Our new ‘Call for Evidence’: How do you build a smart city?

January 17, 2014

Technology has already transformed much of our daily lives. But it has yet to have more than a peripheral effect on public services. That may be about to change. It’s apparent that smart cities have the potential to revolutionise the way that urban environments function. From reducing congestion to managing energy distribution; and from helping predict and combat crime to speeding up emergency response times, there are few city problems that technology cannot play a part in solving. As varied as the issues they address are the many different ways in which cities are approaching their smart future. New towns like Songdo in South Korea are rising from the ground, pre-loaded with smart tech that coordinates numerous aspects of urban life. Rio de Janeiro boasts a Nasa-style control centre that gives the city’s mayor live oversight of data feeds from 30 departments, CCTV footage and advanced weather-warning reports. The Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) in New York City crunches and maps datasets from 40 different departments and agencies to spot correlations and yield insights that increase the efficiency of public services. All around the world from Vancouver to Barcelona, technology and data are being harnessed in strikingly diverse ways to improve city living.

In Search Of The Right Model

Against the backdrop of these international examples, for Policy Exchange there is a vital debate in determining the ideal framework for smart cities in the UK. Where on the spectrum between top-down (government-led) or bottom up (citizen-led) should they lie? Do we want to harness grand technology solutions that coordinate vast swathes of city infrastructure, or should we instead focus on providing open data that enables civic ‘there’s-an-app-for-that’ hackers to innovate? More fundamentally: what’s the desired aim for the UK’s smart cities? To provide better, more timely information to political leaders to improve their decision-making? Or to empower citizens with access to data that enables them to decide for themselves? And is the sole intention to make cities more efficient or to make them more liveable? (Can we have both?) The answers to such questions have a direct bearing on the role of – and relationship between – government, the private sector and citizens; in short the very way our societies function. The shape of our smart city model(s) or framework(s) is therefore inevitably a political question.

Would we, for example, trust our city leaders to adopt the control room approach of Rio de Janeiro? Do we mind if government uses data from mobile phones or social media to track our movements and conversations? Whilst the safe option might appear to be to shun the Rio model in favour of a more low-tech, civic hacker-led movement (as has been London’s preferred method to date) there are arguably some domains of urban life where simply equipping citizens with data is not enough. Take transport: you can provide an app for commuters with the latest travel information that helps them to avoid bottlenecks and alerts them to disruption. But done at scale, each commuter is likely to make individually rational decisions that are collectively irrational; the bottlenecks just form in different places. Sometimes the intelligent, coordinating network is the only system that works.

Let there be no doubt that there is much riding on getting the model correct here in the UK. Cities are, after all, home to 80% of our population, and the places where even more of us go to work. Our urban centres are the prime engines of economic growth. They are our capitals of commerce, entrepreneurship, politics, culture and social innovation and therefore play a crucial role in contributing to GDP and shaping national identity. We must also not forget that the majority of interactions the average citizen has with government are at a local rather than national level. In short, what cities do matters. And as places like London, Bristol, Glasgow and Manchester are already starting to experiment with their own smart technology initiatives, the issue is becoming an urgent one.

Putting Theory Into Practice

Once the policy issues concerning the shape of smart cities have been addressed, there remains the vital question of implementation. In our view there are a number of significant policy barriers to rolling out smart initiatives at scale, which are likely to lead some current efforts to fail. Policymakers and city leaders need to be alert to the fact that technology will be unlikely to solve the most pressing urban challenges unless the right policy and structural frameworks are put in place. Here are four likely hurdles:

  1. City silos: One of the great powers of technology is its ability to integrate – to bring together information, services and products into one virtual space. But there is no point integrating the IT if different departments within local and city councils still act in silos: not sharing their data (internally or with others); resolving city problems in an isolated manner (how can you properly address transport without involving the local business community; how can you have smart energy distribution without working with planning officials?); and failing to coordinate budgets. Technical integration requires organisational integration – and that will require a massive cultural shift for some parts of local government.
  2. Sustainable Finance: If smart city solutions are to be anything other than small scale and ephemeral, they must be based on long-term and sustainable financial models. The difficulty is that the monetary benefits of smart city technologies may be felt only indirectly by the councils that are expected to invest in them. (Helping people get to work faster or reduce their energy consumption is more likely to benefit individuals, businesses, and possibly the Treasury in the form of increased tax revenues). The private sector could help fund certain smart initiatives, but how would that work alongside public money? No matter where the funding comes from, one thing is certain: if a more direct link between cost and profit centres cannot be found, smart city investment will soon feel like an unaffordable extravagance.
  3. Skills and Resources: Smart city technologies do not function in isolation: they require advanced and specialist personnel skills too. But how many local councils have the in-house expertise or resources to conduct big data analytics or know how to plan and manage sophisticated pieces of networked technology? Yet these are the very competencies that will be required to succeed in a smart urban environment. How can cities access those high technology skills without paying exorbitant costs? Is there a way to share the rewards and costs?
  4. Citizen Engagement: If cities are not merely a collection of problems to be solved, but dynamic communities in which real people live out their lives, then there is a danger of missing a trick unless ways can be found for citizens to be meaningfully involved. The promise of technology is that it can reduce the power divide between government and citizens by removing the asymmetry of information. But what information will they need? How will they use it? How can citizens be empowered to report on and solve their own local issues? What role will technology companies play in building this relationship?

These issues represent just a handful of the policy questions that cities will need to address if they are not to fall at the first hurdle on the road to a smart future. Anyone who cares about the quality of public service delivery, the environments in which we live and work, our ability to cope with pressures from population expansion and austere city budgets, and the future of our centres of economic and cultural life, cannot ignore them. Much of the academic and media narrative about smart cities to date has focused on the technology. That’s understandable, but let us first get the policy framework right.

Policy Exchange’s Digital Government unit is launching a major piece of research into the future of the UK’s smart cities with the aim of addressing the policy issues that will affect their shape, viability and success. We would welcome thoughts, ideas and case-studies from individuals and organisations who wish to contribute to this most important debate. You can make a submission to our Call for Evidence here.

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