Could recent backlash crash the not-so-smart city?

In May 2020, Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs abruptly cancelled its smart city vision for Toronto’s waterfront, citing that “unprecedented economic uncertainty” created by the pandemic had made the project unachievable.

Named ‘Quayside’, the venture proposed a 12-acre development of sleek apartments and neighbourhood amenities that heavily incorporated data and technology into urban design and residents’ daily living.

Including an underground delivery system and ice-melting heated roads, the futuristic plan aimed to turn Toronto into the world’s first truly ‘smart city’.

Yet, the Quayside development faced fierce criticism before it could even get underway.

Planned for the heart of the development was the harvesting of an extensive flow of data, amassed by studying millions of residents’ daily movements through sensor-laden streets and buildings.

However, critics saw a darker side to Sidewalk Labs, fearing that residents’ data would be stored and used by Google. Such fears only intensified after a series of publicised data breaches at Big Tech companies.

US businessman Roger McNamee described the project as “the most highly evolved version to date of surveillance capitalism”, warning that Google would use “algorithms to nudge human behaviour” for corporate interests.

Despite Sidewalk’s assurances that the data collected wouldn’t be shared with third parties, Toronto city council members began to voice official concerns. A National Research Council report stated that Canada was in danger of becoming a “data cow” for foreign tech companies.

After years of a controversial public debacle that played out in court rooms and street protests, the proposals were eventually abandoned altogether.

An industry slowing down

The story of Quayside’s defeat perhaps has greater implications for the future of smart city culture. Toronto has coincided with numerous high-profile examples of downscaling in grand smart city projects across the world, such as Songdo in South Korea and the ill-famed Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

In fact, the overall trend of the smart city sector is declining, as the regions with the most smart-city deployments have seen large drop-offs in new developments. For instance, the number of new projects in Europe increased year-on-year to a peak of 43 in 2016- yet fell to just 17 in 2020.

Likewise, data suggests that the major suppliers to government smart city projects have considerably weakened their influence on the sector. Since 2016, companies such as Cisco Systems, Vodafone and Telensa have greatly reduced the number of new developments that they are undertaking, whilst there are numerous examples of backtracking throughout the industry.

In late 2020, Cisco Systems announced that the company was scrapping its flagship smart-city software altogether. Such instances suggest at least a slowing down in production ventures or perhaps even a full-on shift in company priorities.

So, why is the smart city bandwagon beginning to falter?

Not ‘smart’ enough post-pandemic?

Whilst the privacy backlash movement that finished off Quayside is exemplary of existing privacy concerns before Covid-19, the pandemic may have further compounded the barriers faced by the smart city.

The hard-hitting financial implications and uncertainties created by the pandemic have presumably put ambitious smart city projects on the back burner, as city governments re-align their priorities towards economic recovery.

They’ve [smart city technology providers] all seen the challenges and the opportunities in this pandemic moment, says Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a civic-innovation research lab in Boston. “I think they are still struggling and looking at their product portfolio and looking to see what value they can add. I do think the field has shifted.“

Jacob suggests that the pre-Covid landscape of smart city promotion has ultimately shifted, a viewpoint that is echoed throughout the industry. Many believe that the pandemic has forced city governments and citizens to re-evaluate their priorities of what needs to be achieved through urban areas.

David Bicknell, principal thematic analyst for GlobalData, arguesSmart cities had their time. They are no longer about glossy, sensor-driven metropolises.“  He adds, “The impact of the pandemic and climate change now means smart cities cannot just be ‘smart’ – they must be resilient and sustainable, too.”

It could be argued that there is now a greater focus for citizens in creating tangible outcomes in their communities on the key issues of climate change, health and social equity.

Whilst the potential for technology to contribute to driving change in these areas is undoubted, the idea that a smart city business model should just be about the city getting smarter is difficult to uphold in the landscape of post-pandemic finances.

With the exception of climate change issues, the traditional smart city does not look to tackle the big issues that have really been reinforced by the pandemic, Jacob argues.

Privacy concerns here to stay

The pandemic also introduced a new array of concerns surrounding data collection. Contact tracing apps, biometric vaccine passports and temperature scanning as a condition to entering premises have added fuel to the fire of privacy issues that people are now encountering.

Added to this, some academics worry that whilst these technologies have been accepted into day-to-day life under unprecedented measures, it leaves open the possibility of such platforms being manipulated for more sinister purposes in the future.

And, with the numerous high profile legal cases surrounding Facebook, Amazon and Google’s privacy policies now regular features in the media, the public is certainly more aware in its understanding of privacy issues since the Quayside story.

Final Thoughts

Despite how strongly opposed many residents were to the Toronto Quayside development, it is clear that the integration of sensors, scanners and cameras into city living is here to stay. And there are undoubted benefits of smart technologies that are already evident in cities throughout the world- from intelligent LED street lighting to data-driven traffic control systems.

However, for the potential of smart technologies to be truly realised and accepted by the public, the smart city must be re-aligned to fit the privacy conscious post-pandemic world.


Further reading: more about smart cities on The Knowledge Exchange Blog

Regaining momentum: can Mobility-as-a-Service get back on the road?

When we last wrote about it in 2019, Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) appeared to be on the threshold of transforming the way we get around. An innovative MaaS project had already taken off in Finland, and pilot projects in Sweden and the UK were trialling the advantages of bundling together different transport modes into a single service.

But more recently, some of the high hopes behind MaaS appear to have faded, with some questioning whether the concept needs a reboot.

