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).

Hackney skyline

The Hackney skyline from the Arc

The Oslo Difference

In fact, the differences with Oslo start to lessen as you drill down into these sorts of areas. This is reflected in the city’s stated intention of becoming the first electric capital in the world, backed up by investment in supporting infrastructure, 94 per cent of toll income now being spent on public transport (as opposed to 100 per cent on roads in 1990), and initiatives such as emission-free building sites.

Most sweepingly, Oslo now has a climate budget as it seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2020, and by 95 per cent by 2030. The City Government has committed to count carbon dioxide in the same way it counts money. The climate budget comprises 42 measures across energy/buildings, resources and transport, with clear targets against which it will report, overseen by its Agency for Climate, which was established last year.

As the government is only directly responsible for around four per cent of emissions, it has to use governance as a tool. Transport accounts for around 60 per cent so congestion charges and rush hour fees are among the tools. It is also looking at how to capture carbon from its waste-to-energy plants (incinerators, to give them their less cosy title) – while Norway leads in many areas, its recycling rates of around 38 per cent are not an area for bragging about at present.

The Start-ups

What of the day’s start-ups from both communities? Norway’s No Isolation had the device of the day, a recently launched computer screen with a single button that allows photos and videos to be automatically uploaded by family and friends. Developed with the Norwegian Cancer Society and called Komp, it allows elderly people to stay connected. It follows on from the 2015 start-up’s first product, AV1, the world’s first telepresence robot specifically developed for children and young adults with long-term illnesses. AV1 allows children, via an app, to participate in classes and maintain contact with their school friends from their home or hospital bed.

Also using technology to make connections is NyBy, a digital platform for matching social care needs and resources within a secure framework. It has been working for the last two years with three Norwegian municipalities, using the connectivity strengths of the internet to improve efficiency through enabling self-organising.

And Ducky seeks to engage people with climate change by interactive online tools for company staff, school children and individuals to visualise their carbon footprints and work as teams to reduce these, including the ability to model the impact of changes such as daily recycling and meat-free meals. Climate change is very complex, big and scary, said Marketing Manager, Astrid Norum, which means people are not engaged, so Ducky tries to make it personal.

From Hackney, there was BuffaloGrid among others, with devices for off-grid charging of mobile phones. Local entrepreneurs act as agents and the initial pilot has been in northern India. It is a recent Power for All signatory, joining 200+ others within the Power for All Coalition.

The gathering brought together a bunch of like-minded people to swap ideas, inspire each other and provide a platform for a few of the innovative companies in each community. It has been hosted by Hackney each time – which probably says more about the levels of local government austerity in each country than anything else – and all parties clearly believe it is worthwhile so no doubt it will continue, perhaps with other cities and regions coming into the axis over time.