Cityscape, one basic mantra, repeated from time to time and appropriately chosen as her closing remark, really stuck with us: good ideas come from everywhere. Sure, we’ve all heard this before, usually in an effort to promote diversity in a male-and-stale industry or to justify the need for more graduate schemes. But with smart cities, the saying takes on a whole other meaning. If senior officials – we’re talking chief civic leaders and data curators – don’t sit down with those they are looking to serve (in this case, children as young as five) then they will be missing a trick. Worse yet, this mistake might only come to light years down the line, when we discover that the new solutions we’ve developed don’t actually serve the future IoT workforce – and so aren’t quite that smart after all. Collaborate, don’t compete: that must be the smart-city way.


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