The benefits of MaaS

The big idea behind MaaS is that anyone can use their mobile device to plan, manage and pay for a journey, selecting from a menu of transport options – such as buses, trains, ride-hailing and bike sharing services.

For passengers, MaaS promises greater freedom of choice. In addition, MaaS has the potential to help support government policy objectives, such as promoting active lifestyles, reducing traffic congestion and improving the air quality of our cities. For transport providers, MaaS could generate new business and cost savings. Research published in 2020 found that transport-related energy consumption can be reduced by up to 25% by allowing travellers unbiased choice of mode of transport for each trip.

Putting the brakes on MaaS

In spite of its appealing possibilities, the momentum driving MaaS seems to have stalled. Reluctance by drivers to give up their cars, the contractual and technical complexity of combining multiple transport modes into one service, and the challenge of getting private companies and public services to work together have all hindered the development of MaaS.

In Finland, once the shining example of MaaS in practice, the operation of the platform has been overshadowed by a conflict over ticketing apps between the country’s leading MaaS provider and Helsinki’s local transport authority. Elsewhere, private sector-led MaaS initiatives have run into financial difficulties.

Debunking the myths about MaaS

Despite these setbacks, MaaS still has its champions. Last month, in a webinar hosted by Intelligent Transport, Sohejl Wanjani and Ulrich Lange from German technology firm Siemens responded to some of the arguments that are often put forward against public transport authorities developing MaaS solutions.

A new platform requires a new app
While it’s possible to build a new app solely for MaaS functions, existing apps can be expanded, meaning users don’t have to have multiple accounts and payment methods.

Building a new MaaS project is too big for us
Two options are open to providers: start with one service provider, offering a fully integrated service (planning, booking and paying for trips within the MaaS app) and later add additional service providers; alternatively, start with several service providers, and offer only planning and booking, but not payment.

Most users rely on Google Maps. We can’t do better than that
The key to a successful MaaS system is data, and transport authorities are rich in data about usage of their services. MaaS systems can use real time data that Google does not have, and can integrate ticketing and booking for all modes of transport. In addition, transport authorities can generate income from their own datasets, adapted to local circumstances. Once passengers are assured of the integrity and quality of the data, they are more likely to use the service.

A good example of this is Denmark’s Rejseplanen. This nationwide mobility platform was launched in 2007, and has since achieved more than 5 million downloads. In Denmark, this app is used more frequently than Google Maps, and its extensive data set continues to drive its popularity. Today, Rejseplanen includes information not only for rail, bus and metro services, but also cycle hire and even domestic air services.

Upgrading to a MaaS platform is not financially viable
As cities introduce measures to reduce traffic congestion, it should now be clear that the need to tackle climate change is driving a shift away from private vehicle use to shared modes of transport that are healthier for people and for the planet. MaaS can contribute to climate-friendly travel, while helping transport providers achieve their strategic goals – generating additional revenue streams, increasing passenger usage and creating new mobility services.

Last year, Renfe, the national railway company of Spain, signed a contract with Siemens to develop a nationwide MaaS platform that will allow users to plan, book and pay for trips in a single application. The system will integrate different modes of shared and public transport, such as train, bicycle, metro, bus, car sharing, and scooter services. Renfe clearly sees MaaS as a viable concern; it expects the new service to generate a 4% increase in train travel, 650,000 new customers, and €156m in additional revenue.

MaaS on the move

MaaS is by no means a lost cause. Last month, a research study estimated that the worldwide market for MaaS would grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 36.8% over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Berlin’s Jelbi service is currently the world’s largest MaaS solution, bringing together public transport, bike sharing, e-scooter, taxis and ridesharing services, as well as offering 12 “Jelbi Stations” where users can rent, return and recharge a range of different vehicles.

Last year, Pittsburgh’s mayor unveiled its own MaaS programme. Move PGH is a partnership between the city’s public transport authority and an assortment of carpooling, car rental, e-scooter and bike sharing enterprises.

Final thoughts

MaaS is still in its infancy, and it’s too early to be sure of its future direction. While its proponents present a seductive vision of car-free cities, cleaner air, clearer streets and almost unlimited choices for passengers, the reality may be very different.

A 2020 study questioned the assumptions surrounding MaaS, and argued that, while MaaS has strong potential for increased mobility, there are also “…unanticipated societal implications that could arise from a wholesale adoption of MaaS in relation to key issues such as wellbeing, emissions and social inclusion.”

With MaaS at a crossroads, it will be worth revisiting this issue to assess its progress.

Further reading: more on travel and transport from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Transport – Idox

Idox’s transport solutions support traffic management and the delivery of real-time passenger information across all modes of transport. Through the use of new digital technology, we help traffic managers and local transport authorities to harness data and inform the design of smart transport systems that ease congestion on existing networks. Further information here

Digitalisation and decarbonisation: a 2-D approach to building back greener

Across the world, two disruptive and powerful trends are taking hold: digitalisation and decarbonisation. At times, it seems as if these two forces are acting against each other, with digital technologies accelerating economic growth, but also consuming huge quantities of energy and emitting high amounts of CO2.

But it’s becoming clear that rather than competing, digitalisation and decarbonisation can work together in ways that achieve sustainable economic growth without destroying our home planet.

The net zero imperative

We’re now familiar with the evidence that global warming will do irreparable damage to the world unless we can reduce the greenhouse gases that cause it. Getting to net zero means achieving the right balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.

The challenge is one not just for national governments. Businesses are facing growing regulatory, reputational and market-driven pressures to transform their business models and embrace the shift to a low-carbon, sustainable future. It’s here that digitalisation can support us on the path to net zero.

