Building a Digital Coalition for Sheffield

This is a call to action for anyone interested in helping to make Sheffield a Smarter City.

Over the summer, Sheffield City Council joined Sheffield Digital, the association for the people and businesses of Sheffield’s digital industries as a Regional Partner. The Council has also been drafting its Digital Inclusion Strategy and developing a strong relationship with Google — you might be aware of the Digital Garage or the world’s first Google Digital Bus.

These are just two examples of a strong and growing commitment by the Council to take its city leadership role seriously in relation to Sheffield’s digital and smart city agendas. They are actually part of a much broader discussion which aims to address the question:

How can the individuals and organisations in the city with an interest in maximising the use of digital combine forces to make Sheffield a Smarter City?

This is across all parts of the digital agenda including skills, health, infrastructure, the economy, local government services, essentially — everywhere that digital technology is or can have a significant impact on the lives, and life chances, of the people and businesses in our city.

Last year Sheffield was ranked as the 10th ‘Smartest’ city — classed as a ‘challenger’ city — in the UK in Huawei’s UK Smart Cities Index. Our ambition is for the city to now build on that ranking and reputation by helping to combine the resources and efforts of those people and organisations who want to make a difference.

You can hear Sheffield Digital’s discussion with me, covering the City’s ambition for a Smarter Sheffield and the development of the Digital Coalition on episode two of the Sheffield Digital Podcast.


There is a strong ambition for Sheffield to be a leading Digital City which supports individuals and business to thrive in the Information Economy.

BUT, there is no agreed narrative about what this means, what Sheffield’s focus on Digital or a Smart City is or a city-wide coordination (that’s not just the Council) on this agenda. This puts Sheffield at a potential disadvantage when competing with other UK Smart Cities who have a more coherent and well-rehearsed narrative.

HOWEVER, there is a thriving digital community in Sheffield doing awesome things with a huge will to make the ambition of a Smart Sheffield a real prospect. Whilst we might not — yet — have a clear narrative or coherent organising framework to make this happen, we have all of the ingredients necessary to make Sheffield able to compete with other UK Smart Cities.

THEREFORE, we (more of who the ‘we’ is next) need to get some coordinated focus on amplifying the digital activity already happening in Sheffield so we can move the city off the cusp of a digital boom into the middle of one.


The ‘we’ is everyone in the city who wants to contribute to building a Digital Sheffield — we are calling it the Sheffield Digital Coalition.

Our conversations with stakeholders right across the city over the past few months have now begun to solidify around the concept of a ‘Digital Coalition’ for Sheffield — a broad group of people and organisations, representing different areas of expertise and interest, who share collective desire, and some responsibility, for developing the city’s digital capabilities in particular domains.

The ‘we’ is about playing to our collective strengths as a set of individuals and organisations across the city. Achieving our digital ambitions and creating a Smart Sheffield will be a team game and the more players we have on the field, the more successful we’ll be.

The Council as the key, democratic institution in the city should and will play a leading role in this but the power of its influence and leadership will be in enabling, facilitating, connecting and unblocking. It cannot and should not try to do everything — this work is about amplifying the efforts of everyone in the city and ensuring that we can address the gaps where they exist. The Council and other partners across the City will play an important part in that.

Whilst we will need to ensure that we engage key interests across all domain areas, the intention is that the Coalition will be self-selecting (i.e. people can join and leave it as they wish), and that groups within the Coalition will share common ways of working and sharing information. That is information about what is, and should be, going on in each of the domains, shared both with the rest of the coalition and publicly.

We are currently sketching out the details of this, and there is still a lot of work to do. But we also want many other people to contribute to it, help us to shape it and join the coalition to make it happen.


The work of the Sheffield Digital Coalition will be built around seven domain areas.

The Smart Sheffield Report (2015) identified a number of domain areas that could form part of an approach to developing a Smart Sheffield. We have borrowed and further developed these to fit the context of Sheffield today. The domains are basically agreed areas of focus with each domain covering a number of specific subject areas, or sub-domains and a number of key challenge questions to be addressed. We believe that it is important for the people and organisations involved in each of the domain groups to come to some consensus on what these challenge questions should be.Using these domains, an initial domain model has been constructed (Figure 1) which serves a number of purposes:

  • Enabling people to see connections between activity, people and organisations — issues and challenges are rarely contained in neat areas of a city’s ecosystem;
  • Amplifying the good stuff — you only know what you know. Seeing what other people are doing may generate inspiration in others;
  • Identifying the gaps (opportunities) — without know what is happening we can’t really be sure what isn’t;
  • Measuring impact — what is the ‘health’ of each domain and therefore of Sheffield as a Smart City?; and
  • Telling our story — an important part of this will be helping us to tell our story, both within Sheffield and outside of the City. The ultimate goal is that we have a Smart Sheffield ‘brand’ that has currency and can attract interest and investment into the City.
Figure 1: Draft Domain Model for Smart Sheffield

Note: The sub-domain ‘assessments’ on this version of the domain model are illustrative only.

