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.”


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 smart cities articles. 

Season’s readings: looking back on a year of blogging, and looking forward to 2016

Time Passing shutterstock_88253254

We’ve almost reached the turn of the year, a good moment to pause and reflect on what the Knowledge Exchange has been blogging about in 2015.

We’ve covered a wide range of subject areas, from education to the arts, health to housing. With over 160 blog posts since January, there’s too much to fully consider in this short review, but some of our featured blog posts are worth revisiting.

 A global view of digital government

Throughout the year, Steven McGinty has been taking readers on a world tour of technology, reporting on the application by and impact of digital technologies on governments at home and abroad.

In January, Steven looked at the potential and pitfalls of data sharing and linking up UK government databases. Later in the year, he highlighted public sector tech trends, including using technology to open up government and improve democracy. And Steven has also reported on digital government developments in Estonia, Norway and Singapore.

 Planning matters

The Knowledge Exchange started life as The Planning Exchange, and we still maintain a strong interest in planning issues.

In May, Morwen Johnson highlighted the increasing interest in contemporary strategic planning as a delivery solution to complex problems. Morwen noted that an RTPI policy paper had advocated a strengthening of strategic planning to secure greater co-operation with respect to development and to facilitate city regions.

In September, Rebecca Jackson reported from the annual Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference in Edinburgh, which covered the theme of “the changing landscape of planning”.

 Eventful posts

Rebecca joined the Knowledge Exchange in August 2015 and immediately hit the ground blogging. She’s been out and about reporting from events and covering topics as diverse as co-production in the criminal system, child neglect, wellbeing and resilience, and citizenship and identity.

 Learning to work, working to learn

Rebecca also reported from the Scottish Learning Festival, and during the year our blog has featured a number of other posts on education, skills, training and employment.

In July, Heather Cameron looked at the continuing challenge of enabling young people from disadvantaged areas to access higher education.

Stacey Dingwall described the issues raised in a report from the UK Commission for Education and Skills, which suggested that young people are facing a ‘postcode lottery’ when searching for work experience. And in September, Stacey highlighted our Knowledge Exchange briefing which focused on the crucial importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in the UK.

Stacey’s post was also a useful reminder that, as well as blogging, we also gather evidence, data and research to produce briefings on key topics, such as change management, green infrastructure and new approaches to housing later in life.

 Save the day

Throughout the year, we’ve tried to observe significant days in the calendar by blogging on related topics.

  • To mark International Women’s Day, Donna Gardiner wrote about the barriers facing female entrepreneurs
  • On the International Day of Older Persons, I blogged about the economic opportunities of ageing
  • On World Food Day, I highlighted the problem of food waste, and what’s being done to tackle it

Special themes

We also blogged on three selected themes in 2015: cities; elections; and evidence-based policies:

  • In March Rebecca Riley considered the role of cities in the knowledge economy, while in April Morwen reported from a conference looking at smart cities in a critical light.
  • Rebecca also highlighted the importance of research and evidence for policy makers in a Knowledge Exchange White Paper, published in March.
  • In May, Stacey described her experience as part of the Idox Elections team in helping to deliver the company’s postal vote management system for the UK general election.

The year to come

Much of 2016 is still a calendar of unforeseen events. But some dates have been pencilled into the diary, and may well feature in the Knowledge Exchange blog next year.

Elections will take place on 5 May for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Greater London Assembly and for 128 local authorities in England. On the same day, there will be mayoral elections in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford and elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales.

In the summer, the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will no doubt generate discussion on the legacy of London 2012.

Among the selected themes we’ll be focusing on in 2016 are cities and digital transformation. Meanwhile, ongoing issues are likely to continue making the news: the struggle facing local authorities to meet increasing demands with fewer resources; further devolution of powers from central government; climate change; health and social care integration; and the affordable housing shortage.

And it’s looking likely that by this time next year the people of the UK will have made their decision on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.

We’ll be scrutinising these and other developments, trying to make sense of them and keeping our readers posted on new research and evidence.