The digital possibilities

In 2020, a Green Alliance study reported that  digital technologies could have significant positive environmental impacts, including: accelerating the deployment of clean technologies and helping businesses to stop wasting energy and resources.

But the report also found that many UK businesses are still not making use of digital solutions: only 42% of UK businesses have purchased cloud computing services, compared to 65% in Finland and 56% in Denmark. The authors highlighted a number of factors explaining slower digital adoption, including lack of digital skills, concerns about cybersecurity and privacy, and underinvestment in infrastructure.

AI as an ally in the battle against climate change

Another report, published last year by PwC and Microsoft explored the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in tackling the climate crisis. Focusing on agriculture, water, energy and transport, the report revealed numerous ways in which AI can have positive environmental and economic impacts.

  • In agriculture, AI can better monitor environmental conditions and crop yields;
  • AI-driven monitoring tools can track domestic and industrial water use, and enable suppliers to pre-empt water demand, reducing both wastage and shortages;
  • AI’s deep learning, predictive capabilities can help manage the supply and demand of renewable energy.

The report stressed that AI cannot act on its own, but will rely on multiple complementary technologies working together, including robotics, the internet of things, electric vehicles and more.

While the challenges of putting AI to work in tackling the climate crisis are great, the prizes of doing so are equally significant. The PwC/Microsoft report estimated that across the four sectors studied AI could:

  • contribute up to $5.2 trillion to the global economy in 2030;
  • reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by up to 4.0% in 2030, (an amount equivalent to the 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined);
  • create up to 38.2 million net new jobs across the global economy.

Put simply, AI can enable our future systems to be more productive for the economy and for nature.

The downsides of digitalisation

As we’ve previously reported, the infrastructure that supports the digital world comes with significant energy costs and environmental impacts. From internet browsing, video and audio streaming, as well as manufacturing, shipping, and powering digital devices, digital has its own substantial carbon footprint.

The PwC/Microsoft report acknowledges that there will be trade-offs and challenges:

“For example, AI with its focus on efficiency through automation might potentially lead to ‘over exploitation’ of natural resources if not carefully guided and managed. AI, especially deep learning and quantum deep learning, could also lead to increased demand for energy, which could be counter-productive for sustainability goals, unless that energy is renewable and that electricity generation is developed hand-in-hand with application deployment.”

In addition, there is a need to ensure that all parts of the world are able to capture the benefits of digital technologies – not just the more advanced economies.

Final thoughts

Decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions is one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime. Digital technologies have enormous potential not only to achieve decarbonisation, but to improve economic performance.

As both the Green Alliance and PwC/Microsoft reports have underlined, this can be achieved by taking a joined-up approach to digitalisation and green growth. This means thinking beyond the technology to consider issues such as investing in education and training to develop the skills needed to support the growth of clean industries and digitalisation, addressing privacy concerns and supporting businesses in their drive to shrink their carbon footprints.

As we emerge from a pandemic which has inflicted great damage to economies, but which has also demonstrated the possibilities of changing longstanding habits, digitalisation is presenting us with opportunities to ensure that building back greener is more than just a slogan.


Further reading: more on climate change and technology from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

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‘Breaking the bias’ – gender equality and the gig economy

Yesterday marked the 111th International Women’s Day, a global day of celebration for the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. But it is also an opportunity to reflect on and further the push towards gender equality.

While there has been much to celebrate, it has been suggested that the pandemic threatens to reverse decades of progress made towards gender equality as women have been hit harder both socially and economically than men. However, the shift in working practices during the pandemic may help to transform the future of work to the benefit of women.

There has been continued growth in the digital platform or gig economy workforce, with many women entering this type of work because of the pandemic. The gig economy has been shown to have the potential to improve gender equality in the economy, but it is not without its challenges when it comes to gender parity, as recent research has highlighted.

A platform for gender equality?

The report from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) highlights that the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) technology and platform or gig work has the potential to create new opportunities for gender equality, but at the same time can reinforce gender stereotypes, sexism and discrimination in the labour market. It found that some of the key attractions of gig work such as its flexibility, are often disadvantageous to women.

The EIGE surveyed almost 5000 workers in the platform economy across 10 countries to understand who they are, why they do platform work, and what challenges they face.  It found that:

  • a higher share of women (45%) than men (40%) among regular platform workers indicated that they worked on digital labour platforms because they were a good way to earn (additional) income;
  • flexibility, expressed as the ability to choose working hours and location, motivated about 43% of women and 35% of men;
  • a higher share of women (36%) than men (28%) said they do platform work because they can combine it with household chores and family commitments;
  • 36% of women started or restarted platform work because of the pandemic, compared to 35% of men.

The flexibility of platform work has consistently been referred to as the main motivating factor for engaging in such work. And this flexibility has been found to be more important for women, particularly in relation to family commitments. In practice, however, the research shows that flexibility is limited, with as many as 36% of women and 40% of men working at night or at the weekend, and many working hours they cannot choose.

On the plus side of the gender equality debate, it seems the gig economy is slightly less gender-segregated than the traditional labour market, with a higher share of men doing jobs usually done by women. For example, traditionally female-dominated sectors such as housekeeping and childcare are more gender-diverse in the gig economy:

  • housework (women: 54%, men: 46%)
  • childcare (women: 61%, men: 39%)
  • data entry (women: 47%, men: 53%)

But the EIGE’s survey also suggests a degree of skills mismatch and overqualification in platform work that affects women in particular. It suggests that highly educated women are more likely to do jobs that do not match their level of education, putting them at greater risk of losing their skills.

