Colin Birchenall, Glasgow City Council Digital Transformation Manager

Written by Alan Robertson on 5 February 2016 in Feature

Connect is running through our Tech 100, profiling the key figures driving the digital agenda in Scotland

Colin Birchenall (@colinbirchenall)

Job Title/Organisation: Digital Transformation Manager, Glasgow City Council

What does your role involve?

It’s a new role. I am responsible for working with council departments and our partners to help them to understand how digital and data-driven innovation can transform how our services are provided and how we support our communities.

What do you consider to be the most imminent challenge in your line of work?

Helping people to understand the “digital imperative”; the scale of the opportunity that new digital technologies provide and the likely disruptive impact from the digital sector if we don’t drive the innovation ourselves. Look at the impact that Uber and AirBnB have had on their respective industries.

There can often be a perception that digital is about traditional enterprise IT systems and delivering online services. It’s not. It’s much more disruptive and pervasive than this. My challenge is helping people to get their head around that and creating an environment where people are encouraged to be innovative.

What has been the most rewarding piece of work you've undertaken?

The Glasgow Future Cities Demonstrator. It provided us with an opportunity to take a more agile and innovative approach to experiment with new digital technologies on a huge scale. We’ve delivered some really cool technology such as intelligent street lights, sensors, apps, and an open cloud-based big data platform (@openglasgow) that can help everybody in the city make better use of data.

It clearly demonstrates how new digital technologies can transform how services are delivered, empower communities, and provides a platform to stimulate civic innovation. We have received a lot of global recognition for what we have achieved. It’s amazing to have had the opportunity to be involved in a programme like that.

How can Scotland bridge the digital skills gap?

It has to start with bridging the digital divide and ensuring that everybody has an equal opportunity for using and embracing digital technology, and ensuring that the digital offering in Scotland is meaningful, engaging and relevant so that it is attractive to people.

Importantly, however, it will be important that we enable people to be “digitally resilient” to cope with the rate of technological change that is predicted. It’s no good to develop the digital skills that we need now. The skills that will be required in five to ten years are likely to completely different and it’s almost impossible to predict what skills will be required in the future in such a turbulent industry.

The best we can do is to help prepare people for change and accept that this puts more of a focus on life-long learning.

Which new technology excites you the most?

What excites me is the collective impact of the advances in cloud computing, mobile technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), and big data. We are already seeing how these technologies can come together to provide innovative new smart home, smart city and smart transport products; from smart thermostats, to smart street lights, through to driverless cars.

Our physical worlds and digital worlds are converging. This is the start of a new era of the information age and a seismic shift for the technology industry. Examples like the ones I’ve mentioned provide a glimpse of the opportunities that will exist to re-think our tradition view of what we currently call IT to more user-centric and embedded digital technologies. It is going to provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for world-leading innovation that can improve our quality of life. That’s very exciting.

What's your favourite app and why?

The Glasgow Walking App by our friends at AddjamI’m a big fan of technology that can bring communities together in the real-world as well as just online in the digital world. On the face of it, the app sounds really simple; it digitises walking leaflets by making them available on smartphones. Actually it achieves much more.

It brings communities together to curate walks on a range of topics such as local heritage, health, and arts and culture. The groups who get actively involved in curating the app even reach out to the broader local community to gather more information and media (such as photographs) that can be incorporated into walks. In turn it then helps to get people active in their community, and helps to improve people’s knowledge of and pride in their community; it’s an app for the local community, by the local community, and it helps people to develop digital skills along the way.

What, for you, will 2016 be the year of from a technology/digital standpoint?

Innovation. Certainly in Glasgow, we have now demonstrated smart city approaches and technology at scale now. We have demonstrated how this new era of digital technology can not only create new opportunities to stimulate innovation but provides opportunities to make it more relevant to communities and our citizens.

We have amazing levels of talent in the city. 2016 is our opportunity to learn from the Future Cities Demonstrator and create an open and creative environment that provides opportunities for everybody in the city to work together collectively in new ways and create innovative new solutions that can make a real difference for the city.

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