Where next for UK Smart Cities?

A round-up from the inaugural All Parliamentary Party Group on Smart Cities.

On Wednesday afternoon, around 50 people gathered in Westminster to launch the new All Parliamentary Party Group (APPG) on Smart Cities. The APPG and the inaugural event, both chaired by Dan Byles MP, complement the efforts of other Government initiatives, such as the Smart Cities Forum and the Future Cities Catapult, bringing together public and private institutions from up and down the country to discuss the opportunities and challenges ‘Smart Cities’ can offer.

The launch event, which took the form of a panel discussion and Q&A session, was attended by a wide range of representatives from Government, business and the technology sector, and featured a lively discussion and debate on a host of issues – ranging from the important role of ‘Smart’ solutions in solving city challenges, to the need for stronger leadership and improved citizen engagement.

Joining Mr Byles on the panel were Sir Mark Walport, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Volker Buscher, a director of Arup’s consulting practice, and David Burrows, Microsoft’s government engagement lead for Europe.

While none of the panellists tried to exclusively define what ‘Smart’ means, there was a general consensus that Smart Cities are those that are trying to solve their long-term challenges (such as population growth, transport constraints and budget pressures) by making greater use of digital technology and big data.

Here are some of the highlights from the day’s discussion:

Fragmented Progress

Panellists identified significant discrepancies in Smart Cities progress throughout the UK: while some initiatives have demonstrated strong efficiency gains (such as savings made by introducing Smart Street Lighting), there were concerns that efforts to successfully implement such schemes remain fragmented, and there is a need to adopt a ‘systems’ approach to this agenda – which means thinking about how different variables (whether related to demographics, climate change, energy or housing) interact and influence each other within a whole, integrated landscape.

Balancing Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Deployment was also an important point of discussion. Panellists considered whether cities should adopt a top-down or bottom-up approach to implementing Smart Cities initiatives, and how a balance could be struck between the two. In particular, panellists emphasised the important role of strong city leadership in drawing together a long-term strategy and vision for their transition to a Smart City, and acting as an enabler for the progress of the Smart agenda – something that they thought was missing in UK cities and should be strengthened.

Citizen Engagement and Digital Democracy

There was consensus around the importance of putting citizens and their needs at the heart of Smart Cities, by increasing their involvement in decision-making using digital technologies and/or making sure that their needs are well integrated in any ‘Smart’ plans. This gave rise to some discussion about the digital divide and the capacity of deprived or marginalised members of society, who lack digital skills, to engage with such initiatives. In response, panellists suggested that there was a need for governments to invest in delivering improved, long-term digital education across populations, as an essential step towards solving this problem.

The Path Forward for the UK

In general, the strong support for the Smart agenda seems to suggest that cities that choose not to engage will lose out in the long-term. While the UK is well positioned to reap the benefits of the growing Smart Cities market, it needs to work harder to attain and maintain a leadership position on the deployment, use and export of new technologies and digital skills – especially considering the fast advancements that developing countries like China are making on this front.

As with many of these events, the first session ended with more questions raised than answered, but this offers plenty of fodder for future meetings, and suggests that there is significant value in bringing people together to address some of these burning issues, such as:

  • How do we monetise the value of data – the bedrock of the Smart Cities movement?
  • How do we understand the value and capability of the digital economy?
  • Where is the best place for cities to start their Smart Cities implementation?
  • How much of cities’ Smart Cities agenda can be planned and coordinated, and how much is best produced through spontaneous, organic means?

The APPG is certainly still finding its feet, but I look forward to seeing how it will evolve and grow over the coming months, and the extent to which it can build useful and practical answers to some of the most contested issues at the heart of the Smart Cities concept.

There is no doubt that it will be important for the APPG to make sure that its efforts are well coordinated with groups and organisations that share similar aims, such as the Future Cities Forum, in order to avoid duplication and maximise benefits. I would also like to see greater representation of UK cities, as only five are currently participating as Associate Members, as it will be extremely difficult for progress to be made on issues such as leadership, strategic planning, or better coordinated services, when the main players responsible for these are absent from the discussion.

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