Gender bias in AI

The report also shines a light on the issue of gender bias in AI which can be a particular issue in the gig economy where such systems are frequently used.

It argues that gender bias can be embedded in AI by design, reflecting societal norms or the personal biases of those who design the systems. For example, the use of algorithms that are trained with biased data sets perpetuate historically discriminatory hiring practices which can lead to female candidates being discarded.

Platform workers can also be monitored using time-tracking software, which deducts ‘low productivity time’ from pay, increasing ‘digital wage theft’, to which women are more vulnerable.

Considering just 16% of AI professionals in the EU and UK are women – a percentage which decreases with career progression – this is something that needs to be addressed if gender parity in the gig economy, and indeed the entire modern economy, is to be achieved.

Way forward

The EIGE report welcomes new proposed EU legislation to improve the working conditions of platform workers and the EU’s proposed ‘Artificial Intelligence Act’, suggesting this shows promise when it comes to minimising the risk of bias and discrimination in AI. Also highlighted as a positive sign, is the EU’s commitment to train more specialists in AI, especially women and people from diverse backgrounds.

Nevertheless, one of the conclusions of the report is that regulations and policy discussions on platform work are largely gender blind and that action is required on multiple levels to address gender inequalities and discrimination in the gig economy.

To this end, the report recommends that the EU needs to do the following:

  • mainstream gender into the policy framework on AI-related transformation of the labour market;
  • increase the number of women in, and the diversity of, the AI workforce;
  • address the legal uncertainty in the employment status of platform workers to combat disguised employment;
  • address gender inequalities in platform work;
  • ensure that women and men platform workers can access social protection.

There are lessons here for the UK too. Perhaps the fulfilling of these actions will go some way to improving the situation by the time we get to the next International Women’s Day.


If you enjoyed this article, you may also like some of our previous posts:

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Geographical Information Systems: mapping our ever-changing world

Location data in today’s economy is as important as coal and iron were during the industrial revolution. Using location data – information about the location and movement of people collected from mobile and wearable devices – the essential relationships between geography and consumer experiences, products and services can be identified. This can open up many new business opportunities.

So it’s not surprising that geographical information systems (GIS) – the technology that helps visualise and interrogate location data is experiencing rapid growth. It’s estimated that the UK market for location information products and services is over £2,000 million, while the global market size for GIS is expected to reach $25.6 billion by 2030. Recognising this trend, Idox (the parent company of The Knowledge Exchange) recently acquired two GIS businesses: thinkWhere and exeGesIS Spatial Data Management Ltd.

The power of GIS

As the name suggests, geography is at the heart of GIS. From variations in our landscape to changes in our climate, covering areas of life as varied as crime, health and pollution, GIS can help visualise trends that affect all of us. GIS can also help us to adapt to our ever-changing world. For example, GIS maps that display which areas are prone to flooding can be invaluable when planning new housing developments.

Some of the factors driving the increasing application of GIS include its use in urban planning, disaster management, transport management and the development of smart cities. The coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated the rapid growth of GIS. Governments around the world have adopted the technology to map the spread of the disease and evaluate measures to limit its advance.

GIS in action

Idox’s two new acquisitions have considerable experience of real-world GIS applications.

Working with land and property information firm Millar & Bryce, thinkWhere developed a customised version of its flagship groundMapper platform. The solution enabled Millar & Bryce to bundle all documentation pertinent to a project and publish it to a web viewer, reducing a one week process to 48 hours. Because they can make more informed decisions faster, Millar & Bryce have now made groundMapper the centerpiece of its new Site Assembly Solutions service, giving the company a distinctive selling point in a competitive market for land referencing.

thinkWhere has also applied its expertise to help Bucchleuch Estates easily capture, maintain and communicate their land and property assets and associated information such as documents, photos, drawings and reports. And when constructing a new bypass around the city of Aberdeen, Balfour Beatty was significantly helped by thinkWhere, which provided universal access to mapping and environmental data for all stakeholders — not just on the construction side, but also in legal firms, the government and transport authorities.

Similarly, exeGesIS has developed a strong reputation for its range of GIS focused software products, particularly in the field of environmental data.  Among its success stories, exeGesIS has built a web platform for the National Street Gazetteer, which provides essential information for local government, highway authorities and contractors on more than a million streets in England and Wales. The company has also developed a GIS to help local authorities in Scotland monitor litter and fly-tipping incidents, and worked with JNCC – which advises government on nature conservation – to create a new mapping system to display marine spatial data. In addition, exeGesIS  has worked with numerous local authorities, universities and charities to help them visualise and interrogate important information in interactive and imaginative ways.

Dynamic data for an ever-changing world

By uncovering patterns and relationships, GIS is providing organisations in almost every field of activity with the support to gain deeper insight into data, solve complex problems and make smarter decisions. Both thinkwhere and exeGesIS will continue helping to explain how our world works, and identifying ways to make it work better.

Image: thinkwhere


Further reading: more on digital technologies from The Knowledge Exchange blog

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Digital carbon footprint: the environmental impact of digital transformation

In recent decades, digital technology has revolutionised nearly all aspects of our lives, transforming the ways in which we work, communicate, travel, listen, watch, and play. For governments and policy makers, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the worsening climate emergency, connectivity and technological innovation have quickly become central to sustainable development, and the digital economy has brought great opportunities in tackling the climate crisis and working towards net-zero.

