The UK needs to take considered but bold steps into the smart city revolution

Chris Fry CUTOUT

The fourth industrial revolution is in progress. However, the UK’s towns and cities tend to be a rich mix of buildings and ageing infrastructure and budgets to invest are constrained. In that context a practical and purpose-driven approach is crucial to unlock the potential of smart cities.

The number of connected devices forming the Internet of Things is expected to rise from 15 billion to 75 billion between 2015 and 2025 globally.

The devices themselves will also become smarter and smarter. Today we have self-weighing recycling bins that can report in when they need emptying. In future the bin may be able to identify the type of soup that you have eaten and automatically reorder it for you.

The range of applications and potential benefits of smart technology in our villages, towns and cities are expanding very rapidly. Modular and offsite construction are starting to revolutionise construction productivity with significant savings in time and materials, and improvements in safety.

Similarly, disruptive start-ups and established industry players are racing to introduce new products and services that harness smart energy, smart buildings and smart mobility.

Cleaner and greener places can also be achieved using smart technologies. Though as Matthew Farrow of the Environmental Industries Commission observes, “global cities are struggling with managing the pressures of growth, and while over time many of these pressures will be environmental, the most urgent have often been things like transport congestion”.

Fundamentally “smart” should not be seen as a goal in itself – but rather the means to improve places for people and society. Smart city visionaries, planners, designers and operators alike ignore their customers and local communities at their peril.

Smarter infrastructure has the potential to provide social and economic empowerment, for example through fourth generation district heating, decentralised community energy generation and battery storage systems. Equally, on-demand mobility does not require car ownership, nor perhaps even the ability to drive when autonomous vehicles roll out.

But disparities in life chances and health between (richer and poorer) neighbourhoods are still acute and even widening in many places, so providing affordable access will be challenging. As one of the UK’s leading cities in this arena, Bristol’s smart city and innovation strategy has a clear focus on citizen-centric solutions.

The pace of technological advancement is now opening many more doors than we are able to walk through. Clarity of purpose informed by a deep understanding of local needs is therefore a fundamental key to success for smart city interventions. Concepts such as liveability and sustainability can provide useful guiding lights in the search for this clarity of purpose.

For the Danish capital Copenhagen, an aspiration for liveability has become well established in forward planning for the city. This has led to more integrated solutions such as bringing water management and green infrastructure together through sustainable drainage systems and larger scale “blue-green” infrastructure solutions such as green streets and multi-purpose public spaces.

When considering the opportunities for creating a smarter city, Copenhagen is similarly following an integrated and liveability orientated approach.

The exploration of options for city wide digital communication networks, to enable smart control of street lighting and traffic controls, soon expanded to explore other opportunities – for example water management and even how vulnerable citizens, including those with dementia, could be kept safe.

Funding and financing also provide a real conundrum for those pursuing smart city aspirations, not least because in this interconnected world, the question of who pays and who benefits leads to complex answers.

The costs and benefits of “backbone” digital communication networks, the smart solutions that utilise them and the ultimate beneficiaries (eg via lower asset maintenance costs), may fall on different actors at different times. Technology companies and the public sector will naturally also have different expectations and constraints on their investments that will affect business models.

With economic complexity and also our ageing infrastructure in mind, practicality must also be an important watchword. An ambitious vision for the medium to longer term is helpful but a wholly top-down smart city approach is unlikely to deliver results in the short term.

Working with the grain of existing assets and opportunities to upgrade them with smarter functionality alongside new fully smart interventions is likely to be more successful.

The greatest immediate gains for cities may be unlocked by analytics and early artificial intelligence to make better use of the existing data used to operate the city alongside digitalised design to optimise new infrastructure and buildings.

The next generation of Internet of Things sensors and control technologies can also be incrementally adopted with interim communications in advance of city wide networks. In other words, evolution as well as revolution.