UK: Making INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY work for London.

UK: Making INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY work for London. - London's cultural trade alone cannot restore its self-respect. What the capital needs is to exploit the wider "culture" of IT, says James Woudhuysen.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

London's cultural trade alone cannot restore its self-respect. What the capital needs is to exploit the wider "culture" of IT, says James Woudhuysen.

As awry audio-visual presentations go, this one was a classic. In a recent conference slideshow to 200 key local government decision-makers on the future of London as "world city", Baroness Sally Hamwee was plagued with ill-luck. When her speech got to London's special sense of the ceremonial, a pre-programmed Kodak dissolve unit flashed up a picture of council dustmen. When she enthused about our capital's architectural heritage, along came a slide of the tower of the Leicester Square Odeon, long, slate-grey and with a big red sign, lying on its side. When she went into raptures about the metropolis as a system of fluid canals, a crowd of mounted guardsmen, all bearskins and red tunics, blocked up the Mall. And then, to cap it all, that old man one sees in the West End, with the placard in big type: FLEE FROM THE WRATH TO COME.

That wasn't quite the message from the London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC), an alliance of 33 London planning authorities which Hamwee chairs. But in a major report commissioned by LPAC, London Transport and others (London: world city, HMSO, £24.95) the lesson is clear: it's fine to have visual attractions, but not if they fall into a system which is completely out of sync with itself. When collapsing intra-city transport prevents people from getting to London's leisure delights, then all its live Shakespeare and Mozart won't count for much. And if London gets known for an inability to live up to its cultural promises, it will lose out against other world cities.

The LPAC report notes that, with London, there is a strong case for seeing culture not as just a product of wealth, but as a producer. Fair enough: a sizeable 6% of Londoners are in cultural professions and they turn out £3.5 billion of exports each year. Also, the growth of cultural trades in London has been second only to that of financial services. But as speakers at the conference made clear, training in the arts in London is poor. Also, the potential dynamising role of London's culture is not recognised to the full by national government. As the geographer Peter Hall observed, endeavours in this area are seen as costs to be borne by the Department of the Environment, rather than as investments to be funded by the Department of Education and Science.

What can be done to rescue London from further loss of self-respect? In a riposte to pessimists, Hall was bullish about the city's transport. He dismissed homelessness as a problem besetting most American cities too. Finally, he paid a compliment to Park Royal as a prospective industry centre, but had harsh words for those who seek salvation through a general revival of manufacturing. We'll beat Tokyo, he argued, not by making laptop computers, but in the cultural domain.

At the risk of appearing Philistine, I cannot agree. For it is not just the making of laptops and other pieces of IT hardware that will be important to wealth creation; but the development of computer software and services, and the linking of computers to telecommunications. It is this wider "culture" of IT which London should seek to exploit. We should be seeing how IT can be used to enhance the quality of life for Londoners.

Take, for example, the humble public telephone kiosk. In the next few years, it will be possible to order up, at the touch of a button, a taxi or a minibus or a screen of information full of news, local events, weather and traffic conditions. In the fullness of time such services will be made interactive. That will do a lot to spread efficiency, mobility and jobs to London.

Across a wide range of services, London's boroughs face increasing demands that they improve on the delivery of the information they put out. At the same time, they need to save money. The chances are, therefore, that they will start to form alliances with IT suppliers. Their aim: to put self-service terminals into town halls, offices and libraries; to streamline the process by which the elderly and disadvantaged order meals on wheels, and to reap economies of scale with better "IT for education" in homes and classrooms.

Already, children from East London schools have conversed by satellite with counterparts in France. Isn't this kind of exploitation of IT going to have a lot to do with London retaining world status?

James Woudhuysen is an associate director of the Henley Centre for Forecasting.

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