Digital transformation has improved efficiency and productivity across all sectors, and helped to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, transport, planning, building, waste management, and public services. However, our use of digital technology comes with its own energy cost, and as the world becomes increasingly reliant upon the internet and connected devices, it is important to acknowledge and manage the environmental impact.

The carbon footprint of ICT

It is estimated that there are currently around 4.66 billion active internet users globally, and as population and connectivity grows, this figure is increasing rapidly.

While it is easy to think of the internet and the digital world as an abstract and intangible space, the infrastructure that supports it is very much physical and comes with significant environmental and spatial demands. A huge amount of energy is required to power data centres and servers and to build and maintain transmission networks, and most of this energy currently comes from fossil fuels.

The manufacturing, shipping, and powering of digital devices also consumes a vast amount of energy, and the mining and extracting of the raw materials used to make them has a direct impact on land quality and biodiversity.

The use of digital communication channels and social media also has a significant carbon footprint. It is estimated that sending one email emits around 4g of CO2, and that in a typical year for a user of a business email account, around 135kg of CO2 is emitted as a result of incoming mail.

The average internet user is expected to spend around 2.5 hours per day on social media, which is thought to be the equivalent of driving around 0.9 miles in a car, and over the course of a year adds up to the equivalent of driving around 332 miles.

Internet browsing also accounts for a significant portion of digital carbon emissions. According to Website Carbon, loading the average webpage produces around 1.76g of CO2, meaning if a webpage were to get 100,000 views per month, this would emit more than 2000kg of CO2 in a year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, video and music streaming are among the biggest contributors to the digital carbon footprint, due to the vast amount of power needed to run the devices we stream on, as well as the energy needed to power the servers and networks that hold and transmit the content.  Streaming currently accounts for around 63% of global internet traffic, and video streaming alone is thought to generate approximately 300 million tonnes of CO2 every year (accounting for around 1% of total global carbon emissions).

What can we do?

ClimateCare and MyClimate have both produced useful guidance as to how we can work towards reducing our digital carbon footprint. The suggestions include:

  • Changing email habits, for example deleting older emails regularly and unsubscribing from unwanted newsletters.
  • Limiting video streaming and downloading content where possible.
  • Switching to a green cloud provider.
  • Unplugging devices when not in use.
  • Making devices and equipment last for as long as possible, disposing of old devices correctly, and purchasing refurbished or recycled devices where possible.
  • Storing data locally where possible and limiting cloud usage.

While individual behavioural changes are a part of the equation and certainly have the potential to make a significant difference, it is important to consider the wider context and look at changes that can be made at business and government level.

The ESCP Business School has highlighted the increasing need for businesses to be aware of the digital aspect of their carbon footprint, suggesting that the implementation of green ICT strategies will be crucial in helping organisations to meet sustainability goals, while also lowering costs.

Organisations have the potential to make a significant difference, for example by investing in green data centres and servers powered by renewable energy, building greener websites, refurbishing and repairing IT equipment to prolong its lifespan, and encouraging sustainable digital behaviours among employees.

What does this mean for policy?

As digital transformation continues at speed, the need for clear and effective policies around ICT and environmental protection becomes increasingly apparent. A 2018 report by Policy Connect called on governments and policy makers to recognise the energy consumption of the digital economy, to ensure best practice for the energy management of ICT, and to maximise the potential of carbon-saving digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and analytics.

This call to action is echoed in a 2021 report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which emphasises the need for policy leaders to act quickly to harness technological innovation to address the climate crisis, reduce the cost of green technology, and encourage its adoption on a global scale.

As technology progresses and lines between the digital and physical world become increasingly blurred, policy makers will have the challenge of anticipating change and creating flexible policies to deal with rapid developments and manage the impact.

Final thoughts

Overall, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the potential for digital technologies to address climate change and mitigate the impact of the climate crisis. However looking to the digital future, with an increasing number of people and devices online and increased demands on infrastructure, it is important for the environmental impact of technology to be acknowledged, and the effects mitigated.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on digital transformation and decarbonising:

Taking the long view: futures thinking and why it matters

Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

Transport’s journey to sustainability

Looking back and beyond: The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021

brown sand near body of water during daytime

If 2020 was the year of the coronavirus, then 2021 was surely the year of the ‘coronacoaster’. From the highs of vaccine rollouts and loosening of social restrictions to the lows of fluctuating case numbers and a worrying new virus variation, we’ve all become unwilling passengers on what feels like an endless un-funfair ride.

But while the pandemic has never been far from our thoughts, it hasn’t taken over complete control of our lives. Research, evidence gathering, conferences and partnerships have continued in fields as diverse as education and housing, culture and the environment.  Which is why, this year’s reflection on The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021 focuses on some of the issues that we covered which looked beyond the pandemic.

Saving the planet

Until the emergence of Covid-19, many regarded climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity. That threat hasn’t gone away. Last summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the current state of the climate crisis, setting out the already devastating effects of climate change and warning of the deadly impacts, which will intensify as the planet gets hotter.

Throughout this year, our blog has focused on this issue, highlighting the dangers posed by climate change and the efforts to tackle the problem. In April, we looked at the monumental challenge of decarbonising the UK’s ageing housing stock, and highlighted a survey showing that two-thirds of housing associations have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer.

“However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.”

We returned to the issue this month, with an overview of plans by government and industry to make the transition from gas boilers to greener ways of heating our homes.

In November, the landmark COP26 climate conference took place in Glasgow, and while the major talking points included protection of the world’s forests and reducing dependency on fossil fuels, our blog focused on how important the circular economy is to tackling global warming:

“…if we were able to double the current 8.6% global circularity figure to achieve 17% circularity, that move alone would achieve the targets on global warming set out by the Paris COP meeting in 2015.”

