What now for Smart Cities? Only smart leaders can save us from paradise lost

Dr Rick Robinson, Director of Technology
19 September 2017
Image of a road at speed.
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In a society where urbanisation, population growth and man-made climate change are making access to ever scarcer resources seem increasingly uncertain, Smart Cities are no longer a technology dream. They are an economic and political imperative. Amey’s Director of Technology Dr Rick Robinson explains why strong leadership has never been more essential to making them a reality.

Despite its great promise, the dream of advancing economic, social and environmental wellbeing through Smart Cities has achieved little in more than 20 years. Most initiatives remain pilot schemes with few sustainable, repeatable solutions.

If the current wave of global populism in our politics tells us anything, it’s that there will be serious economic and social consequences if we don’t enact policies and other measures which unlock the social benefits of digital technology in an equitable way.

We need an urgent political debate about how we steer investments towards the aspirations of thousands of Smart City visions and strategies the world over.

It can’t be left to market forces

We can’t assume that economic growth driven by private sector investments in technology will create broad social, economic and environmental benefits. Aside from philanthropy, charitable donations and social business models, almost all such investments are profit-driven; social, economic and environmental impacts are side effects, not the objectives of the investment.

True, some businesses have the scale, vision and stability to influence the health of the societies they work in – pension funds and other investors seeking long-term growth are good examples. But in general, without co-ordinated actions by political leaders, new technology and infrastructure could create great harm if left to market forces alone.

After WWII networks of urban highways were built to connect city centre economies to the national economy and infrastructure.

But they did not give access to the communities they passed through. Now, many communities surrounding relatively thriving city centres feature in indices of multiple deprivation – they suffer from low employment, high levels of benefits dependency, poor access to services and high levels of crime. These same communities feature a concentration of transport infrastructure passing through them. And that’s before we consider the health impacts of transport-related pollution.

Making our economy work for Smart Cities

There is no inevitable mechanism to ensure the benefits of technology-enabled growth are broadly distributed. We need to adapt the machinery of our economy to encourage investments which contribute to the outcomes we want.

It can work. From Sunderland to London, Newcastle to Birmingham there are initiatives supported by sustainable funding and investment that could be applied by any city or community.

The best work when people, organisations and communities overcome institutional and cultural barriers so that small-scale, informal innovators with good ideas can collaborate with the large-scale institutions who often have the resources those ideas need in order to succeed.

The key thing is to make sure the top-down actions of leaders encourage, enable and empower “bottom-up” innovation by the people, communities and businesses where real cities are made.

Here are four ways we can get started

1. Include Smart City criteria in local authority procurement to encourage competitive innovation from private sector providers. By emphasising aspirations in procurement scoring, Sunderland and Norfolk incentivised suppliers to invest in smart solutions contributing to local objectives.

2. Adapt planning, building and energy regulations to demand digital infrastructure investment contributing to community objectives. A multi-£100million Olympics legacy development at East Wick and Sweetwater in London was awarded partly due to developer commitments to invest in this way.

3. Link entrepreneurial investments to Smart City objectives. Technology helps entrepreneurs deliver urban or public services with new business and operating models. Sunderland’s Software Centre, Birmingham’s iCentrum, Sheffield’s Smart Lab and London’s Cognicity are great examples of institutions that support entrepreneurs building businesses that operate in support of local interests.

4. Enable and support social enterprise. There are obvious similarities between the objectives of Smart Cities and those of social enterprises. Supporting them encourages beneficial innovation, as the Impact Hub network, a global community of collaborative workspaces, has shown.

Creating the conditions for success

Translational leaders understand that their role is not to direct change, but to create the conditions in which others can be successful.

The first task is facilitating the co-creation of regional consensus and an action plan. The most successful are those convened by clearly mandated dedicated executive officers reporting directly to Local Authority leaders.

A collaborative, empowered regional stakeholder forum of senior representatives drawn from varied local organisations can then set a clear, consistent, specific local vision and organise local resources. It’s vital in doing so to listen to and empower the citizens, taxpayers, voters, customers, business owners and employees who make the city tick. Visions and policies for an environment in which they can flourish are essential.

We can also learn from the expertise of town planners and urban designers in creating physically accessible public spaces and human-scale, mixed-used urban environments. The digital equivalent of these are open data interfaces accessible from open source software on cloud computing platforms.

Creating digital open spaces with capacity for massive amounts of small-scale innovation - I call this “Smart Digital Urbanism”, inspired by Kelvin Campbell’s “Smart Urbanism” movement – gives citizens, businesses and communities the skills, opportunities and resources to be successful on their own terms.

By helping cities to harness the most powerful tool of our age – digital technology – in this way, local leaders would begin to address the most acute challenges humanity has ever faced.

Then we will start to see the first truly Smart Cities emerge.


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