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. 

Smart-eco cities: how technology is addressing sustainability challenges in the UK

Looking down on densely packed buildings of New York

By Steven McGinty

As cities realise the need to improve sustainability, many are turning to innovative technologies to address challenges such as traffic congestion and air pollution. Here, the ‘smart agenda’, with its focus on technology and urban infrastructure, overlaps with the ‘sustainability agenda’ – usually associated with energy, waste management, and transport.

In 2015, an international research project – coordinated by the University of Exeter and involving teams from the UK, China, the Netherlands, France, and Germany – was launched to investigative how smart-eco initiatives can be used to promote the growth of the green economy. As part of this work, the report ‘Smart-eco cities in the UK: trends and city profiles 2016 was published.

Below we’ve highlighted some interesting case studies from this report.

Glasgow

Glasgow’s smart city approach has been described as ‘opportunistic’ (as opposed to strategy-led) by the report’s authors. New initiatives are often linked to creative organisations/individuals and competition funding, such as Future City Glasgow, which was awarded £24 million by the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK).

Nonetheless, this has helped Glasgow become a smart city leader, not just in the UK, but globally.

Almost half of the £24 million Innovate UK funding was spent on the Operations Centre, located in Glasgow’s east end.  The new state-of-the-art facility integrates traffic and public safety management systems, and brings together public space CCTV, security for the city council’s museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence. As well as helping the police and emergency services, the centre can prioritise buses through traffic (when there are delays) and has recently supported the Clean Glasgow initiative, a project to tackle local environmental issues, such as littering.

Intelligent street lighting was also a major part of Future City Glasgow. Three sections of the city have been fitted with new lighting: a walkway along the River Clyde; a partly pedestrianised section of Gordon Street; and Merchant City, a popular retail and leisure district. The new lighting includes built-in sensors which provide real-time data on sound levels, air quality, and pedestrian footfall. ‘Dynamic’ lights, which use motion sensors to vary lighting – increasing levels when pedestrians walk by – have also been introduced.

London

London’s smart city programme is linked to the challenges it faces as a leading global city. Its need for continuous growth and remaining competitive has to be balanced with providing infrastructure, services, and effective governance.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) is behind both the strategy, through the Smart London Board, and the practical delivery of various activities. Much of their work focuses on encouraging collaboration between business, the technology sector, and the residents of London. For example, the London Datastore, which includes over 650 governmental (and some non-governmental) data sets, plays an important role in ensuring the city’s data is freely available to all. Visitors can view a wide variety of statistics and data graphics, on areas such as recycling rates, numbers of bicycles hired, and carbon dioxide emission levels by sector.

In 2014, the Smart London District Network was established to explore how technology could be used in four regeneration projects: Croydon; Elephant & Castle; Imperial West; and the London Olympic Park. To support this, the Institute for Sustainability was commissioned to run a competition asking technology innovators to pitch innovative ideas for these projects. Winners of this competition included the company Stickyworld, who created an online platform which supports stakeholder engagement through a virtual environment, and Placemeter, who developed an intelligent online platform which analyses the data taken from video feeds and provides predictive insights.

Manchester

Recently, the City of Manchester Council consolidated their smart city initiatives into the Smarter City Programme. The Smart-eco cities report explains that the programme draws on the city’s 2012 submission to the ‘Future Cities Demonstrator’ competition, focusing on the development of Manchester’s Oxford Road ‘Corridor’ around five main themes:

  • enhanced low carbon mobility
  • clean energy generation and distribution
  • more efficient buildings
  • integrated logistics and resource management
  • community and citizen engagement

Manchester’s approach to becoming a smarter city involves a wide range of partners. For instance, Triangulum is a €25m European Commission project involving Manchester and two other cities (Eindhoven and Stavanger) to transform urban areas into ‘smart quarters’.

In Manchester, the council-led project will integrate mobility, energy, and informations and communications technology (ICT) systems into the infrastructure along the Corridor. It will introduce a range of technologies into assets such as the University of Manchester Electrical Grid, with the aim of showing their potential for supplying, storing and using energy more effectively in urban environments. Data visualisation techniques, based on the use of real-time data, will also be developed.