The cultural imperative

From community murals to television drama, from open-air concerts to singers entertaining neighbours from their balconies, culture and the arts have played a vital role in diverting us from the grim news of the past two years. And although the arts have taken a severe hit during lockdowns, artists across the globe have continued to create and share their work.

In January, we highlighted some of the ways in which creative people have found new ways to express themselves and to support the wellbeing of others:

“Organisations and individuals have been doing a variety of work to reach those most in need such as projects creating new programmes or adapting existing work to reach people who are shielding or vulnerable in their homes, overwhelmingly addressing loneliness and isolation. One participant described their experience: “I found the process of drawing and painting both cathartic and healing at the most difficult time of my life.”

In April, our blog reported on efforts by cultural communities to break down some of the barriers to digital engagement. It’s estimated that seven million people in the UK don’t’ have digital access, while 11.7 million don’t have the digital skills needed to engage online. In an increasingly ‘digital by default’ society, those numbers are troubling.

Our blog post described some of the ways in which arts and cultural organisations are tackling digital exclusion:

“One project managed by Birmingham Museums involved taking digital kit out to care homes for digital arts sessions. This was not only great for wellbeing; it also showed how digital technologies can be adapted to connect with people within communities.”

Levelling up and the foundational economy

The economy is another recurring theme that we’ve highlighted in our blog. The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

In May we reported from a webinar looking at the scope for charities to get involved. On the face of it, the fact that much of the focus is on capital spending could be challenging for charities whose work involves tackling problems such as addiction or homelessness. However, our blog explained that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of obtaining levelling up funding:

“… a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.”

In February, we shone a light on the foundational economy, which provides some of the essential services of everyday life, such as food, retailing and distribution, education, health and welfare. While these services are vital, many of the workers providing them are among the lowest paid in society.  Our blog looked at the potential value of the foundational economy for the post-pandemic recovery:

“It has been widely agreed that a return to a business-as-usual approach following the pandemic is not the way forward, and that there needs to be a shift in economic policies in order to achieve a more socially and economically just society. Perhaps if such policy change is achieved, a more balanced economy that provides a good quality of life for all can eventually be realised.”

The issues of our times

From town centres to smart cities, from Scotland’s burgeoning space sector to Britain’s hard-pressed food system, throughout the year we’ve been raising awareness of important issues that concern or impact on public policy and practice.

But we haven’t ignored the ongoing public health emergency. In November, we reported from a webinar on some of the lessons from the pandemic and the future role of public health; in July we looked at the important work of health librarians during the pandemic; and in May our blog reported on the role of behavioural insights, data analytics and “nudge” techniques in public health, and in particular during the vaccine roll-outs.

Final thoughts

As we stand on the threshold of 2022, things look uncertain. But, as our blog posts have demonstrated throughout the past year, despite the anxieties and restrictions generated by the pandemic, great work can still be achieved by the public and private sectors, by charities, communities and individuals, for the benefit of society and the wider world.

All of us in The Knowledge Exchange team – Morwen, Donna, Heather, James, Rebecca, Hannah, Euan and Hollie –  would like to wish all our readers a safe and peaceful festive season, and very happy new year.

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research officers and keep up to date with our latest blogs

Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

Photo by Jackson So on Unsplash

By James Carson

Artificial intelligence (AI) has come a long way since computer pioneer Alan Turing first considered the notion of ‘thinking machines’ in the 1950s. More than half a century later, advances such as natural language processing and translation, and facial recognition have taken AI out of the computer lab and onto our smartphones. Meanwhile, faster computers and large datasets have enabled machine learning, where a computer imitates the way that humans learn.

AI has already had important impacts on how we live and work: in healthcare, it’s helping to enhance diagnosis of disease; in financial services AI is being deployed to spot trends that can’t be easily picked up by conventional reporting methods; and in education, AI can provide learning, testing and feedback, with benefits both to students and teachers. And now, intelligent automation is being adopted by local government.

AI goes local

A decade of austerity has left local councils struggling to ‘do more with less’. The Covid-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges, but has also accelerated efforts by local government to find digital solutions.

AI offers local authorities the benefits of streamlining routine tasks and processes, freeing up staff to focus on higher value activities which deliver better services and outcomes to citizens. Intelligent automation could also have important economic impacts. IPPR has estimated that AI could save councils up to £6bn in social care costs.

When it comes to system and data updating, intelligent automation really comes into its own. From managing council tax payments to issuing parking permits, there are now digital solutions to the many task-driven processes that are such a major part of local government’s work.

Many local councils are also exploring the application of chatbots or virtual assistants. These technologies enable customer services to provide automated, human-like answers to frequently asked questions on subjects as varied as waste management, street lighting and anti-social behaviour. The time and cost savings from this kind of digital solution can be substantial. Newham Council in London deployed a multilingual chatbot to answer residents’ questions. Within six months, the technology had answered 10,000 questions, saved 84 hours of call time and generated cost savings of £40,000.

The challenges of AI in local government: getting it right

Earlier this year, a report from the Oxford Commission on AI and Good Governance identified the major challenges facing local authorities when considering AI.

Inaccurate or incomplete data can delay or derail an AI project, so it’s vital that data quality issues are addressed early on. The report highlighted a project where one local authority explored how predictive analytics might be used to help prioritize inspections of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Predictive analytics involves the use of historic data to predict new instances. But in this case the challenges of cleaning, processing and merging the data proved too intractable to produce successful predictions.

