Interview with Ben Hawes: sustainability, innovation, place and technology


12 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

Civic building clock tower, with city below

In order to reach net zero emissions by the mid-century and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we need radical new models and mindsets and we need to innovate at speed.

I have been sitting down with leading figures working at the intersection of people, place and sustainability, to hear their ideas about what can be done to achieve sustainable urban futures.

Ben Hawes is a technology consultant, researcher and associate director of Connected Places Catapult with more than two decades of experience in government public policy and emerging digital technologies. In the latest of our interview series, Ben reflects on what’s changed over the course of his career, what still needs to change and explains why he dislikes the term ‘smart cities’.

Photos of Ben Hawes and Jo Morrison

You have vast experience working at the intersection of people, place and technology from a policy and innovation perspective. What drives you to do so?

Nearly 20 years ago, I became a civil servant. I hadn’t set out to specialise in technology policy but I had been working for an internet company before that – as a writer and editor, not a technologist – and my first job was in digital TV switchover. From then on, adapting to technology change became the most interesting bit in public policy for me; it moves a lot faster than everything else and there’s more going on.

I worked on the 2011 review of intellectual property as the copyright policy lead and took forward the work on how copyright relates to data for research – data mining specifically. Then I went back to the business department and tech team and smart cities fell into my lap. I had done over a year of European negotiation on structural funds so I had a sense of the funding of local government innovation and thought it was a very under-addressed area.

It was probably my greatest failure in government: no one cared – particularly the senior officials who hate things that cross departments. The local government department didn’t want to do anything digital at all. I think the awfulness of the experience got me more interested in it because there’s this area where there’s enormous potential, people need help… and no one cares.

So, I kept doing stuff on smart cities in government long after I was told not to – mainly linking people up together and putting things in front of ministers, and I stayed in touch with the Connected Places Catapult [a government-sponsored innovation centre], and I now advise them as an associate director.

I ran a programme for Ordnance Survey on responsible use of geospatial data and came to feel there’s a big smart cities aspect to that. It hasn’t really developed yet but I can see smart local governments being both the source and user of good local geospatial data in the interest of citizens, and I think in due course we will see local organisations take more responsibility about data and their places.

Satellite view of city at night

From your experience working in this area, have you seen a change of approach from governments, businesses or civil society over the years?

I thought very quickly that we in government needed to be helping local government to digitise far more than we were, and expecting anything else to happen in a smart cities way if you weren’t doing that was pretty pointless. Because most things end up involving local public sector for one reason or another, even if it’s just permissions, and while they have their staff rosters on paper, expecting them to get involved in decisions on using data was senseless.

Compared to what government spends on the Government Digital Service for national organisations, the help they give to local organisations is derisory, even though that’s actually most people’s experience. While smart cities may not be the same as digital local government, if you haven’t got digitally-supported and able local public sector organisations, everything else is rather hard and also tends to be for the private sector, not in the interest of citizens.

Now we are in 2022 and I think local government has, certainly in the UK, come a very long way with no help and it’s been really impressive, there is a lot of opportunity. We’re still terrible at sharing anything and still in a situation where every local council has to reinvent everything. There’s the local digital declaration, which does very well sharing open source approaches, but given the task and opportunity most of the digitisation of the local public sector is still a very expensive market for providers to work in because it’s so bitty and very inefficient.

You’ve undertaken a project on artificial intelligence and the Sustainable Development Goals. Please can you describe what you’ve been doing, why it’s important and the outputs?

I worked sometimes for a dispersed international consultancy called UrbanEmerge, which has done a lot of projects for The GSMA Foundation, which tries to help countries and telephone providers to use the data that they have from telecoms in economically positive and socially useful ways. This particular project was a report on AI and the SDGs in some emerging economies, mapping startup activity in a number of countries in Africa and Asia – mainly how many of these companies have a positive SDG focus.

Currently, it’s a really interesting area and there’s a lot of work being done on AI ethics, but one of the issues with it is we don’t have an international code of ethics that is equal across all societies; some societies privilege something over others. I think the SDGs do provide something like that; they provide a set of goals that has pretty good buy-in and you can make a much better claim as being a universal yardstick to assess activities than you could with Judeo Christian morality, Buddhism or anything else.

That was quite a narrow project but if we’re going to measure the impacts of technologies, SDGs seem to be a very good way in because a lot of the work has been done – including all the work on measures. I was very interested in doing some more with that so I wrote a report with Wendy [Hall] at the beginning of this year on potential collaboration between the UK and India on AI. It was quite a short and aspirational project but we did put a very strong, ethically positive spin on the cooperation and of using AI in the interests of people and the environment. Again, at the end I think the SDGs make a good measure for that.

Model: block train on tracks that split into five ways, three tracks end with barriers

We hear much about smart cities and, of course, it’s an umbrella term with many definitions, but we hear much less about policy and regulation for smart cities in the UK. Can you point to examples of smart city policies and regulations and describe who they are aimed at regarding their implementation?

