Broadband, data, and digital ambitions debated by London's mayoral hopefuls

Candidates for mayor of London divulge little when discussing their tech policies.


The London Mayoral technology debate: a lot of talk, but little substance.

Image: ZDNet

It couldn't have been a better stage. Inside the brand new amphitheatre of Here East -- a dedicated campus in Hackney 'for the makers of our future' -- five of the London Mayoral candidates had the opportunity to tell a technology industry audience how they planned to make London a digital city.

If the environment and audience hadn't already hammered the message home, Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates -- a coalition "committed to championing London's potential as a world-class hub for tech and digital businesses" -- made it clear.

Referencing London's Digital Future: The Mayoral Technology Manifesto -- a series of policy recommendations by Tech London Advocates, techUK, and Centre for London on how the new mayor can support digital growth and innovation after they're elected on May 5 -- Shaw argued that the successful candidate can help make London "the digital capital of Europe".

"This requires London to have a mayor with ambition, a shared vision and a commitment to maintaining a supportive regulatory environment," he explained.

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Unfortunately, while the candidates said they want to embrace digital tech for London, there was little explanation of how they would accomplish this.

Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith admitted he understands coding "as much as Swahili", a language he professed to not understanding at all. He also described how he believes equipping the Metropolitan Police with iPads instead of notepads could help prevent extremism and stop crime, but didn't go into details on how or why.

Goldsmith's main competition, according to the polls, is Labour's Sadiq Khan, and Khan was equally upbeat about the potential of the technology sector to aid London. Indeed, he told the audience he fully backed the Technology Manifesto and joked that, "I know my FTTP from my HTTP". According to Khan, London has the capability to pull ahead of Silicon Valley as a technology hub, but like Goldsmith, he didn't go into specifics of how to make this happen.

One area the two front-runners did agree on was the critical role good broadband connections have to play in making London a place where web companies want to do business. Goldsmith described superfast broadband as important as "getting from A to B" in the streets, while Khan argued that "we need to think about broadband like we think about roads".

But again, there wasn't really any substance on how to ensure London receives the superfast broadband it so badly desires. While Goldsmith cited the private sector as a possible partner in solving the issue, and argued that London "can't afford not to have it", he didn't explain how superfast broadband would be paid for.

Liberal Democrat candidate Caroline Pidgeon also weighed in on the broadband issue, arguing that it's "just another utility" like water and electricity and should be treated as such.

However, despite this enthusiasm for superfast broadband, one audience member argued that "decent" broadband would be a start before the authorities rush ahead to more ambitious technologies.

It was Green Party candidate Sian Berry who was most keen to cite her technology credentials, opening her initial pitch with the fact that she used to work for a digital startup. She argued her first-hand knowledge of the industry made her best-placed to implement a digital strategy. She even suggested that Londoners' phone data could be used to aid with urban planning and transport -- although one suspects privacy advocates could be hesitant about that plan.

Data privacy was one of the few subjects addressed by each of the five representatives invited to take part in the debate. Each advocated one of the Mayoral Technology Manifesto's key points: hiring a London chief digital officer to be "responsible for delivering a world beating strategy for the city" -- though no candidate explained what hiring a CDO would really achieve.

Like much of the debate, there wasn't much detail to the discussion, partially due to the host's desire to quickly move from subject to subject, as well as to the vague language used when discussing the tech topics, with many candidates merely referring to "digital".

While no candidate doubted that technology is important to the future of London, and each tried to make the case as to how they'd support it, UKIP's Peter Whittle pointed out the elephant in the room: he suggested the Mayor won't have much impact on policy at all.

He claimed European Union regulation was "choking" London's technology prospects, although the audience reaction suggests it didn't agree.

While it was good to see technology take centre stage as an important issue in the race to become London Mayor, the winning candidate will need to provide some real answers for how London plans to build out its tech ecosystem -- with more detail than was offered by the candidates' recent performance in Stratford.

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