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The rise and rise of the smart city

In December 2013 the UK government launched the Smart Cities Forum in a bid to lead the global race to develop a more sustainable future for Britain's urban areas. How is it getting on so far?

The UK should be seen as a world leader, the country not just with the smartest cities but also with the companies that develop the smart technology. This is according to the Smart Cities Forum (SCF), which is all about putting these ambitions front and centre in their drive to make our urban areas better places to live in.

With the global market for smart city solutions expected to be worth around $400bn by 2020, the aim of the UK government's initiative is to get the private sector and local governments working together to garner 10 per cent of that value. Former Science Minister David Willetts believes that the UK is well placed to do just that and has to act now to take advantage of the situation.

The government has invested £50m through the Technology Strategy Board into the Future Cities Catapult, a London-based centre of excellence on urban innovation where city leaders, businesses and universities come together to develop solutions to meet the future needs of our cities. It also helps to support businesses looking to commercialise viable solutions. Another £24m has gone into the Glasgow Future Cities Demonstrator.

Geoff Mulgan is a member of the SCF and also chief executive of Nesta, an innovation charity working on projects in this field aiming to improve the interface between technologies and people. He says: "I've been around this field for a long time and I wrote an article 20 years ago that discussed all of the current features, sensors and smart homes, for example, that are being slowly implemented now. It's surprising how long it's all taken to come to fruition."

One of the reasons it's taken so long is that smart city plans have, until now, been purely focused on hardware solutions. Since these original plans were made we've lived through a revolution and digital technologies are now seen as the major tool for making cities smarter and city life better for residents. When you consider that over 82 per cent of the UK population lives in urban centres, getting this right has to be a priority.

This is something that the chief executive of Sunderland City Council, Dave Smith, has long recognised: "We have been absolutely clear that, as an authority, we must foster the development of a sustainable city through transformational IT, service delivery and support: an ecosystem built on innovation."

Learning from past mistakes

Although we're now seeing this big push for smart cities, it's not a new concept. Previously projects such as New Songdo in South Korea and Masdar in the UEA tried, and failed, to deliver a new, smarter and more sustainable way of living.

While these cities improved efficiencies in many areas they've been considered failures for not delivering environments that people actually want to live and work in. Mulgan believes that's because too much emphasis was put on the engineering and technology solutions, while not enough attention was paid to the social dynamics. "To make cities truly smart for the future we need to make sure the technology is used to deliver things that people want and need, and that add real value to how life is lived in these cities."

Nesta is involved in a series of projects seeking to deliver smart cities that focus on the social aspect of urban life and not only the technology that delivers it. One of these is the Open Data Challenge Series in which projects will compete for a potential £40,000 prize. The challenge runs for two years during which time there will be seven themes to address. The smart city themes that it's looking at are Crime and Justice, Education, and Energy and Environment. "Just one example of a smart city solution that delivers social benefits is community energy purchasing," Mulgan adds.

While it's encouraging that businesses and universities strive to plan and design people-friendly environments, unless the local authorities that manage these cities are on board the UK won't be smartening up anytime soon. Luckily, there are a number of city councils that have recognised that we live in a different world and that they have to adopt new approaches to keep the UK's cities sustainable and liveable. But what do smart cities look like in reality?

Citizen-centric cities 

In China there are nearly 200 smart cities in development. The authorities managing them are all following the top-down approach to developing solutions that are delivered to residents as a fait accompli, working with them to understand what they need and making sure they deliver it.

Stockholm, Sweden, is an early leader in delivering a smart city based on this model. It has been developing a smart approach since the 1990s, making sure from the start that all of its smart city developments are citizen-centric. It has funded a large fibre-optic broadband network through Stokab, a city-owned company, and set itself up as a test-bed for new technology with the Kista Science City acting as a focal point for innovation and economic development. A major part of the smart city development is the e-government services, which have significantly cut the city's spending with the additional benefit that Stockholm residents can contact the council 24 hours a day.

The big data scheme is working to continually improve Stockholm's transport and energy efficiency by using the information to monitor and control traffic, heating and lights in public sector buildings. Today, the city's carbon emissions are lower than other metropolitan regions and half the average of other Swedish cities.

Stockholm is not alone in this approach. Nesta is involved in a number of European pilot projects that are helping authorities in Finland, Estonia, Iceland and Spain to become more citizen-centric. The first step is to get residents involved in decision making. The first of these projects was to develop a platform for Reykjavik City Council that enables every citizen to propose ideas and legislation and then work collaboratively in shaping policy options and taking them through to approval and implementation.

A collaborative future 

A smart future for our cities is not just one where technology has generated better resource management or improved access to public services; it is one where we live more collaboratively - not just by sharing in decision-making and service and policy development, but by sharing commodities such as energy, cars and data. Called collaborative consumption, it's a shift from current consumer values of ownership to accessing resources.

The development of the Cloud has already meant that businesses can now shift from owning software and hardware to using it through service agreements. Consumers are not far behind with the use of web-based applications rocketing now that smartphones and tablets are competing with laptops and desktop computers. The growth in car ownership has slowed right down while membership of car clubs is increasing. In July 2014 the Department for Transport committed to investing £500,000 to help grow memberships further.

Community energy groups are springing up all over the UK to help cut fuel costs and carbon emissions in their cities and towns. These groups are not just focused on communal purchase of energy: they work with members to monitor and manage consumption to make households and businesses more energy efficient.

New platforms are being developed to link authorities, businesses and universities to make that ongoing joint development of smart solutions easier. "There are several cities in the UK that have some exciting and innovative plans that use the latest technologies not just as a showcase, but in a way that demonstrates value and meets the citizens' needs. This is the element that's been missing before and the challenge that the UK needs to overcome to achieve its goals," Mulgan says.

Once we've established exactly what solutions are needed to achieve that goal, the digital advancement that will pull all of these technologies together is the Internet of Things. Smart cities will play a central role in a future where every device we use in our daily lives will be connected through the Internet, so that they can all interact and enable us to live more smartly than we've ever done before. 

Further information

The IET has its first Future Intelligent Cities conference on 4-5 December 2014 in London. 

For more information, visit the event website:

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