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If the UK is to make its cities "smarter", they need stronger political leadership, too

On Wednesday afternoon, around 50 people gathered in Westminster to launch the new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smart Cities. The group intended to complement the efforts of other government initiatives, such as the Smart Cities Forum and the Future Cities Catapult. All of them were intended to bring together public and private institutions from up and down the country to discuss the opportunities and challenges “Smart Cities” can offer.

The launch event, which like the group itself is chaired by Dan Byles MP, took the form of a panel discussion and Q&A session. It was attended by a wide range of representatives from government, business and the technology sector, and featured a lively discussion and debate on issues ranging from the important role of “Smart” solutions in solving city challenges, to the need for stronger leadership and improved citizen engagement.

While none of the panellists tried to exclusively define what “Smart” means, there was a general consensus that Smart Cities are those that are trying to solve their long-term challenges (such as population growth, transport constraints and budget pressures) by making greater use of digital technology and big data. Here are some of the highlights from the day’s discussion:

Fragmented Progress

Panellists identified significant discrepancies in the progress made on creating Smart Cities throughout the UK. Some initiatives have demonstrated strong efficiency gains, such as savings made by introducing Smart Street Lighting. But there were concerns that efforts to successfully implement such schemes remain fragmented, and that there is a need to adopt a “systems” approach to this agenda. That means thinking about how different variables (whether related to demographics, climate change, energy or housing) interact and influence each other within a whole, integrated landscape.

Balancing Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Deployment was also an important point of discussion. Panellists considered whether cities should adopt a top-down or bottom-up approach to implementing Smart Cities initiatives, and how to strike a balance between the two.

In particular, panellists emphasised the important role of strong city leadership in drawing together a long-term strategy and vision, and acting as an enabler for the progress of the Smart agenda. This leadership is something that they thought was missing in UK cities and should be strengthened.

Citizen Engagement and Digital Democracy

There was consensus around the importance of putting citizens and their needs at the heart of Smart Cities, not least by using digital technologies to increase their involvement in decision-making. This gave rise to some discussion about the digital divide and the capacity of deprived or marginalised members of society: those who lack digital skills to engage with such initiatives. In response, panellists suggested that there was a need for governments to invest in delivering improved, long-term digital education across populations, as an essential step towards solving this problem.

The path forward

In general, the strong support for the Smart agenda seems to suggest that cities which choose not to engage will lose out in the long-term. While the UK is well positioned to reap the benefits of the growing Smart Cities market, it needs to work harder to attain and maintain a leadership position on the deployment, use and export of new technologies and digital skills. That’s all the more true when you consider the fast advancements that developing countries like China are making on this front.

As with many of these events, the first session ended with more questions raised than answered:

·         How do we monetise the value of data – the bedrock of the Smart Cities movement?

·         How do we understand the value and capability of the digital economy?  

·         Where is the best place for cities to start their Smart Cities implementation?

·         How much of cities’ Smart Cities agenda can be planned and coordinated, and how much is best produced through spontaneous, organic means?

The APPG is certainly still finding its feet, but I look forward to seeing how it will evolve and grow over the coming months. I would also like to see greater representation of UK cities: at present, only five are currently participating as Associate Members. It will be extremely difficult to make progress on issues such as leadership, strategic planning, or better coordinated services, while the main players responsible for these are absent from the discussion.

Nada Nohrová is a researcher at the Centre for Cities. This is an edited version of an article from the think tank’s blog.
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