Will Alt.Cmd make Camden smart?

Posted on 8th February 2019

Written by Julian Blake, Editor, DigitalAgenda

Last month’s announcement by Future Cities Catapult of a collaboration with Camden Unlimited on a Alt.Cmd, smart cities innovation programme, offers the prospect of new support for tech-for-good urban innovation in inner London and beyond.

The new Alt.Cmd [Alternative.Camden] project, which brings in change agency Dark Matter Labs alongside the Camden Unlimited business improvement district, creates what FCC calls “a test vehicle for prototyping a new type of economy, powered by technology, for the common good”.

“Alt.Cmd aims to develop a new type of local, democratic institution for Camden, putting innovation in the hands of the community,” explains FCC.

In a blog post, FCC urban futures lead Euan Mills says “the future can, in many ways, feel quite threatening – rapidly expanding digital monopolies, creeping surveillance, monetisation of our private information, and proprietary algorithms influencing the democratic process. It’s hard to keep up, and all too easy to worry.

“This is why it’s time we take the reins and create an alternative future on our own terms. But to do this, we need to stop seeing technology as a threat, and instead as a tool that brings us together, to collaborate and build the future we want.”

In a clarion call for city-focussed tech for good, Mills says that the past decade has seen how cities around the world have changed for the better “when people with vision, passion and drive come together to create change. We have seen digital platforms for organising everything from park runs to social care; from community-led renewable energy networks to food waste reduction programmes and open source manufacturing workshops.

“Technology has catalysed civic engagement and collaboration like never before, helping make our cities healthier, more enjoyable and more inclusive.”

Mills is right to say that new platforms are emerging, and these are backed by cities working in partnership with startups. A great example is the London mayor’s civic innovation challenge, matching startups with corporates and public bodies to create solutions to some of the capital city’s most pressing problems.

In October it named the eight ventures it is backing for the challenge programme, with £15,000 in funding and support from Bethnal Green Ventures. Projects it has supported addressed key urban challenges including:

DigitalAgenda’s own Impact Awards, given out in London on 7 March, has a ‘connected cities’ category that recognises “initiatives that enhance urban places and spaces, and enable people to connect more easily”. Finalists for the 2019 award work on critical services including electric cars, planning and accessible technology:

Char.gy – agency unboxed worked to create an on-street electric vehicle charging solution using existing residential lamp posts, backed by a software platform for managing charging and payments by smartphone.

VU.CITY – providing clarity for the built environment, by combining the power of data with the largest, most accurate 3D digital city models.

WeWALK – a smart cane for the visually impaired, WeWALK detects obstacles, connects with smartphones via Bluetooth and integrates with Google Maps, Uber and Alexa.

The connected cities award is sponsored by Here East – itself home to numerous urban digital innovations from its former Olympic press and broadcast centre HQ. Previous city award winners include Go Jauntly (2018 winner) and footsteps-into-kinetic energy venture Pavegen (2017).

Across Europe, innovation foundation Nesta’s digital social innovation project has helpfully mapped tech innovations across leading European cities including Barcelona and Amsterdam.

Back in Camden, Alt.Cmd promises to “place its community at its core – residents, businesses, technologists and the public sector”. It says it will

  • start new, all-inclusive conversations about technology through co-designed and co-hosted public events, workshops and publications
  • experiment and build prototypes of civic technology across a range of issues
  • set up a testing ground to explore how shared rules and regulations, from the planning system to licensing, could evolve in response to new innovative technologies that require civic and regulatory oversight.

Alt.Cmd’s “test-bed site” includes Camden Town, Euston and King’s Cross. The area is home to leading arts, culture and educational institutions, technology and scientific research organisations, as well as proactive and innovative local government. “It’s a place where thousands live, visit and work every day,” says Mills. “But it also embodies some of London’s most acute challenges: from rising inequality and housing unaffordability to chronic air and noise pollution.

“As such it’s the perfect place to test our assumption that technology can help everyone. It means we’ll be able to share our learnings with cities across the UK and even worldwide.”

You can vote for any of the three shortlisted ventures in the Impact Awards (and any of the other 33 shortlisted tech-for-good projects) in our people’s choice poll – open until 28 February.


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