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Does the UK need a cohesive smart city strategy?

Eddie Copeland, director of government innovation at Nesta, argues central government must have clarity of vision to ensure the smart city agenda isn’t heavily focused on technology, but rather on existing urban challenges.

For years the UK has had a slightly dysfunctional relationship with the term ‘smart city.’ Much has been promised about how new technologies will positively transform our urban spaces. Becoming ‘smarter’ seems like an inherently good thing for cities to aspire to. But what exactly do we think this entails?

Since much of the smart city narrative has been written by tech companies, it’s perhaps inevitable that it’s largely been construed as being about cities embracing new technologies. Yet defining a city by the tools it happens to use seems like a bizarre notion. After all, cities have been pioneering in smart new innovations for millennia. In the past, it’s been things like bridges, sewage systems, street lighting and cable cars; today it’s digital technologies like Internet of Things (IoT) networks and AI software. But they’re only the latest wave.

As with those historic examples, the new generation of cutting-edge technologies should not be fetishized. They are interesting only to the extent they solve real urban challenges. Understood like this, the ‘smart’ part of a smart city is not the technology, but its leaders’ and residents’ ability to marshal all the tools at their disposal to create a thriving, pleasant urban space, where people can live, work, visit, travel, start a business, bring up children, breathe clean air, relax, play and enjoy cultural experiences. Now if that’s the goal of a smart city, we have something truly worthwhile to work towards.

In short, we need to put technology in its rightful place as the enabler, not the driver, of how our cities function. So how do we create smart cities like this?

The metro mayor opportunity

The arrival of metro mayors is a game changer. That’s because they address a significant barrier: the fragmentation of local government. No fewer than 26 of the UK’s largest cities fall under the remit of more than one local authority. London alone has 33 boroughs. For technology firms who have genuinely useful innovations that address cities’ real priorities, the impact of this fragmentation has been that they have no obvious customer to work with. Or rather, they have too many customers. We should also remember that many of the biggest challenges facing cities – from congestion to air pollution – do not conveniently sit within one local authority area. That’s where metro mayors and their administrations can make a difference. For the first time we have an opportunity to consider implementing solutions at a truly city or regional scale.

Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands, is also leading the way in showing how metro mayors can use their profile and adopt smarter methods to attract a much wider pool of innovators to solve local challenges. At a recent event hosted by Public, a govtech incubator, the mayor launched Urban Challenge, an open competition for technology start-ups to develop new ideas to make the West Midlands a better place to live and work. Those with the most promising proposals will be given the chance to pitch directly to the mayor, and to work directly with officials from the West Midlands Combined Authority. While it’s early days, this appears to be a much smarter way to incentivise tech firms to offer solutions that really speak to local needs, rather than the widgets they want to test.

As well as focusing on public sector reform and local economic development, metro mayors also have the chance to adopt smarter ways of engaging with their populations. Citizen engagement platforms like Your Priorities, used in cities like Reykjavik and Madrid, invite residents to propose and vote on ideas for the city council to consider. Suggestions that meet a certain threshold of support are debated for adoption.

Participatory budgeting initiatives go a step further by inviting residents to propose and vote on ideas for how a portion of the city budget should be spent. The most well-known is ‘Madame La Maire, J’ai une idée’ (Madam Mayor, I have an idea) in Paris. Anne Hidalgo, the city’s mayor, has allocated €500m over six years to be distributed according to citizens’ suggestions and votes. Given the current poor state of public trust in politics, it would be pleasing to see some real energy put into similar initiatives in UK cities.

Towards a national strategy?

Given the momentum that metro mayors can offer the cities that have them, is there any need for central government to have a cohesive smart city strategy? The answer is yes – but only within specific parameters.

It’s useful here to think of subsidiarity – the idea that decisions should be made and actions taken at the lowest level that makes sense. Setting local priorities and implementing new solutions should sit squarely with cities themselves. But there are some things where action only makes sense at a national level.

For example, central government should continue to help defining and rolling out common technical standards for smart city tools. The UK Government (in common with governments in most countries) continues to pay a dear price for decades of buying bespoke, siloed IT solutions. The lack of interoperability in those legacy systems is a cause of huge inefficiency and a major barrier to reform. It would be completely self-defeating if cities were allowed to sleepwalk into the same trap today. If the dream of smart cities is that they better integrate different spheres of urban life, it makes no sense to have smart homes that don’t talk to smart grids, or autonomous vehicles that can’t seamlessly share data with different modes of public transport. Common standards are fundamental to achieving that end.

As it delves deeper into big questions surrounding the ethics of using data and AI – two likely ingredients of smart cities – central government may also want to set some requirements on the openness, transparency or auditing of smart city technologies. With the imminent arrival of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, public awareness is gradually being raised about how companies handle and process their users’ data. At least consumers can choose not to use a service they do not trust. By contrast, citizens currently have no meaningful way to ‘opt out’ of a smart city, no matter what technologies it deploys. It is profoundly important that citizens can trust in the legality, ethics and security of how new urban tools use their data. Central government cannot delegate those hard questions.

Finally, as it promotes the UK’s smart city agenda, central government needs to be careful not to conflate its two different objectives. One is for UK companies that make smart city widgets to be able to test and refine their products so that they can be sold to a growing export market. The other is to make UK cities themselves better places to live, work and play. The needs of each objective are very different. The first is heavily focused on technology. But that focus – as we have seen above – is not necessarily helpful for cities thinking about the best way to solve their most pressing urban challenges. Clarity of vision is vital.

I don’t deny that smart new technologies are opening up new opportunities every day. But the UK – at both a city and a national level – must now show it is equally capable of being smart in the way it uses them.




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