Digital infrastructureSmart CitiesSmart Cities – what is the problem?

Smart Cities - what is the problem?

Despite the recent initiatives from the UK government, Smart Cities in the UK are still a distant dream. Richard Godfrey discusses the way forward.

When exploring or researching Smart Cities it is difficult to find much in the way of problem-solving solutions, of real-world problems, with backed up evidence of how these problems have been solved. Most of the information is from the tech companies providing the tools to measure the problem and ideas on what the solution may be without really solving anything.

The issue for me lies in the fact that tech companies are building products and then finding a problem it solves without really understanding if it is a problem in the first place. For example, when I worked at Peterborough City Council I was often ‘sold’ solutions to make traffic flow quicker. But as a city, Peterborough had the second fastest commuting time in the country. Peterborough’s issue was around Health and Social Care and that’s where we needed the technology companies to stand up and provide offerings.

Parking space occupancy sensors are all well and good, but is on street parking causing that much of a problem, is it causing more emissions, affecting people’s health? Once installed, how many cars are using the app, how many cars are going for the same space, how much emissions has it reduced and what long term difference does this really make? Surely the sensible ‘smart’ solution is not to have on street parking and have multi-storey car parks or park and rides where parking traffic is removed completely.

A problem, a tool to measure and a solution

The point being made here is that for smart or smarter cities to really have an impact then there needs to be three things; a problem, a tool to measure the problem and a solution. And it needs to happen in that order. What I would like to see is the technology companies working closer with the public sector to understand the unique difficulties of each city (there’s more cities in the UK than just London) and then look at the best way to use technology to measure the problem (there’s still a place for sensors) and then work with Urban Planners, Architects, Landscape Architects and Scientists etc. to actually provide plausible solutions that make a real difference.

I’d love to see some of the big tech companies that talk about their smart city platforms or technologies then introduce me to a range of non-technical staff who fully understand how cities are designed and built and what improvements we can make or retrofit to improve people’s lives. Being able to then measure these changes will provide the business case for more investment into the sector.

As with a lot of projects that I come across, especially digital transformation ones, the focus is on the technology and not the transformation. The transformation is the key element that digital supports or enables. The same is true of Smart Cities, it is about improving the quality of lives and the technology is part of what enables it but is not the starting point. In the same way that digital transformation should be called ‘enabling transformation through digital technology’ smart cities should also be ‘enabling the improvement of life quality through smart technology’.

Realising the dream of a UK Smart City

The focus must be on the life improvement as it also has to be on the transformation and that starts with understanding what problem you have that you are trying to solve.

I don’t think we’ll have a smart city for many years in the UK. How do you judge when a city becomes smart? There are lots of initiatives in lots of cities happening and all of them can be deemed as smart in some way or another. But I don’t believe that there’s a point at which he can say that one city is smart, and one isn’t. What the focus needs to be on is looking at cities that have identified a problem and then used technology to provide a real solution.

Although there are many definitions of smart and how it relates to devices ‘speaking’ to each other without human interaction, when it comes to smart cities, for me you can only be smart if you’ve identified a problem and fixed it. Surely that’s smart. Flooding a city with technology without real solutions isn’t smart in any way.

Whilst there’s been talk of brand-new cities being built around the world as smart cities, the fact is that this just relates to the technology side. How can a brand-new city where no-one lives yet be smart for no problems have been identified and resolved? I get that they have used information from other cities in their design, but until you have an active population living there it’s impossible to identify what the daily problems are going to be.

Not a one size fits all approach

What the private and public sector need to do is to ensure that when smart cities are being discussed that there is a broad range of expertise in the room. This will mean technology companies, scientists, architects, landscape architects, planners, energy companies, house builders all working together to find solutions to problems. Throwing technology at a problem doesn’t make it smart. And nor does a one size fits all approach. The key problems and issues of London will likely be different to Glasgow or Bristol or Norwich and therefore the smart city concept needs to be applied on an individual basis.

By bringing the public sector together to provide their main problems, technology companies can work with expertise to find solutions to measure the problems, and then solutions to help fix them on a meaningful basis for each city. The government should be facilitating these meetings if they want to showcase to the rest of the world how smart the UK is.

Being able to produce a business case or whitepaper that states here was the problem, this is what we did, and this was the outcome would be invaluable. The funding of this should also be government led as there is far too much budget crossover when it comes to the outcomes. Improving air quality for example by reducing traffic is a council initiative but the benefactors will be the NHS or even the social care service in maybe 20 years’ time. If we’re going to move to becoming smart cities, then we need long term sustainable funding being made available as the benefits of doing so may be years in the coming.

Long term funding for long term results

The government needs to take a long term view that the benefactors of smart cities are the citizens themselves and that seeing the benefits of smart solutions may not be evidenced for years to come (improving air quality may reduce the number of people with asthma, for example, but how long will that take to evidence this?)

In summary if the government really want to do smart cities properly then the focus needs to come off the technology and put on the problems, ensure that cities and experts are brought together to identify solutions and then agree long term funding for long term results.

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