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Live Labs - is it time to look at local government in a new light?

21 March 2021

With the publication of our second White Paper – Digital Innovation in Local Roads - Neil Gibson, Chair of the Live Labs’ Commissioning Board discusses some of the potential wider impacts of the programme.

When the ADEPT first discussed what became the Live Labs programme, our focus was on the need to introduce digital technologies across local roads. However, four years later, now that we’re in the trials phase, it has evolved into something with far more transformative potential.

Our second White Paper examines how the development of new data platforms can enable new and more efficient decision making across local roads, often in real time. Each of our Live Labs is developing a distinct approach to data based on the aims of their trials, whether that’s through the use of sensors, existing camera networks and mobile phones or collecting data based on trial outcomes. 

We’ve found new possibilities in how we can deliver services more efficiently and in real time: road sensor data that can be used to automate a nightly winter gritting plan or self-reporting lighting sensors that can automate a repair call-out. Some Live Labs are creating dashboards to identify trends and enable more predictive traffic management. Others are taking this further to combine data with behavioural analysis to develop targeted messaging systems and personalised journey information.

We’re also seeing the potential for sensors to be used in adult social care, enabling vulnerable people to be supported in their homes for longer and helping carers and families by providing real time information on their loved ones. Obviously, data protection is critical here, but such is the technology’s potential, that there are ongoing conversations with community groups and organisations aiming to unpick and ultimately resolve concerns.

What is clear to me is that this is only the beginning and that Live Labs is acting as a catalyst to a wider change in thinking. The rapid set up of the programme has highlighted how innovation can be hindered by local authorities’ existing legal, financial and procurement systems. To enable innovation and successful partnerships with SMEs, we need new systems that are not based on traditional construction contracting processes. We need flexibility so that we can quickly bring in new partners with the skills and expertise we need for specific projects, particularly where we lack the skills in-house. Technology and innovation move quickly, and so must we.

This is not to argue that we become more reckless with public money: far from it. The whole point of innovation programmes like Live Labs is to increase efficiency and to become more cost-effective, providing better value for money for the taxpayer. But we are also looking at how we address some of the most pressing issues we face as a society – tackling climate change and decarbonisation, improving air quality, health and wellbeing and supporting adult social care. We may not have started out to do all of those things, but if nothing else the pandemic has shown us even more how much we need to, and how much local authorities are needed to lead and drive change.

So, when I ask is it time to look at local government in a new light, I think the answer is yes, and not least because, as Live Labs is proving, we are also starting to do that for ourselves.