In 2016, Manchester launched CityVerve, a £10 million collaborative project to demonstrate internet of things technologies. The project will involve several smart city initiatives, including:

  • talkative bus stops, which use digital signage and sensors, to provide information to passengers and provide data to bus operators on the numbers waiting for buses
  • air quality sensors in the street furniture
  • ‘Community Wellness’ sensors in parks, along school and commuter routes, to encourage exercise
  • a ‘biometric sensor network’, to help people manage their chronic respiratory conditions

Final thoughts

There is great excitement about the potential for smart city technologies. However, as is highlighted by the smart-eco cities report, many are limited in scale, short term, and based on competition funding. If we want to create sustainable cities, which meets challenges of the future, greater investment will be needed from both public and private sector.


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. 

Delivering digital differently: how should we provide public services in the future?

 

By Steven McGinty

On April 21st, Socitm (the Society of Information Technology Management) will be having their annual spring conference. This year, the agenda reflects the challenges facing technology leaders, who are under increasing pressure to radically transform services and deliver financial savings.

The event will open with a discussion on how digital technology should be used to provide the public services of the future. In anticipation of this, I thought I’d highlight some of the issues that may be discussed.

Open architecture and platforms

In 2012, the Government Digital Service (GDS), the body responsible for digital transformation in central government, launched GOV.UK. Within 15 months this project brought together over 300 government agency and arm’s length body websites into just one single platform. Similarly, they also introduced GOV.UK Verify, a platform rolled out across a number of departments, which allows citizens to prove who they are when using government services.

These platforms exemplify the UK Government’s new ambition for public services, i.e. that services should be simple, user-centric, and built on ‘a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technologies, and processes’. In theory, this should provide users with a seamless experience as they move between different government services. This approach has been referred to as ‘Government as a Platform’.

We have also seen examples of this approach adopted in local authorities. For instance, Manchester City Council’s award winning website clearly follows some of the GDS’ design principles.

Collaboration

Historically, the public sector has worked in silos, with individual departments and local authorities responsible for their own digital projects.

However, Matt Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, appears keen on greater levels of collaboration, particularly with the private sector, as he believes this will lead to financial savings. For example, he highlights the joint-venture between the UK Government and Ark Data Centres to provide hosting services for the whole government. Previously, each government department would have had to agree their own bespoke contract. This joint-venture could potentially save the UK government £105 million.

Local councils have also shown a willingness to collaborate, with many joining together to sign shared information and communications technologies (ICT) service contracts with suppliers. Usually these councils are neighbours; however we’ve recently seen ‘pioneering agreements’ between councils from different regions in England. Like the hosting agreement, this collaborative approach is expected to provide better value for councils.

Data

Eddie Copeland, Director of Government Innovation at NESTA, has written widely on the need for the public sector to make better use of its data. Although this is certainly true, there have been some successful data projects, such as the London Datastore, a free and open data-sharing portal for Greater London.

Eddie Copeland has proposed that London, as well as other devolved regions, should introduce a New York style ‘Office of Analytics’. This would be led by a Chief Data Officer who would have overall responsibility for managing and coordinating data projects. He suggests that having a central office to manage data could help UK cities in a number of areas, including increasing business growth, identifying illegal housing, and predicting possible fraud.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has also announced plans to introduce a data service called GM-Connect. The service’s main purpose will be to help break down the barriers that prevent public services sharing information.

User-led approach

There is now a recognition that public services should be determined, not by the organisational and legal constraints of government departments, but by the needs of citizens. For instance, in a podcast in 2012, Mike Bracken, former head of the GDS, stated that “everything we do is based on users and user-testing.”

In the US, the city of Oakland has introduced an innovative pilot programme that assigns an ‘MVP’ (most valuable player), whose sole responsibility is to ensure that digital initiatives consider how users, outside of city hall, approach finding new services. In addition, it also uses surveys to understand how services are used, digital dashboards that display current activity on the city website, and virtual town halls, which provide an opportunity to receive direct feedback.

Multi-channel, cross platform

As technology has changed, citizens are now expecting to access public services via a range of devices, including smartphones and tablet computers. There is also the expectation that government services are able to match the experiences provided by private sector organisations such as Facebook and Google. Social media has also become so pervasive that some organisations receive more visits to their social media pages than their main websites. Public services, therefore, need to be optimised for mobility, as well as providing a consistent multi-channel service.

Conclusion

At the moment, public sector organisations are using digital technology to improve public services. However, if they are to make the savings highlighted by last year’s Spending Review, they will need to refocus their efforts on digital initiatives.

The public services of the future will need to:

  • be based on a common set of shared platforms, processes and technologies
  • involve a number of stakeholders working together (whether private or public sector)
  • focus on the needs of users
  • harness data to provide targeted interventions and optimise services
  • be optimised for mobility
  • provide a consistent multi-channel experience.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.