Are our cities really getting smarter?

According to Tom Saunders, senior researcher at Nesta and author of report Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up, smart cities have “failed to deliver on their promise”. To be fair he is referring to those cities that have taken a “top-down approach” to smartness, which Saunders thinks is not so, well, smart. The result is high costs with low returns and a public that just doesn’t get what all the fuss is about.

In 2013 the UK government took a bold step and claimed the country could lead the world in smart city development. Former Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said at the time that the UK is “well placed to take advantage of up to a $40bn share of the market place by 2020, so we must make sure we do not miss this opportunity.”

So what happened? Have we missed the opportunity or are we looking at this all wrong?

“We need to indicate to consumers and citizens that this is a worthwhile investment for local authorities,” says Sean Weir, commercial director for smart metering and M2M at Arqiva.

Weir is right. His views fit with Saunders at Nesta too, who argues that smart city initiatives need to be people-centred and not technology-driven. Nesta has a few examples from around the world but they are not really that new.

According to a recent survey of 2,070 people by Arqiva and YouGov, 96% of people in the UK are not aware of any smart city initiatives being run by their local city council in the last year. Local authorities have a PR job to do too, unless of course the services are just not right for its citizens?

Arqiva, which has a vested interest in the development of smart cities given that it has deployed an IoT network across 10 cities in the UK, has a rich history in communications and connectivity. It was, it claims, involved with the first satellite TV tests in 1978, the world’s first digital terrestrial TV launch in 1998 and the world’s first outsourced mobile phone network in 2001. So what is the UK smart city scene looking like? Are councils getting it horribly wrong?

“There are lots of initiatives such as Bristol is Open or ones in Leeds and Glasgow,” says Weir. “There are projects in Birmingham, the GLA is doing work in London, Cognicity in Canary Wharf, Milton Keynes is doing smart cars… there is a huge amount of activity but public awareness of it is very low.”

The problem, suggests Weir, is twofold. Firstly, councils have not yet worked out how (and perhaps cannot afford) to get the most from the connectivity. He points to a number of projects that are “too futuristic” and not focussing on the here and now. The second problem is that even if a project is successful, councils do not have the resources to scale them up to a level where they can really make a difference.

“It’s a dilemma at smart city level,” adds Weir. “Bristol is creating a research environment for piloting new city innovation but not doing anything that really benefits citizens. In Leeds they have small initiatives where they are experimenting with small SMEs to develop things through hackathons and relationships with universities but they are not actually doing anything. Birmingham has a demonstrator project which it’s trying to get off the ground but there is no strategy around what they actually want to do with it. The Scottish Enterprise across Glasgow and Edinburgh has a number of initiatives going and it is probably more aggressively looking at how to benefit citizens.”

Talk to the suppliers

Weir says that more case studies are needed to help cities understand how connectivity and automation through sensors can have benefits in terms of cost savings and improved services.

“We are now talking to suppliers who service the cities rather than the cities themselves to try and help get projects off the ground,” says Weir. “We are talking to people who do waste management for example - the G4Ss, the Sercos and Carillions.”

Should central government do more to help?

“Central government could play a role in the way it releases funds for projects. It could also think about how it incentivises the adoption of smarter technology in cities for the long term benefit of residents. Capital investment is a hurdle that has to be overcome.”

The Government has certainly quietened down after its initial fanfare two years ago. Cities Minister Greg Clark in a recent announcement added very little to the debate, while Scott Steedman, Director of Standards at the British Standards Institution, suggested smart cities actually need standards, a framework of best practice.

It sounds like more bureaucracy than anything else. What councils surely need is funding and answers. Weir suggests that listening to what citizens want may be a step in the right direction. So what do they want?

Arqiva’s survey claims that congestion and traffic management is high on the wish list, followed closely by intelligent lighting and waste management. But it is in healthcare that Weir believes communities could see considerable benefits, bringing together consumer connectivity with a wider network linking GPs, clinics and other healthcare organisations.

“It’s a megatrend, the move to have more in-home health management,” Weir says. “The 'worried well’ are starting to look after themselves at home and get better social care at home moving the burden from GPs and A&E.” 

Arqiva is trialling a number of services including medicine taking, blood pressure monitoring and room temperature sensing.

“With a growing and ageing population the trend is for greater healthcare at home. What's enabling this? IoT and wider smart city technology can be critical and can make a real difference.”

And that’s the real point of smart cities. If a project is not going to make a difference, what is the point?


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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