Unlocking the potential of smart cities: All-Party Parliamentary Group calls for coherent UK Government strategy

Hong Kong city

By Steven McGinty

The role of smart cities is not to create a society of automation and alienation, but to bring communities together”. (Iain Stewart MP)

In June, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities published a report outlining the findings of its recent inquiry into how the UK Government can support the expansion of smart cities and enable the UK to become a world leader in the field.

It explains that although some people have concerns that smart cities are expensive gimmicks, or even something more sinister, the potential in becoming smarter could have a tremendous impact on the lives of citizens.  And ‘smart’, the report makes clear is not just about clever technologies, but any innovative approach or solution that brings together industries or government departments to solve everyday problems.

Included in the report are the number of ways smart approaches can improve city life, such as:

  • Making cities accessible for all – improving the design process can ensure that people with physical disabilities are not prevented from enjoying the public spaces.
  • Empowering citizens in democracy – new technologies can give citizens a voice by connecting them with each other, as well as those running services or those making decisions.
  • Reducing the strain on our health service – providing citizens with access to their own health records can encourage greater responsibility for their own healthcare.
  • A more efficient, flexible transport system – improving transport information can help citizens plan journeys and smart ticketing options can allow citizens to travel easily between transport services.
  • Creating a cleaner environment and enhancing air quality – smart technologies can help address environmental challenges, such as improving traffic flow to help limit harmful emissions in congested areas.

If cities are looking for a blueprint to success, there have been numerous smart city initiatives introduced across the world. For example, the report highlights how the Scottish Cities Alliance, a joint initiative between Scotland’s seven cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and Stirling) and the Scottish Government, is encouraging collaboration and the take-up of technologies designed to improve air quality, traffic flow and cut pollution.

There’s also two examples from further afield. Estonia, which is widely recognised as a smart city leader, is viewed as an example of best practice in data sharing. The country provides citizens with control over their data by providing easy access to their education, medical and employment records through an online portal (with the option to request changes). And in Singapore, the “Smart Nation” initiative has become known for its use of a coordinating body to provide leadership to their smart cities agenda.

In concluding the report, The APPG make a series of recommendations to effectively drive forward the smart cities agenda. This includes:

  • encouraging the promotion of a smart culture;
  • convening smart standards and data; and
  • promoting the UK’s smart city expertise overseas.

In particular, a number of interesting points are raised about how to promote a smart culture, from ensuring smart city initiatives focus on the outcomes for citizens to putting collaboration with other cities (and the sharing of best practice) before any form of competition.

Iain Stewart MP, chairman of the APPG on Smart Cities, summarises the report’s main message, as well as calling for the UK Government to create a strategy. He argues:

A coherent strategy from central government is needed to ensure a joined-up approach between businesses and those who work most closely with and on behalf of their citizens – local government. By fully embracing the smart cities approach, central government can empower local authorities to show ordinary people how smart can positively impact on their everyday lives.”


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Bristol is Open: case study of an innovative smart city

By Steven McGinty

In May, ‘Bristol is Open’ was named as a leading smart city, just behind London, in Huawei UK’s Smart Cities Index. In the same month, Bristol is Open was also announced as Smart City Innovator of the Year by TM Forum’s Digital World Awards.

Bristol is Open

The project is a joint venture between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council. Several other partners are involved, including national and European governments and commercial organisations, such as Japanese technology firm NEC. This collaborative project will act as a ‘laboratory’ for research and development initiatives and will help shape the development of smart cities and the ‘internet of things’.

Paul Wilson, Managing Director of Bristol Is Open, explains what’s so innovative about the project:

We use a software-defined network (SDN) to run the city in Bristol and then we apply network functions virtualization (NFV) into that network, which is allowing us to have an elastic and scalable network that we can slice to thousands of different users.”

In simple terms, the city is in the process of creating a world leading digital infrastructure. This includes: 144 core fibres in the ground; a mile-long stretch of wireless connectivity along the harbourside, which will include experimental wireless technology such as 5G mobile broadband; and a selection of internet of things sensors and technologies, including 1,500 lampposts. All of which, will be interconnected and controlled by software.

A key advantage of this new model is the ability to splice up the network for different users. This provides the opportunity for new partners to become involved, including community organisations and small start-up companies. Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Project Lead and Chief Technology Officer at Bristol is Open, also explains that the network is “open, agnostic and programmable”, ready to be adopted for the technologies of the future.

Interestingly, the core fibres were installed in a network of redundant ducts purchased by the council over ten years ago. Previously, they had provided cable television to homes in Bristol in the 1970s.

The Data Dome

Last November, the project launched ‘The Data Dome’ at Bristol’s Planetarium.

The 98-seat Bristol Data Dome is connected to a high-performance computer at the University of Bristol (via a 30Gb/s fibre link). The Data Dome, supported by the network and high-speed computer, provides an opportunity to visualise complex experiments, create virtual reality environments and give audience members their own unique perspective.

The dome has been used to show content from earth sciences, as well as real time sociological mapping in cities. Engineers, at corporate sponsor Rolls Royce, have also used the Dome to visualise engines and to inspire young people about engineering.

‘No grand visions’

In a recent TED talk, Stephen Hilton, Leader of Bristol City Council’s Futures Group, states that ‘he doesn’t like to spout grand visions’.  Instead, he explains that the Bristol is Open team prefers to focus on tangible targets and introduce measures that lay the groundwork for smart cities.

He highlights that the project aims to:

  • reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2020;
  • create 95,000 new jobs, particularly in high growth sectors such as the creative industries and green technology;
  • have Bristol recognised among the top 20 European cities by 2020.

 Smart Cities Index

Huawei’s Smart Cities Index highlights five important themes for creating successful smart city programmes. These include:

  • the importance of leadership and vision
  • a need to focus on local priorities and strengths
  • the importance of engagement with local communities
  • building local partnerships
  • understanding the way in which the data revolution can improve services and boost innovation

Privacy

George Ferguson, former Mayor of Bristol, recognised the challenges surrounding data privacy. He acknowledged that privacy can lead to heated debate and advised that cities should help shape the debate, rather than leave it to technology companies. For him, understanding how citizens want their data to be used is an important part of the Bristol is Open project.

However, this may not satisfy those concerned about lampposts with “acoustic detection sensors” capable of recording noise levels, possibly speech.

Final thoughts

Bristol’s commitment to becoming a truly smart city has led to its award winning status. In the future, it will be interesting to see if it’s ambitious, yet pragmatic, approach will help to address some of the city’s key challenges, such as reducing carbon emissions. More importantly, it will be interesting to see whether the lessons learnt in Bristol, will be introduced in other cities, and whether we move away from the idea of smart cities to a ‘smart nation.’


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles.