The building blocks for smart cities

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 16

Matthew Evans, executive director of SmarterUK, explains why strong local government leadership is vital to delivering the vision of smart cities.

No two smart cities will or should look alike – just as no two cities’ transport or waste systems exactly map across each other. 

But that is not to say that there aren’t common foundations to creating a smart city. At their basic level, whether we are talking about Glasgow with its central ‘operations centre’ and data hub or the entirely new South Korean city of Songdo, which incorporates smart and autonomous technology into its built environment, smart cities are data-driven cities. Data will need to be gathered, analysed, actioned and disseminated across cities. None of this can happen without reliable and extensive connectivity, which means digital communication networks are a fundamental enabler of smart cities and initiatives. 

Communications networks 

Smart cities will rely on a variety of communication networks to act as a conduit for the data they will need. These will include local government’s own fixed assets, be that from their CCTV network or public sector networks, traditional wi-fi and cellular networks, Internet of Things (IoT) specific networks and ZigBee wireless mesh networks such as that deployed in the City of Westminster.

Before we look at how best to deploy infrastructure to underpin the IoT, it is worth looking at how successful we have been at connecting everyone. By and large, cities benefit from very good coverage levels of high-capacity broadband connections. But we shouldn’t think that the private sector – either fixed or mobile operators – have necessarily found this easy. Indeed, of the ‘last 5%’ of premises without superfast broadband in the UK, a fifth of them are in cities. The reasons for this revolve around geography legacy networks, socio-economic factors and difficulties with planning restrictions. 


If we are to take advantage of the economic, environmental and societal benefits that smart cities offer, then we will need to ensure that we are able to deploy future digital networks at near-universal levels, faster and cheaper than we have done so in the past. Consistent planning regimes and reasonable access to public sector land and street furniture are part of the solution, but ultimately it will require real political leadership – particularly given the differing approaches and interpretations to such issues within city borough councils. It is only the strong support of mayors (who can play an important convening role between private and public sector, alongside cabinet or board level responsibility for digital issues) that will help remove the day-to-day barriers for smart cities, which are often borne of inertia or bureaucracy. 

Such leadership will also be required to make use of the data that is being transmitted across these networks. Again, a consistent approach to gathering data will be required across boroughs in order to swiftly and efficiently utilise that information. This will again require boroughs and agencies to work together who otherwise may not incentivised to do so. New York’s first director of its Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics recently made clear the importance of such leadership, saying “the most important thing I had in place was the mayor…without mayoral support it’s just impossible”. 

Leadership can provide a holistic vision and the drive to allow digital networks to be deployed for data gathering, analysis and use – that’s what we’ll need if the UK is to fully realise the opportunities offered by smart cities.

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