Another important step for local authorities is to clearly define the objectives of an AI project, providing a clear vision of the outcomes, while managing expectations among all affected stakeholders – especially senior managers. The report points to a successful project implemented by Manchester City Council which developed an integrated database that allowed them to automate record searches and build predictive tools. The project had a clearly stated aim of identifying troubled families to participate in the government’s payment-by-results programme. This approach gave the project a specific focus and an easily measurable assessment of success.

It’s also important for local councils and technology suppliers to work together, ensuring that suppliers are aware of local contexts, existing data and processes. At the same time, making full use of in-house expertise can help AI technologies work better in a local government setting. The Oxford Commission report explains that after the disappointing results from the previously mentioned HMOs project, in-house data scientists working in one of the participating local authorities developed their own solution.

Sometimes, councils will discover that AI is a good fit in some parts of their work, but doesn’t work in others. In 2019, Oxford City Council explored whether chatbots could help solve design problems in some of their services. The council found that, while waste and recycling enquiries could be easily handled by a chatbot, the complex nature of the planning service would have made it difficult to remove humans from the conversations taking place in this setting. That said, another council has found it possible to develop a chatbot for its planning applications.

At the same time, digitalisation is compelling councils to adjust to new ways of working, something discussed in a Local Government Association presentation by Aylesbury Vale District Council.

The future of AI in local government

Since we last looked at this subject, local government involvement in AI has increased. But there are still important governance and ethical arrangements to consider so that AI technologies in public services can achieve benefits that citizens can trust.

The Oxford Commission report set out a number of recommendations, including:

  • minimum mandatory data standards and dedicated resources for the maintenance of data quality;
  • minimum mandatory guidance for problem definition and project progress monitoring;
  • dedicated resources to ensure that local authorities can be intelligent consumers and capable developers of AI;
  • a platform to compile all relevant information about information technology projects in local authorities.

Final thoughts

Three years ago, MJ magazine described AI as a ‘game-changer’ for local government. The potential benefits are clear. AI can generate labour and cost savings, but also offers the promise of reducing carbon footprints and optimizing energy usage. But while residents may welcome greater efficiency in their local councils, many will have concerns about data privacy, digital inclusion and trust in the use of public data.

At its best, artificial intelligence will complement the services provided by local authorities, while ensuring that the all-important element of human intelligence remains at the heart of local government.


Further reading: more on digital from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Horizon Europe goes live

Horizon Europe is finally a reality. After months of false starts, soft launches and stalled negotiations, 22 June saw hundreds of funding calls published on the European Commission Funding and Tenders Portal. Researchers, institutions and other organisations can now access the seven-year, €95.5 billion research and innovation programme.

Horizon Europe is the ninth European Research and Innovation Framework programme (2021-2027). In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is one of the key instruments of the European Union’s efforts to steer and accelerate Europe’s recovery, preparedness and resilience.

The initial work programme covers the period 2021-2022 and consists of €14.7 billion in funding, which will be allocated based on competitive calls for proposals.

Around €5.8 billion in total will be invested in research and innovation to complement the European Green Deal and the EU’s commitment to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Supporting the EU’s goal of making the 2020s ‘Europe’s Digital Decade’, core digital technologies will receive around €4 billion over 2021-2022. Finally, direct investments of around €1.9 billion will be made towards helping repair the immediate economic and social damage brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said:

“With 40% of its budget devoted to making Europe more sustainable, this Horizon Europe work programme will make Europe greener and fitter for the digital transformation. Horizon Europe is now fully open for business: I would like to encourage researchers and innovators from all over the EU to apply and find solutions to improve our daily lives.”

Associated Countries: UK in, Switzerland out

Although the European Commission has yet to secure final agreements with non-EU countries on participation in Horizon Europe, a 17 June document revealed a list of 18 countries where association negotiations are ‘being processed or where association is imminent’.

The 18 provisionally associated countries are: Albania; Armenia; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Faroe Islands; Georgia; Iceland; Israel; Kosovo; Moldova; Montenegro; Morocco; North Macedonia; Norway; Serbia; Tunisia; Turkey; Ukraine; and the United Kingdom.

Most notably, while the UK is in, Switzerland has been excluded. Reports cite Swiss government officials as saying the European Commission did not give any notification of its intention to exclude the country from provisional access to Horizon Europe.

Writing on Twitter, Senior Policy Officer at the League of European Research Universities (LERU) Laura Keustermans described the move as not only bad news for Switzerland ‘but also very bad news for everybody involved in EU Research and Innovation’. LERU President Kurt Deketelaere also responded, urging the Swiss Government to work to gain access for the Swiss research and education sector, ‘which benefited greatly from association to EU programs in the past’.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is urging researchers to start applying for Horizon Europe funding, with UK researchers and companies eligible for all Horizon Europe calls, apart from applying for equity funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC). The UK will also have to reach agreement with the Commission on rules for participating in sensitive projects in quantum and space technologies.

Free events mark programme launch

To mark the official opening of Horizon Europe, the European Commission arranged two free-to-air conferences for all citizens and stakeholders.

The European Research and Innovation Days, the Commission’s annual flagship Research and Innovation event, was held on 23-24 June. Policymakers, researchers, innovators, and other stakeholders took part in over 70 sessions and workshops to discuss the future European research and innovation landscape. Sessions included ‘tips and tricks’ for writing Horizon Europe proposals; an overview of the Commission’s Funding & Tenders Portal; discussions over lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic; and an overview of the Africa Initiative in Horizon Europe. Recorded sessions from the event can be accessed via the event platform.

