As everyday devices become internet-enabled and mobile connectivity advances, many UK cities are racing to utilise this data and technology. From smart water grids, that manage the quantity and safety of water consumption to monitoring traffic patterns in order to combat congestion; smart cities and the technologies driving them have the ability to improve the lives of residents, increase operational efficiencies and progress the quality of government services.
Smart city initiatives have gained considerable backing from Government. In his recent Budget chancellor Phillip Hammond announced a boost in funding for the Transforming Cities Fund, taking it up to £2.4bn. With an aim of enhancing traditional operations, many smart city projects focus on creating new services in order to make communities more efficient, cost-effective and safer. The frameworks and technologies to enable this massive change already exist, as does the opportunity for local authorities to determine a place within this emerging world – but how can they best prepare themselves for this transition and set themselves on the road to unlocking smart cities?
The shifting technological landscape
As the political, social, geographic and demographic drivers of each city are vastly different, it is unlikely that any two smart cities or communities will be identical. That’s why the success of a smart city scheme is largely dependent on the input and consideration of many partners including: technology vendors, educational institutions, commercial investors and the citizens themselves.
Smart cities can provide many practical as well as economic benefits to residents but only if the right technology is utilised. With realistic and achievable ambitions local authorities can create a compelling view of the future. Cities like Hong Kong are already on the path to achieving this by utilising the people-centric nature of smart cities. Aside from some of the more universal components, including intelligent transport, traffic management systems and waste reduction, Hong Kong has developed a range of strategies that put people first.
With a focus on e-services and e-transactions, local authorities are looking to develop a single eID for use across government and commercial services. Largely the success and backbone of smart initiatives boils down to the Internet of Things (IoT) – embedding internet capabilities into everyday items as a way to facilitate the collection and communication of data.
Combining connected devices with automated systems enables information to be gathered and analysed efficiently so that actions can be generated based on that analysis. This is the basis on which the smart cities and communities of the future will be built, redefining the future of how we live, work and interact. This will also allow communities to improve energy distribution, streamline waste collection, decrease traffic congestion and even improve air quality. For example, studies have shown that cities like Barcelona have created around 47,000 jobs by deploying IoT systems, saved €42.5 million on water and generated an extra €36.5 million a year through smart parking.
To take advantage of the opportunities that initiatives such as IoT provides, local councils should embark on their digital transformation journeys with a keen eye on what the future holds. Employing systems with an open-protocol architecture will allow local authorities to take advantage of new technologies as they appear, without any need for complex re-engineering.
However, that is often easier said than done. Councils are intricate organisations, providing diverse services that require interaction with a broad range of community members. With this level of complexity comes a range of disparate systems, which are used to varying degrees of success, to meet the needs of the public and the council itself. For local authorities, running an assortment of standalone applications brings many immediate challenges. It regularly means working with several vendors, as each application incorporates its own technology and database, and requires specific skill sets (either in-house or outsourced) to carry out system modifications or improvements.
Since 2010 there has been a big drive to make every public service ‘digital by default’ and with a multitude of disparate systems and standalone applications, as well as dedicated in-house IT resources, many local authorities find themselves pouring funds into infrastructure and solutions designed to streamline processes and workflows. The biggest challenge is getting systems to join-up, work together and share information. This is most commonly achieved by creating an elaborate integration layer, which usually racks up significant overhead costs.
Many councils trying to simplify and connect systems find that this approach effectively adds a layer of complexity that requires additional resources to manage. Even when pilot tests seemingly appear successful, it can be difficult to replicate that success when scaling to a real-world scenario. So, in order to realise smart city ambitions and lay the best foundations, local authorities must ensure that the underlying technology and architecture is open and enabling. For many local authorities, this means that their journey to ‘smart’ services must start with digital transformation and a SaaS-enabled environment.
Adopting transformative technologies
As our cities continue to develop and grow, smart city technology is expanding to enhance sustainability and better serve citizens. By utlising connectivity, open data and cloud solutions, local authorities can align evolving smart city needs for a greatly improved experience for all partners in the ecosystem.
While we can’t pre-empt tomorrow’s transformative technologies with any degree of certainty, critical decisions made in the early stages of local authorities’ digital transformation process can lay a better foundation on which to build and streamline the employment of new technologies when they are developed. Smart councils realise this, appreciating that by simplifying their IT layer, they can remove the need for dedicated in-house resources, reduce capital expenditure and be free to focus on business outcomes.
Anwen Robinson is UK Operating Officer at TechnologyOne.