From all of us in the Knowledge Exchange, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.


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e-Estonia: leading the way on digital government

By Steven McGinty

 “We should talk about a digital-embracing government, not e-government”

These are the words of Andres Kütt, system architect and adviser to the Estonian Information Security Authority. By this he means that the term ‘e-government’ implies a separation between digital and government. So, instead he advocates the term ‘digital-embracing government’ as it highlights that digital should be embedded within all aspects of governance.

Why does the Estonian view matter?

In Estonia, digital has become the norm, and most government services can now be completed online. They have managed to find a way of creating partnerships between the government, a very proactive ICT sector and the citizens of Estonia. As a result, the country of just 1.3 million people has become a leader in digital government.

The ‘core’ of the Estonian model 

  • Electronic ID cards

Key to the Estonian approach is the use of an electronic ID card. As of 2012, more than 1.1 million people have ID cards. The Estonian population have been described as ‘tech savvy’ and ‘pragmatic’. This could be the reason ID cards have been successful there, whereas in the UK concerns about threats to privacy have always led to their rejection.

The ID card acts as both an identity document and, within the European Union, a travel document. It provides a way to verify citizens using online services. The card is secure, and is used for activities such as internet banking, participating in e-elections, and buying public transportation tickets. Mobile phones can also act as an ID card, allowing citizens to confirm their identity online.

  • Population Database

The Estonian government has a national register (called the Population Database).  This provides a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents in Estonia. Similarly to the use of ID cards, these forms of large scale database are unlikely to be accepted by the British public. For instance, concerns were raised when it was suggested that a Scotland-wide ID database, which would have included records from 120 public bodies, could be introduced.

Estonian digital government services

  • e-Elections

Since 2005, Estonians have been able to participate in e-elections using their ID card or their mobile ID. Once a voter’s identity has been verified, the connecting digital signature is separated from the vote. This allows the vote to be anonymous.

In the 2011 Parliamentary elections, 140, 846 people voted online, representing 24% of the eligible voting population. Recent elections have also shown that online voting has had a positive effect on voter turnout.

However, security concerns have been raised over Estonia’s voting system. Researchers from security firm SafelyLocked have suggested that the software has insufficient security safeguards to protect it from hackers.

  • e-Health record

As of January 2010, Estonia’s citizens have been given access to their medical records via a medical information system. It contains information such as diagnoses and doctor’s visits and is accessed using the ID card.

What could the UK learn from Estonia?

In a recent presentation, Andres Kütt was the first person to admit that you can’t simply take the Estonian approach and implement it into another country. However, he does suggest that methodologies used by Estonia can be adopted by other countries to help them come to their own digital solution. There are also wider lessons that can be drawn from the Estonian experience.

In the UK, the Government Digital Service (GDS) have an ongoing arrangement with the Estonian government – a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2013 committed the two countries to working together to advance digital public services. The GDS highlights that a lot of Estonia’s success comes from the fact that they started with no pre-existing infrastructure. This means that they were able to avoid legacy problems, such as the challenge of integrating older and newer systems.

However, Pete Herlihy of the GDS, reported that on a visit to Estonia he realised that:

  • The government needs to publish details of the data it holds for each of their systems
  • The government needs to publish an agreed set of open data and messaging standards and protocols, to allow easier communication between systems.

Final thoughts

The eventual solution for the UK will have to be different to that of Estonia. Yet it’s clear that when government, the private sector and citizens come together, it is possible to create a society that is digitally connected.

Here are just a few final facts about the success of Estonia.

  • 98% of banking transactions in Estonia are conducted through the internet
  • In 2013, over 95% of income tax declarations were processed through the e-Tax Board
  • Cabinet meetings have become paperless sessions using a web-based document system.

Further reading

IDOX is a market-leading developer and provider of a broad range of software solutions for UK and international public sector organisations – especially local government. These solutions are designed to help clients comply with regulatory requirements, as well as enable online delivery of public services.