Smart Cities: From City To Place

Technology is a key component in smart city planning but it’s not the only one…

Incremental steps leading to long term goals can also change the way we all live and work, says Philip Brunkard of BT Business.

There is plenty of public sector and media interest about the concept of smart cities and the Internet of Things (IoT) but ‘smart’ is not just about cities or technology. It is also about improving lives by creating towns and communities that work and thrive. This can be achieved through collaboration, with different and innovative thinking for how we deliver public services and grow local economies. It can be enabled by the next evolution of digital technology and shared data. There are many challenges associated with smart initiatives, such as:

  • The sheer scope of ‘smart’ and the wide, varied topics it covers
  • The dichotomy between who invests and who benefits
  • Making the big step from pilot schemes to long-term solutions
  • How procurement is seen as a barrier to delivering commercially viable solutions
  • The need to share data yet the widespread resistance to do so due to security threats and data protection concerns
  • Local authorities and health trusts often lacking the capacity, knowledge and leadership to drive the smart agenda
  • Existing policies and regulation often impeding progress and preventing change

It’s only by way of the public and private sectors working together for the benefit of society that such problems can be overcome.

Working together
 to help all

Smart is all about bringing technology and place together to create an environment where tomorrow’s problems around sustainable communities can be solved. It is about how we reconstruct communities, how we use public spaces more effectively and how we enable people to live better, longer, healthier lives in their own homes.

Data-enabled insights allow local authorities to understand how areas and communities are currently being used – and how they can be used better in the future. This can support the planning and building of the right type of facilities, creating safer and happier communities and enabling regeneration. We need to change the way we live our lives – people must engage better with their environment to make it more sustainable for future generations.

A place strategy must ensure that rural areas are better served, not just urban population densities. It must also address inclusion and deprivation issues. There are cases where contrasting approaches exist across different, often neighbouring, boroughs. For example, dominant ‘digital haves’ might have more of a say when competing for bin collections, yet their loud demands should never be allowed to overshadow the inclusion needs of ‘digital have-nots’ who may require funds for online access to voice their own, possibly greater, needs.

While there is some emphasis on developing garden towns, there is
 still debate as to whether these meet their core objective. One interesting consideration more applicable for large urban areas and cities is the notion of the 24-hour city. A night-time economy is not just about whether a city does or doesn’t have bars and clubs, but can be a parallel to the daytime economy where people have the option to work through the night in retail, office jobs or any equivalent to the nine- to-five system. Such a redistribution of working hours could ease transport and accommodation issues by better utilising transport links and commercial properties, thus increasing sustainability.

A ‘Whole System’ view is needed. A smart city or place is one that is optimal, that has everything it needs to be sustainable, economical and in control of what should be developed, why and where. The fabric of the smart city is flexible and easily shaped. This implicates not only infrastructure but entire communities and the lives of individuals too.

The mindset of smart everything

There is more to smart than just the physical location digital agenda. Smart is also about insightful ways of working and having a disruptive ‘can do’ mindset across organisations, particularly from local authority decision-makers and influencers. Where this is done at grassroots levels it can be instrumental in changing mindsets.

Today, there is a stronger tendency for a more cost conscious, risk averse culture within the public sector that makes change difficult. However, learning from other countries and private sector collaborations can drive progress. Local authorities are often stuck in the mindset of problem solving today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions rather than thinking about what is possible in the future. Initiatives such as innovation clusters can encourage a change of culture, with local startups working together with local authorities to solve social issues.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate

Collaboration across agencies, the private sector and communities is the foundation for success. It focuses on the formation of partnerships to drive change in incremental steps. Such partnerships can create the environment to enable, encourage and foster smart initiatives. On the most basic level, this is about using shared learning, knowledge and ideas to stimulate innovative smart initiatives as well as fully formed pilots because of the competitive nature of fund projects.

There is rarely enough momentum around this, often because local authorities don’t have the capacity and frequently because of the competitive nature of fund allocation. Yet there is an opportunity for commercial businesses to actively encourage engagement with local authorities through such coalitions, which can be mutually beneficial to both public and private sectors, as well as to communities. For this to work, we would need clearer guidance on how commercial governance within public sector procurement would align with this type of approach.

Collaboration is also about getting 
the public on board. Digital skills and education must be addressed as one
 key factor for any developing smart environment. An awareness must be created of how smart cities are in the public interest, while data privacy and security concerns can only be addressed by a broader understanding of the issues, not just the tabloid headlines.

Small steps to big issues

While smart is ultimately about seeking to solve the big and hard issues, this is a long term goal. Focusing solely on the distant big problems will never drive incremental change. Instead, we should imagine all possible future scenarios and then create an environment where small steps move everyone towards long term and lasting solutions.

Small scale smart initiatives might be able to chip away at issues of:

  • Driving digital enablement and access
  • Homelessness–Is There A SMART solution?
  • Housing
  • Healthcare

This would require thinking differently about ways to solve such issues and finding the right hook to initially latch onto a problem. Look at parking, for example. In London, borough councils and TFL have the same concerns around congestion. Expanding cycling routes or augmenting services with sensing technology and/or a gamification approach might not be as obvious a solution as building more roads or car parks, but if they are considered, parking strategies suddenly also start to address long term problems of excessive car usage, air pollution, quality of life, fitness and town centre regeneration.

The pace of place

Here in the UK, we’re not doing smart as fast as other countries, so what can we learn from the successes of others? Why is the UK so different in comparison?

  • Is this because of different economic drivers?
  • Is this because of a different economic agenda?
  • Do these countries have fewer constraints around cross-agency collaboration?

We need to eliminate, or at least ease, the ongoing conflicting priorities and expectations across local authorities and agencies. These can be a result of many different types of barriers, such as political agendas, culture or parochial mindsets. Examples include:

Housing affordability and targets 
can create conflicts between central government mandates and local building needs. The Right to Buy scheme for social housing influences the level of capital investment a council will make as they may not recover the investment.

A council can have multiple live initiatives but not be clear on its priorities. When each one is given equal weight, limited resources are spread evenly but thinly, preventing any one from reaching a beneficial outcome.

Councils can also be caught between what they want to focus on versus what the public is shouting for the most. As a result, the most difficult issues are often put at the bottom of the list.

Open platform, wide technologies

Being open (yet secure) is at the heart of achieving smart – and that applies not just to technology and data but also to ways of collaborating with others. An open platform approach can create an ecosystem for sharing, collaboration and innovative solutions by engaging those with the ideas to drive forward 
a smart solution. Technology vendors that take an open systems approach rather than a monolithic or proprietary one can differentiate themselves within the marketplace and potentially gain better engagement from public sector stakeholders. There is still a legacy within local government where systems don’t use open standards, which makes integration difficult. This should not be repeated for smart.

The year by which Manchester has pledged to become a
 zero carbon city

There is a broad range of technology innovations that will apply, not just IoT and Big Data but also AI, machine learning, robotics and 5G.

The role of local planning

Generally, councils are now focused on their whole place agenda, including
 local planning and housing as their 
key priority. Within this, there are opportunities for making smart proposals but some challenges may require different approaches or policy change. To give some examples:

When a council stopped a town 
centre housing development planning application over congestion and pollution concerns, the developers appealed and got the go-ahead. In this case, central government’s desire to meet housing targets overruled local sustainability needs.

Councils ideally want to include smart ready infrastructure in new homes but this requires upfront capital investment on already tight budgets. Right to Buy offers on social housing also restrict this initiative. After all, if the property might be in private hands within five years, why invest limited funds on smart technologies?

Developers’ behaviour also has an impact, as they often buy up land and hold on to it in the hope of the value increasing. This directly impacts upon councils’ abilities to develop social housing.

Are we moving towards smart places?

Smart requires strong collaboration, consent to use and share data and creativity to solve problems. While we can’t predict the future, we can work together in a way that can create an environment favourable to smart change.

The spectrum of potential use cases is broad but the key question is how can the big issues about health, housing and homelessness be addressed? What’s clear is that whatever the solution is, it will require some of today’s biggest barriers being removed. Planning, policy and procurement constraints and arguably unproductive political agendas will have to hit the road.

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