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Smart cities: the smart thing to do

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2019

Digital technology must play a supportive and secondary role to energy distribution and transport infrastructure priorities if the ‘smart city’ agenda is to power the clean growth and electric vehicle (EV) revolution, writes Localis chief executive Jonathan Werran.

Since the first steam-powered Industrial Revolution, we as individuals and our societies have been radically changed by mankind’s desire and ability to move about the world in new ways. These constantly evolving ways of transportation have shrunk old world notions of distance and time – and the types of energy used to drive our modern movement have fuelled this change.

More than a century ago, we began the shift from coal to the age of oil and the internal combustion engine. The shift to cleaner, greener electricity will, alongside artificial intelligence and increased automation, drive the next global industrial revolution.

In recent months, Localis has been assessing how the smart cities agenda can help accelerate a revolution in sustainable and clean growth. We want to know what changes new infrastructure will have on our places and how they will change and affect the lives of the people who live in this environment.

Globally, cities face increasingly complex challenges. Modern urban populations deal simultaneously with air pollution, the intensification of carbon emissions, and a growing strain on infrastructure – typically exemplified by sometimes crippling transport congestion. With increasing urbanisation and inadequate legacy infrastructure, the depth of these challenges will only increase.

In response, the rapidly-improving technological capabilities available to city governments and their stakeholders have led some to explore the potential of the so-called ‘smart city’ through a series of demonstrator projects. The UK has emerged as a strong force in this space, with several prominent project examples including Manchester CityVerve, MK:Smart, and the Future City Glasgow initiative.

Yet many of these smart-city solutions remain in the pre-commercial phase of development, with uncertainty about precisely what a smart city is, what a successful smart city would look like, and how best to deliver the benefits – institutionally, technically, and at scale.

Much is made of the personal and political implications of the vastly improving digital infrastructure in modern cities. The rapid rise of the Internet of Things – everyday items like watches and speakers embedded with smart, interconnected technology – looks set to characterise human development in the years and decades to come.

Running parallel to this process is a move away from carbon technologies, with governments worldwide looking to a near future of decarbonised transport and drastically reduced industrial emissions. It is in this context that the smart city exists: in urban areas, not only is the interconnectivity of modern society intensified, the ecological imperative is far greater. Our ability to monitor and manage our energy usage in urban areas is critical to improving their liveability and sustainability. Yet the ability of new, digital technologies to help improve the way we use resources, from time to fossil fuels, depends entirely on our ability to power them.

Debates around smart cities have often failed to consider the supply and management of physical infrastructure, particularly as it relates to energy efficiency and sustainable economic growth – two central goals of the smart city.

Physical infrastructure, including energy distribution networks and local transport networks, should be successfully implemented before digital infrastructure can allow city officials and residents to manage their energy consumption toward efficiency and sustainability. While technologies such as smart meters can help manage electricity usage far more efficiently, there remains good reason to be concerned that take-up of new technologies will lead to a strain on the existing energy network capacity.

The benefits of EVs

Uptake of EVs is accelerating month on month, and the UK Government is committed to phasing out fuel-burning vehicles by 2040. In spite of this impressive uptake and clear-stated direction from government, are we sending clear-enough signals to the market that EVs are the future? Furthermore, do we have the infrastructure capacity to match our ambitions?

The uptake of EVs is key to the alleviation of another problem we focus on in this report: air quality in urban areas. High NO2 concentrations predominate in cities, on major roads, and at pinch-points of congestion such as ports and crossings like bridges and tunnels. While data coverage is poor and the government’s modelling has been criticised for being unreliable, it is clear that the problem is most acute in urban areas. All but one of the UK ‘air quality management zones’ have illegal levels of NO2, exceeding statutory European Union targets – and often by significant amounts.

The smart-city agenda promises cleaner and more efficient transport through better-managed public transport flows and prevalence of EVs. The mounting tenor of the public debate on air quality makes implementing the changes necessary to accelerate the smart-city agenda a political, as well as environmental, imperative.

In considering a policy programme for smart cities, the issue of fairness must be central. Smart energy has huge implications for helping people out of fuel poverty, as households will be better able to predict their bills and manage their usage, yet these benefits can only be felt through a considered roll-out of the physical infrastructure needed to deliver the smart grid.

There is a risk that the infrastructure needed to support the smart-city agenda is rolled out unevenly, with areas which are already deprived being left behind.

In order to produce optimal and sustainable cities, the full potential of digital infrastructure must be unlocked through preemptive investment in energy infrastructure. The UK Government does not offer a cohesive strategy on transitioning to a smart city. What the government can do, however, is provide a ‘market-making’ approach to try and ensure that the right conditions are available to encourage energy network providers to invest in distribution networks, and consumers to take up new technologies.

Businesses and cities cannot, on their own, solve the obstacles that hinder the growth of smart infrastructure and technologies. A key barrier to readying our cities for EVs, recently acknowledged by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, is the ability of energy network providers to invest ahead of demand. Currently, providers are restricted to investing only where there is proven need (investing after demand).

Given the inevitable rise in electricity usage as a fuel source, not just in cars but also for central heating, and the increasing reliance on constant connectivity as the smart-city agenda advances, we argue that this restriction should be lifted. In addition, charging points and associated grid upgrades should be provided ahead of demand in order for private business and citizens to be fully confident in EVs as the technology of future road transport in Britain.

Without a change in regulation, behaviour, and a wholesale transfer of powers for directing smart energy policies, we risk a tale of two cities in our major urban centres – deepening levels of fuel poverty and inequality between prosperous and more deprived parts of town.

A devolution revolution in locally-regulated energy markets has the potential to accelerate the clean growth revolution and make UK cities everywhere potential powerhouses for sustainable and inclusive prosperity.

And although the technological advancements which make up the Internet of Things have huge potential for increasing the quality and efficiency of local public policy, we must make sure we have the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure in place to facilitate this change.

If we ensure that our infrastructure is updated in a way that delivers for everyone in our urban areas, the smart-city agenda has the potential to improve life in towns and cities across the UK.


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