The partnership between Oslo and the London Borough of Hackney is not an obvious one but, five years in, it seems to be going from strength to strength.
The latest catch-up between representatives of the Norwegian capital and the London Borough happened last week at the trendy Arc Hotel in Shoreditch. The relationship stemmed, it seems clear when talking to some of the formative individuals, largely through a few personal contacts but, on the basis that it has survived and flourished for five years, each party clearly finds it of value.
On the one hand, there are many differences between the two places that would suggest they are not obvious bedfellows. On the other, when it comes to the exchange of ideas, perhaps it makes sense to have partnerships that are not predictable. Both places have many of the same challenges, in areas such as social care and public health, and both have large, burgeoning start-up communities.
Much of the day was given over to the latter, from both Norway and the UK, to present their businesses and solutions. They ranged from the high-tech to the community-based, with quick-fire presentations and the chance for follow-up discussions to explore where there might be synergies.
The Hackney Difference
Opening the day, Guy Nicholson from Hackney Borough Council observed that there is an ever greater need for strong professional and personal connections as the UK goes through “choppy waters… we need to navigate this bit of a mess the UK has got itself into”. As well as Oslo, Hackney has a relationship with Austin in Texas and it sounded as though others might follow.
The partnership and the wider innovation within Hackney isn’t down to chance. One strength is its diversity – 40 per cent of start-ups are founded by people born outside the UK. Despite the tide of gentrification and rocketing property prices, there is still an edginess to the Borough as reflected in what for many was the stand-out presentation of the day, by Re:Space co-founder, Gee Sinha, explaining what had been achieved in the last two and a half years taking an empty, three floored building and, with no funding, turning it into a vibrant community space.
A key factor that helped to realise the Re:Share project was the openness of the council to new ideas and its willingness to act as a facilitator. Another example is its ‘HackIT Manifesto’ that underpins its development of digital services. It has started to publish its code on GitHub, is blogging about its work and has commitments such as ‘More Doing, Less Planning’, ‘Fail in a Fortnight’ and ‘Act Ethically, Always’, plus an ethos of moving away from large IT contracts.
Hackney’s Head of Digital and Data, Matthew Cain, cited health and wellbeing as probably the most interesting area. It is making a capital investment, with one focus being sensors and other devices to facilitate people living independently for longer in their homes. “We don’t quite know what it will look like yet,” he said, but there will be an emphasis on partnerships with local entrepreneurs and citizens in pursuit of new ideas.
Its air quality initiatives also put many other councils to shame, including its Low Emissions Neighbourhood projects to promote cycling and walking, Zero Emissions Network to incentivise local businesses to cut emissions and its proactive stance to cutting out idling vehicles (an offence in the UK but seldom enforced).