I’ve not really encountered regulation as that much of an issue. My time doing that, running the Smart Cities Forum for the government, we had an open question. The Conservative government always wants to be told that the problem is regulation and no one said that. There might have been some areas where quite detailed things about what local authorities can spend money on might run into some sort of problem, but it was by no means a regulatory thing. 

There is a continued problem with scale, with sharing solutions and procurement – you can’t procure stuff at scale, which is bad for everyone – but I think the information problems are going away. We’re getting more to a point where you know if something works because someone else has used it and there is evidence available in the sense of what’s worth doing.

Years ago, we advised our Minister to write to the Minister for Cities, saying when we create a new combined authority, can we talk them through building digital capability in and see creating a new command authority as a data integration problem. We failed on that one and were told that we’ll be adding burdens to local government, which is complete nonsense. That continues to be the biggest problem in this area: the appalling relationship between central and local government in the UK. I’m not seeing levelling up improve that either.

A more efficient system where local government can get advice on what works and what doesn’t would be very useful, but local government organisations aren’t always that helpful. The Local Government Association wasn’t very digital for a long time, and as the most powerful body in the sector that was a problem. At Connected Places Catapult we’re doing stuff on reforming procurement, so is the Cabinet Office, and I suspect that’s a very big area where better practices and education of procurement officials would help a lot.

I’m a believer, in principle, in the combined authority approach and I think that really should deliver more efficiency, scale and transparency than individual little councils struggling through on their own. If there is a policy lever, there is a bit of it that isn’t to do with technology at all, it’s to do with all administrative arrangements. Compared to Spain or Germany, our cities don’t have very much power or autonomy. Santander or Barcelona can take direction and genuinely follow it, and put a lot of their resources behind it. Even our combined authorities don’t have that sort of autonomy.

Person in wheelchair by street barrier, with person on Lime rental bike behind

Fast-tracking tech innovation has been defined by a make things fast and break them mentality. How can we fast-track innovation in ways that do not cause negative disruption and harm to members of the public?

Unless something is going to make a massive difference quickly to a massive problem, don’t fast-track it. ‘The Smart Enough City’ is a very good list of things that have gone wrong, while things like the Chicago Array of Things, which is a big Internet of Things network, have actually gone pretty well because they went along slowly with people and took everyone with them. The contrary example is Google in Toronto and the whole thing falling apart.

So don’t be technology-led. Address things that people genuinely think of as problems. CityMapper, general use of traffic data…that’s what tends to work. People no longer call it a smart city once things work. When you’re trialling something and you don’t want to do something that has any big risks, you might also do something that is not very important. Sometimes that is worthwhile as a trial, but you should always try and subsume things into the rest of the running of the place and not call things ‘smart’ and ‘add-ons’; try not to talk up the tech and cleverness and innovation.

I’ve always hated the term smart city because it’s never seemed to be a good way of selling things to people. You’re just saying: you’ve spent your whole career running a city, but I’m smart, you’re not. I’m not saying I’m helping, just saying I’m better than you. We need to make it normal business, and if you make it a normal business then you’re probably focusing on your priorities anyway and not some extra add-ons.

Thinking about the ethical use of spatial data in particular, there’s still a lot of work to do. What are the rules for spatial data in the public interest? What does that mean? One of the problems with data ethics is that it’s all about privacy, the power imbalance between the individual and the massive data accumulating company. That’s important, but if you want good things to happen in a space it’s not about individuals; it’s about someone having the authority, skills and data to act in the collective interest. That remains horribly underdeveloped.

You are deeply knowledgeable about the meshing of the urban fabric, digital fabric, natural fabric and society. Where would you suggest members of the public look to inform themselves about smart cities, digital placemaking or urban tech in this area in general?

I would like to see more people encouraging and supporting their councils in using data, but also asking for some more of that to be made public. It would be nice to see concerted pressure rather than individual freedom of information requests, and citizen movement that both encourages local government and demands more of it. It would also be great to see local media using local authorities’ own data to hold them to account more.Aerial view of Leeds

Individuals have much more interaction with their local public services than they do with national government. It may often be a difficult relationship but there is an interchange in a way there just isn’t between the individual and state organisation, by and large. Try to make it part of people’s relationships with their local bodies and their expectations of their local bodies, not something unrelated to that or a completely different thing. 

What my former colleagues from the Catapult are doing with the levelling up department, there’s a whole digital planning programme going on there which is great and exactly the sort of thing where if you get it right, every council can use it. You won’t have this thing where they all go and buy a different planning system, and I think that’s a promising area. If you make demonstrable improvements in process, then people will think they can improve local services, possibly quite fast.


Thank you Ben for sharing your time and insights, it has been a pleasure and inspiration to speak with you and learn from you.


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