It’s been a while but it has taken a pandemic to put digital right in the centre of all that we do. My guess would be that most of us have upped our game by ordering stuff online since the lock-down, certainly shopping online has been the only way some of us could receive our weekly shop (if we could find a slot). Now, Cambridge University has announced it will give its lectures online and only its tutorials in person. In the workplace, Deloitte’s seems keen to allow their personnel especially their contracted staff to work from home. Change is in the air.
The speed of change may have taken us all by surprise. Few of us would have heard of Zoom before mid-March happy to play with Skype or those newbies on the block Hangout Meet (Google) or Teams (Microsoft) – remembering the latter bought Skype in 2011 for $8.5b. In December, Zoom was attracting 10m users, by the end of April this had risen to 300m whilst its share price had gone up 200%! You suspect that Google, Microsoft, Apple or Facebook are all busy-busy putting their offers on the table for this upstart.
Even fewer of us may have heard of Joe Chamberlain. We might possibly have heard of his sons, Austen and Neville. The latter, as Prime Minister, came back from a meeting with Adolf Hitler, in 1938 with frankly, not very much.
Joe was cut from a different cloth. He was born in Camberwell in 1836 and named after his father who was a successful shoe manufacturer. He attended University College School but never went to university. He moved to Birmingham at 18 to work with an uncle who made screws. At one point they were screwing, sorry, making two-thirds of all screws in the UK. Anyway, the profits were such that he retired aged 38 and won a seat in Parliament a year later. But it was as mayor of Birmingham that he will be remembered for even though later he messed with both the Liberal and the Unionist parties and badly misread the tea leaves over the First Boer War (when Secretary of State for the Colonies) where, if you can recall, we came second.
It was his time in Birmingham which I think has lessons for us in Suffolk as we edge towards the 2030s. Mayor Chamberlain modernised Birmingham then the workshop of the world: it made just about everything. He was passionate about educational reform, slum clearance, local housing and critically the municipalisation of public utilities especially water and gas. His success in creating these entities won him the name of the ‘Municipal Socialist’. I think he had a point.
We have had the rawest deal in Suffolk Coastal. We might have been screwed too. We were the very last to receive a decent mobile signal, maybe you remember those days of trying to find one on the beach twenty years ago and fast copper broadband let alone fibre has only been with us a few years. (This notwithstanding BT’s research centre is at Martlesham).
If we were versions of Chamberlain today we would have put our collective heads together and created our own version of his municipal socialism and persuaded, if not our council, enough ‘others’ to come together to create our own not-for-profit company to provide these services. It’s not too late.
If we want to put ultra-fast digital at the heart of what we do in Suffolk Coastal over the next decade we must own the process as a cooperative. The lesson to be learned is to look at some of the cities in the world who have already achieved amazing success through digital. Unfortunately, not one of these is British. Take a look at Barcelona.
I don’t want to bore you too much but if you go to www.barcelona.cat or ajuntament.barcelona.cat you will see the most vibrant of web sites. On the latter you can find sections on: Ethical Digital Standards, Cities for Digital Rights and BITHabitat-i.lab as well as really helpful information on Digital Transformation, Digital Innovation and Digital Empowerment. There is nothing like this anywhere in the UK. There’s even an Ethical Standards Open Source Toolkit which any government, city, county or parish council can use for free. Imagine, if the NHS had had this system we’d have had track and trace up months and months ago.
There are two things which impressed me the most. The first was that Barcelona has had a Director of Digital for some considerable time, a wonderful woman, called Francesca Bria (she may be taking a break shortly). And the other is that when they put their online services out to a world tender, which Microsoft won, they stipulated the data would be owned by the city (you and me) not the software company. Hooray.
There is absolutely no reason why Suffolk Coastal could not be this smart. It just takes a little imagination and some skill at raising funds. And if we were to do it, we would need to establish a new type of technical college – perhaps, based in Leiston, in association with maybe the University of Cambridge – which would act as our digital version of a ‘city’.
It’s really time for Joseph Chamberlain 6.0.
Derek Wyatt lives in Aldeburgh. He was an MP; played rugby for Oxford University, the Barbarians & England; founded the Oxford Internet Institute; and was Commended by the UNO for his work against Apartheid.
Manifesto in favour of technological sovereignty and digital rights for cities – v 0.2
Authors: Francesca Bria (Chair), Malcolm Bain (coordinator)
Contributors (Advisory Board members): Richard Stallman, Javier Ruiz, Roberto Di Cosmo, Mitchell Baker, Renata Ávila, Marleen Stikker, Paolo Vecchi, Sergio Amadeu
Our values and beliefs
- We believe in technological sovereignty for cities, for full control and autonomy of their Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), including service infrastructures, websites, applications and data, in compliance with and with the support of laws that protect the interests of municipalities and their citizens.
Technological sovereignty helps cities protect citizens’ rights through greater accessibility, transparency and accountability required for open government.
- We believe that citizens’ digital rights must be placed at the centre of cities’ digital policies and protected through the implementation of Technological Sovereignty and digital democracy policies.
Citizens’ digital rights include the rights of privacy, security, information self-determination and neutrality, giving citizens a choice about what happens to their digital identity, who uses their data online, and for which purposes. Digital democracy enables more citizen participation in design and governance of cities and city services.
- We believe that Free Software, Open Data and Open Standards, Document and Data formats and communication protocols are the bases for technological sovereignty for cities and best support the digital rights of our citizens.
Free Software, Open Data and Open Standards, Formats and Protocols provide cities and citizens with tools enabling non-discriminatory access to and provision of digital services. This is not just a technology paradigm, but a culture that helps individuals and communities to protect their digital rights as well as to achieve innovation and reach goals that are beneficial for society in a collaborative manner.
- We believe that Free Software provides a solid foundation to achieve better levels of efficiency, stability and interoperability required for cities’ ICT platforms, through source code ownership, collaborative development and sharing, all of which enable participation in digital services’ security, validation and improvement.
Municipal investment and participation in Free Software projects help developing local skills and contribute to technologies which can reinforce citizens’ digital rights while bringing benefits to the local economy. Free Software offers value for money in terms of long term sustainability and local economic development that is greater than any short term financial gains.
- We believe that Open City Data is a necessary element of technological sovereignty and must be managed and provided in an ethical, transparent, accessible and sustainable manner.
As well as supporting local innovation, Open City Data empowers citizens and enables better data-driven decision making in cities and, by providing visibility and accountability, induces more trust in local government and greater citizen engagement in policymaking.
- We believe that the mandatory adoption of Open Standards, Document and Data formats and Communication Protocols will improve transparency, coordination between public authorities and collaboration with the private sector.
Shared, open cross-government standards, formats and protocols make services better for users and cheaper to run. Open standards simplify access to information by all organisations and individuals that want to participate in the City’s development.