Scott Cain is Chief Business Officer of Future Cities Catapult. Previously Scott co-founded and chaired Global Entrepreneurship Week and was CEO at Enterprise UK. Scott is also the founding partner of The Long Run Venture.

There is an old folk story that can be shortened to a single line: the cobbler’s children have no shoes. It’s a neat way of describing how skilled people can become so consumed – by the process of helping others, doing the best job possible or merely earning money – that they forget to employ their talents closer to home. So the cobbler’s children have no shoes in the same way that doctors might neglect their own health, and chefs rarely eat a square meal. London’s urban innovation experts behave in much the same way.

London has always been at the forefront of urban innovation. Wren’s 1710 reimagining of St Paul’s Cathedral remains one of the most iconic parts of the London skyline. The London Overground still uses Brunel’s 1843 Thames Tunnel. The Circle and Metropolitan Line trains continue to travel along routes built 150 years ago, when London created the world’s first underground urban train system. Ashbee’s 1900 architectural Survey of London is a government-embraced reference still used today.

London remains a leading centre of urban talent, and has become a hub for ‘future city’ expertise – expertise in how to design, construct and govern cities. The capital hosts the head offices of globally-acclaimed architecture and engineering practices. It has a booming tech economy and many of its tech business aim to develop new ways of making city life easier and more enjoyable. London also has four or five of the world’s top-ranked universities, with two others – Cambridge and Oxford – only short train rides away.

The world is urbanising at a stunning pace and London experts are busy helping in that process while also boosting the city’s exports

Indeed, these universities are all leading centres of urban innovation – they are one of the jewels in London’s crown. Designers at the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design explore how to make living and working in our cities more inclusive and sustainable. At University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, a world-renowned team experiments with the latest measurement, modelling and visualisation techniques to revolutionise the way cities around the world think about planning, policy and design. Departments at Imperial College London specialise in making cities more intelligent and sustainable by reducing their carbon consumption and improving energy and transport infrastructure. Elsewhere, King’s College London’s Centre for Telecommunications Research boasts world-leading capabilities on the urban Internet of Things, while the London School of Economics’ Cities centre is an influential authority on urban planning, governance and economics.

Expertise in global demand

Most of London’s urban expertise applied internationally; it has long been the case and we should not want it any other way. From the original master-planning of the nascent city of Dubai in the 60s to the recent construction of Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway, British engineers, architects and designers have been busy building urban capacity overseas. It is understandable. The world is urbanising at a stunning pace – 70 per cent of us will live in cities internationally by 2050 – and in smoothing that transition, London experts are boosting our export market and making cities better places for people to live and work. We should be happy and proud about that: no one thinks the cobbler should limit himself to shoeing just his children, after all.

Moreover, unlike the cobbler, London urban experts and innovators do not entirely neglect their home. Under Ken Livingstone the city was pioneer of road-pricing, with the Congestion Charge, and touch-ticketing, with the Oyster Card. Since then, Boris Johnson has led a drive to open up public data, culminating in the London Datastore. Many digital entrepreneurs have seized upon that opening of such data, among them the team behind CityMapper – a smartphone app that uses open transport data to provide city-dwellers with a sophisticated view of how to travel to their destination. First launched in London in 2012, it has proved highly popular – it is estimated that over half of the iPhones in London have the app – and is now available in 22 different cities around the world. The framework – developed by Nesta, Accenture and the Future Cities Catapult to help city governments develop innovation and entrepreneurship policies – clearly shows that, against 39 other cities, London is in the leading pack in terms of its openness, leadership and infrastructure for attracting and retaining high-growth, high-tech SMEs.

Yet it is hard to avoid the feeling that the city still does not do enough to make use of the urban expertise it contains, and to encourage innovation in its own back yard.

The result is that London is often behind the curve. So while Copenhagen spearheaded the concept of bicycle sharing with which we are all now familiar – fixed docking stations, pay-points and robust bicycles – back in 1995, London had to wait until 2010. Two years later Copenhagen replaced its old bicycle-sharing scheme with a new one offering bikes with satellite navigation systems and electric motors. In the Spanish city of Málaga smart grid infrastructure installed in thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses has helped residents make energy savings of over 20 per cent, a feat of which Londoners can only dream. And in Malmö, Sweden a series of outdoor vacuum tubes suck waste through underground pipes to the city’s outskirts, where garbage is burned to heat homes and food scraps are turned into bio-gas to fuel buses – leaving London’s reliance on landfill looking all but Stone Age.

A growing number of cities are taking a very deliberate approach to applying their own expertise at home, as a way both of meeting urban challenges and growing the future cities sector. The Mayor of Boston, for example, has created a team that co-locates organisations that are developing promising new technologies; works with them to trial their innovations in the city; and commercialise the resulting products and services.

Future Cities Catapult – a government backed innovation agency, where I am Chief Business Officer, charged with helping UK businesses develop and scale their urban solutions – has adopted an approach similar to Boston’s. We bring together businesses, universities and city leaders to develop new ideas and services, which are then deployed in projects in UK and global cities. In effect we view the UK’s cities as a laboratory, in which we can test and prove new products and services, to help grow our already strong future cities sector.

It is hard to avoid the feeling that the city does not do enough to make use of the urban expertise it contains and to encourage innovation in its own back yard

As part of our Cities Unlocked initiative, we’ve worked with over 15 businesses including Microsoft and Guide Dogs to develop a new prototype device which uses 3D soundscapes to help the visually impaired navigate city streets. In our Sensing Cities project, we have collaborated with Intel’s Collaborative Research Institute, The Royal Parks and others, to install low-cost sensor networks that measure air and water quality and human activity, providing data that will allow visitors to choose healthier routes, say, or help them make commercial decisions which are less disruptive to how people like to use the parks. And our Cities Lab, with its advanced data modeling and visualisation capabilities, has drawn together data from 135 different sources to create Wherabouts London, allowing us to make choices about where we might choose to rent or buy a flat based on an area’s characteristics.


The big challenge

The nature and scale of London’s priority challenges – such as a chronic lack of housing, long-term health conditions and resource and environmental constraints – demand disruptive innovation. Boris Johnson has already made an important start: in the Smart London Board for example, he’s brought together leading academics, businesses and entrepreneurs to understand how the city can make the best use of technology.

But London must seize this opportunity and go further – much as it has done with large-scale hard infrastructure. It is hard to remember now, but only 20 years ago, the UK had a pretty wobbly record and reputation when it came to its ability to deliver large and complex infrastructure projects. But a series of government backed large projects – most obviously the Olympics – has changed that, to the benefit of those who use and rely on this infrastructure and the UK’s exports – British firms that worked on the Olympics are now selling their experience aboard.

If Singapore is investing $50m over the next five years on a multi-system model to help make better evidence-based and joined-up decisions, why can’t London, as a truly global city, do likewise? London’s population is growing fast and the city has embarked on a series of mega regeneration programmes – Stratford, Nine Elms, Old Oak Common, to name a few – which will pay huge dividends in the long run. With Old Oak Common alone predicted to boost London’s economy by £15bn over 30 years, it is not as if the returns do not warrant the upfront investment in technology and innovation.

London has a great story to tell. It is a pioneering centre of expertise in city innovation. Its universities and businesses are helping transform and improve cities around the world. But London government needs to get better at using, and in using helping develop, this expertise.

For the incoming Mayor, then, the challenge is threefold: to make London the best city in the world to develop, test and deploy new urban technologies at scale; to deliberately and systematically make more use of London’s unique urban innovation talent; and to channel our collective efforts to address our great city’s most important questions. Not easy, but to do otherwise would be a load of cobblers.