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What our cities will look like in 50 or 100 years is a bit of an unknown – but one thing we can be pretty sure about is that information and data, new technology, and enhanced communications will sit at the heart of how governments, services, infrastructure, homes and businesses interact in future cities. This will, in part, be a realisation of what we tentatively already know: that there are significant potential benefits in finding ways to work more ‘smartly’. More efficient services can take the pressure off increasingly stretched public budgets; businesses can expand by competing for a slice of the smart cities export market (estimated by BIS to be worth $400 billion by 2020); and data and technology can provide new solutions to age-old challenges such as environmental sustainability and social integration.
Cities large and small across the UK have recognised this, and are demonstrating a willingness to embrace smarter way of doing things. Our podcast on the current state of smart cities, which features Enrico Motta from MK:Smart, and Ben Unsworth from Socrata, explores some of the ways in which this adoption of a smart approach is already happening. We reflect on cities’ appetite for data, as well as the increasing need for new approaches to public services, as the crunch point of the Barnet Graph of Doom looms ever nearer. Ben and Enrico also set out their key priorities for the smart cities of the future – in particular, the need for investment in enabling infrastructure to support the Internet of Things, and for a commitment to open data from local authorities, service providers and companies.
Both of these issues were picked up in our previous briefing on smart cities, which set out some of the key issues, looking at definitions, the reasons behind slow progress, the challenges that need to be overcome, and how government is supporting this agenda. While there’s been a great deal of progress in the last year both nationally (such as the £100 million investment in driverless cars) and locally (including the launch of Bristol is Open and Manchester’s Triangulum project), the challenges that we face on the path to smarter cities haven’t changed substantially.
There’s still confusion about what we really mean by a ‘smart city’. There is a perception that to be ‘smart’, cities need big ticket items like driverless cars or dedicated smart city teams. Actually, doing things ‘smarter’ – which really just means using data and technology to deliver more efficient services and to address other economic, social and environmental challenges – has more to do with changing what we already do, than by doing something new.
This means that being ‘smart’ has to be at the heart of cities’ overall strategy. Changing the way we do local government is challenging, but the functions of a city – transport and housing, education and welfare – do not stand alone. They are part of a system, and to be successful, the smart agenda needs to be a fundamental part of all of these, not just an add-on. We’ve seen something of a shift in smart cities away from the large technology companies and towards cities over the last few years, which has helped with its incorporation into strategy – but there’s still a way to go.
In the near future, cities will need to make decisions on whether to roll-out their smart city pilot projects. Many of the ongoing UK smart city projects are tests, supported by short-term funding. Future City Glasgow for example, with £24m of InnovateUK Demonstrator Funds, are leading on a series of trials from street lighting to citizen mapping, while Manchester’s project is funded as a Horizon 2020 Lighthouse Project. It’s really important that pilot projects exist, as the development and the scalability of technology relies on this test phase. But at some point, these tests need to roll out into widespread practice, and cities and their smart city partners need to be supported to establish the sustainable business models that will enable this.
Allowing cities to act independently and strategically will help them to address these issues. The Manchester devolution settlement, which includes new powers over health, social care and transport services and budgets, will enable the city to achieve greater degrees of service integration than would otherwise be the case in a more centralised system. Settlements such as this allow cities to make their own decisions about where and how smart solutions are incorporated into the way that they deliver services.
If this is combined with greater degrees of financial devolution, it would allow cities to accrue the savings that they make from smart investments – savings in health and social care bills from installing household sensors, for example. Success in the smart cities agenda hinges on cities being granted these incentives to do things smarter and better in the future.
Centre for Cities has a strong interest in smart cities as part of our ongoing research programme. You can listen to our podcast on the current state of our smart cities below. Keep an eye on our website for existing and future work on smart cities. If you’re interested in being part of the conversation, you can get in touch here.
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