Talking 5 with Local Public Services Member Skenariolabs
Each month, techUK's Associate Director for Local Public Services, Georgina Maratheftis, interviews a member active in the local government space about their vision for the future of local public services and where digital can make a real difference to people and society. This month we talk to Tom Somers, Director, UK&I at Skenariolabs, about how digital and data can make the lives of councils easier by helping them make more informed and better decisions on services and critical issues such as energy and climate change.
Welcome Tom. Firstly, tell me more about you, your career and how you got to this position today?
My career has been quite convoluted so far!
I started my career in the Civil Service, working for a couple of years in the Legal Aid Agency before joining the Fast Stream graduate programme. This experience was formative for me, both in that I learned the importance of being flexible and that I was too impatient to work in policy – I wanted to make a more direct impact.
I decided to go to work in something which I found exciting but knew very little about – technology startups. I joined then quite-new innovation specialist, L Marks, who run accelerator programmes which bring corporates and startups together. This was a fantastic opportunity to meet exciting startups and work with great corporates, like Bupa and Centrica. I actually first met the SkenarioLabs team while running a programme looking for innovative solutions for the UK Social Housing sector alongside a group of housing providers. We did some great pilot projects, but nothing really stuck at the time due to issues with getting data.
I decided to move to the corporate side of the relationship in order to gain more depth – look at how to implement innovation, rather than just to find it. I worked with loads of great people at Wandle, Centrica and Arup in innovation and corporate VC roles. These jobs were great in that they showed me both the scale at which changes can be made, as well as the headwinds that you face when you try to make them (not all of which are bad!).
During this time, I reconnected with the SkenarioLabs team, and we worked together on projects looking at decarbonising cities. We both saw the huge opportunity in the UK (SkenarioLabs started in Finland), and as such when the team asked me to join them in order to start up and grow a business in the UK I was thrilled to say yes!
What is the real prize for local government when it comes to digital?
The real prize will be achieved when it blends into the background for everyone – both service users and providers. The value of local government is in the services it provides, not how it provides them – what this means is ensuring that everyone has equal access to those services.
Digital can enable that by making lives easier.
It can do this for service users by ensuring that services are available in formats, languages and channels which work for them. It can go to where users already are and engage them in ways that they understand inherently. There are some startup companies who have done some amazing things to support this – for example Plentific make it easier for residents to raise repair requests in their homes and for landlords to address them, and The Future Fox directly engages communities in planning decisions.
What this cannot mean is making access harder and using digital as an excuse to cut down on channels which are vital for less tech-savvy service users, who are more likely to be vulnerable.
It is also extremely important to ensure that we are also making it easier for colleagues in local government to do the things they want to do. For example, what we are trying to do is give people the data they need to make informed decisions on their buildings – what are they made of, what are they worth, how much energy they use and how these things can be changed.
Building on your last point, climate change is at the forefront of most council's minds. Nearly every council has announced a Climate Emergency. How can data help councils to solve the local climate crisis?
Understanding how our local communities work is vital to creating a net zero future. It isn’t possible for a rural community to decarbonise in the same way as an urban one, and an industry-based economy is inherently different in its emissions usage to a services-based one.
Without data, policy makers and those in charge of implementation will not be able to make the best possible decisions regarding the future of these communities. It is important to be able to create an agreed baseline of where we currently are, and to then map how potential changes would impact on carbon emissions, as well as on people.
At SkenarioLabs, our focus is on buildings – we build individual building models for every single building across a city. We take into account local building archetypes (what are they made of? How are they built?), as well as localised weather, costs, energy grid and demographics in order to provide insights on how to best decarbonise whole portfolios.
That said, we aren’t the whole answer – there are lots of fantastic people doing amazing work. For example, transport analytics company Podaris help planners to develop optimal approaches for their local transport networks, which will make the future of mobility more usable for more people.
What is your vision for the future of local public services?
From my perspective the ideal future of local public services is one which is informed by data – about communities and their needs, about changing trends, and about performance. I believe that this data should be as open and as usable as possible to as many people as possible – an approach championed by the Open Data Institute. This includes local residents themselves – having a better understanding of how decisions are made should help communities to better express their needs and flag when things have not worked as they should.
How this works in the big picture of my idealised future is that this empowers people within local public services to come to decisions and implement them. For example, a housing officer looking at their patch would understand their residents, their needs and what problems they are facing; while a planning officer would not need access to anything so individual, but would be able to look at population and demographic trends in order to design future housing and developments. Of course, many local government employees already hold some of this data, however they are not always able to then implement the changes they identify. Seeing the budgets and decision-making powers democratised alongside the data is the real future for me.
Georgina is techUK’s Associate Director for Local Public Services
Georgina works with suppliers that are active or looking to break into the market as well as with local public services to create the conditions for meaningful transformation. techUK regularly bring together local public services and supplier community to horizon scan and explore how the technologies of today and tomorrow can help solve some of the most pressing problems our communities face and improve outcomes for our people and places.
Prior to techUK, Georgina worked for a public policy events company where she managed the policy briefing division and was responsible for generating new ideas for events that would add value to the public sector. Georgina worked across a number of portfolios from education, criminal justice, and health but had a particular interest in public sector transformation and technology. Georgina also led on developing relationships across central and local government.
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