In ‘assessing the territory’, the following scale could be used to undertake a self-assessment. It’s based on the concept of ‘fitness’ which is essentially a health indicator for how well each domain is doing.

  1. Emerging: Limited activity but some early initiatives in place.
  2. Developing: Some initiatives established and delivering with more planned.
  3. Strengthening: Strong initiative activity with a growing sub-domain community.
  4. Thriving: Thriving community with significant numbers of initiatives.

Assessing the fitness of Sheffield in this way is not a judgmental exercise, it is essentially a way for us to baseline where we are and help us understand where to prioritise our effort. The self-assessment will be performed by members of the coalition with knowledge of particular domains to allow a consolidated view to be taken.

For info, the Huawei UK Smart Cities report uses 2 dimensions with 5 criteria each: “Strategy” determined by Vision, Digital Innovation, Service Innovation, Sustainability Plans, Stakeholder Engagement. “Execution” determined by Implementation, Digital Delivery, Service Delivery, Environmental Impact, Community Reach. We could possibly adapt this an initial self-assessment.


Smart Cities are those that use their collective talent and expertise to provide smart answers to smart questions.

Smart questions are intelligent questions informed by good data, information and knowledge. Smart answers are solutions that employ new technologies, methods and behaviors in positive ways.

The Coalition will only be successful if it can identify priorities (in the form of smart questions) and deliver on them. We see this as a shared, ongoing process that needs to be nurtured, encouraged and continually communicated about, rather than a consultation that produces a strategy and leaves the Council with the responsibility of implementing a set of recommendations. We think this approach is a lot smarter, and has the potential to set Sheffield apart from other places.

The domain model will allow us to focus on asking — and answering — some smart questions for the city. Here are some examples:

  1. Economy — “How do we get more start-ups to scale up?”
  2. Governance — “How can digital reform Sheffield’s public sector?”
  3. Infrastructure — “How do we make Sheffield the most connected UK city?”
  4. Living — “How do we create homes that are future proofed?”
  5. Mobility — “How do we create a transport offer that reduces car ownership?”
  6. People — “How do we use digital to increase well-being and happiness?”
  7. Resources — “How do we improve Sheffield’s air quality without implementing a low emission charging zone?”

We think it is important that each domain area picks the challenge question(s) — this again is about playing to our collective strengths and solving city problems as a collaborative effort.

We also think that it’s important to adopt the kinds of behaviours that are more likely to lead to a successful set of outcomes and to build the key capabilities to underpin this (Figure 2). Inspiration for these behaviours come from Paul Maltby’s excellent article Prototyping a One Team Government Manifesto.

Figure 2: Behaviours and Capabilities to drive the Digital Coalition.

Process should not become the proxy for progress — why governance must be nimble.

We do need some organising capability to make this happen but the focus should be on lightness and agility. When governance becomes the focus or prevents action, it’s too heavy and we should seek to resolve it.

The organising structures, at its simplest, are based around a digital community which feeds ideas and expertise into a number of domains that will be asked to make progress, which in turn will be overseen and steered by a group of digital leaders.

We must aim to do our work on this in the open but recognise that there will be times when this may not work or be appropriate. We should make sure this is the exception.

Figure 3 shows the component parts of the Coalition. Since we will be looking to make Sheffield a Smart City that makes the most of digital tools, we will be doing the same as part of making it happen. We will be using Twitter, Trello and Slack to enable working in the open and build a culture of collaboration.

Figure 3: Components of the Coalition

So what’s next?

  • September 21st: We are hosting a Digital Policy Conflab to bring in opinions and encourage discussion on this concept, approach and how it’s articulated.
  • October: We will use the feedback from the Conflab and the other conversations we are having to firm up the narrative and build coalitions in the city domains.
  • November 15th: We are going to run a city-wide Digital Conference to bring the Coalition and sub-communities together to meet and present the current initiatives and progress across the domains. Further information to follow.
  • End of the Year: We hope to have the Digital Coalition, its operating parameters and narrative fully formalised and in place.

This post describes the ‘Alpha’ version of our approach to creating a Smart Sheffield and we would love your feedback and suggestions.

If you want to make Sheffield a Smarter City that uses our collective talents to address our biggest city-wide challenges, then we’d love you to be part of our Digital Coalition.

Leave a comment with your contact details and we will be in touch.