Running from 28 June to 9 July, the Horizon Europe Info Days will provide an in-depth overview of some of the main funding channels provided under Horizon Europe. The sessions will specifically focus on the six Clusters under Pillar II – Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness, ­as well as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Research Infrastructures, and Widening Participation and Strengthening the ERA (European Research Area) strands of Horizon Europe. With the exception of the Cluster 3 – Civil Security for Society session on 30 June, the event is open for participation without prior registration, and attendees will have the opportunity to ask questions, find out what is new in Horizon Europe and obtain further details about how the programme will operate. Interested parties can access the event’s online portal here.


ResearchConnect: the essential source of research funding information

This post was written by our colleagues in ResearchConnect, a specialist research funding database built for and designed by the international research community.

ResearchConnect’s up-to-the-minute database covers all of the key research disciplines and is updated by an expert team who monitor and report on a wide range of funding sources including charitable trusts, government, research councils, foundations and corporate sponsors. The ResearchConnect team maintains regular contact with funding administrators and policy managers across a wide range of sources, providing advance notice of new funding opportunities and policy changes.

For more information, visit the ResearchConnect website.

Are smart cities at risk from hackers?

From traffic lights to bins, across the world, internet-connected technology is being integrated across all manner of everyday city infrastructure. Smart city technology can provide cities with real-time information which can be analysed to offer insights into how people interact with the city. These insights can be used to make cities operate more efficiently and ensure that cities are responding to the changing needs of their citizens. 

However, like any internet-connected device, smart city infrastructure runs the risk of being targeted by bad actors who wish to disrupt the operation of city life. 

This blog post explores the extent to which smart cities are vulnerable to attack by hackers and considers the steps that can be taken to prevent them from being compromised by nefarious actors. 

Connected and vulnerable

It’s an unfortunate fact of our increasingly more connected lives that as we connect more devices to the internet, we provide hackers with more opportunities to access our devices, compromise our networks, and gain access to personal information. In recent years, as we have added more Internet of Things (IoT) devices to our home networks, such as smart lightbulbs and thermostats, there is a chance we may be weakening the overall security of our networks. Experts have warned that these small IoT devices may not have the necessary level of sophisticated defences required to protect them from attack. 

Naturally, as these devices normally perform relatively inconsequential tasks (such as turning on a lamp) and don’t tend to host a great deal of personal data, many consumers do not consider the danger they could pose if compromised. Research has found that hackers may be able to gain access to entire home networks through hacking a single IoT device. This can enable hackers to access other connected devices, such as a phone, which holds a large amount of personal data. This can allow hackers to steal personal data, covertly spy on unknowing users, and gain access to email/social media/bank accounts. 

Therefore, as more small-scale infrastructure is connected to the internet, hackers will have more opportunities to take advantage of devices with lax security. In the context of smart cities, these vulnerabilities may be able to gain access to systems that operate critical city infrastructure. 

Smart city vulnerabilities

A key component of the development of smart cities is the fostering of a network of interconnected devices which cover a wide variety of city activities and functions. Through collecting and analysing this data, cities will be able to improve the way they operate in real-time and better respond to the needs of citizens. As such, smart city technology will have to be integrated into systems as simple as a streetlight and as complex as the public transit system. 

As previously discussed, IoT devices have varying levels of protection against hackers, and this is no different in the context of the smart city. Research conducted by UC Berkley found that small smart city infrastructure, such as CCTV systems and traffic lights, were more vulnerable to attack than more significant infrastructure, such as smart waste and water management systems. Vulnerabilities at any point of a network can allow hackers to gain access and potentially to compromise a more critical part of city infrastructure. 

Recently published guidance from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) indicated that smart cities are a target for hackers, and warned that if systems are compromised there may be “destructive impacts”. For example, if a hacker can gain access to a smart traffic management system, they may be able to take the system offline and create traffic gridlock across a city. This would cause mass disruption and prevent people from moving around, which could result in threats to public safety. As a result, ensuring smart cities are protected from bad actors will be crucial as more city infrastructure is integrated into smart internet-connected systems. 

Protecting the smart city

Although smart cities will undoubtedly be a target for hackers, several actions can be taken to protect them from attack, and mitigations can be put in place to protect the wider smart city network if a single device is compromised. Ensuring that smart cities are designed with security at their core is vital. Adding on security at a later date will be ineffective and experts believe a “bolt-on” approach may pose more of a security risk. 

Guidance from the NCSC sets out the importance of understanding who is supplying the infrastructure and being aware that some companies may have links to foreign governments who may wish to gain access to UK systems for nefarious purposes. 

Key steps that the NSCS advise should be taken to protect the smart city include:

  • Understanding the goal of the smart city and potential unforeseen impacts.
  • Examining the threats posed to the smart city.
  • Setting out the governance of smart city cybersecurity and ensuring staff have the correct skills.
  • Understanding the role of suppliers in the delivery of smart city infrastructure and cybersecurity.
  • Being aware of relevant legal and regulatory requirements (particularly surrounding data protection).

Final thoughts

The development of smart cities may provide opportunities to create cities that are more efficient and responsive to the needs of citizens. Unfortunately, as more infrastructure is connected to the internet, hackers are provided with more opportunities to disrupt systems and harvest personal data. The levels of disruption and data will undoubtedly make smart cities an attractive target for bad actors.

Therefore, to reap the benefits of the smart city, it will be vital that security is at the core of the development of the smart city, and that local authorities ensure they have a clear understanding of who is responsible for cybersecurity. 


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