The smart cities challenge: what does the landscape look like in 2020?

As technology becomes more powerful and more readily available, and the global economic and environmental landscape become more fraught, smart city initiatives have never been more relevant or more important. 

Let’s take a look at the current smart city landscape in the UK – including the challenges, benefits and arising opportunities.

Smart cities in the UK

Smart cities are a global challenge, but many cities and communities in the UK are leading the charge in terms of smart city strategy and initiatives. Bristol is officially the UK’s leading smart city as of 2017. Bristol has a strategy and roadmap for their project up until 2050 – the Bristol One City Plan – the key themes being connectivity, economy, environment, health and wellbeing, homes and communities, and learning and skills. 

One of its first innovations came about as a result of the number of accidental deaths on the city’s harbourside – the waterways claimed the lives of 31 people between 2012 and 2017. In an effort to prevent further fatalities, the City Council worked with the University of Bristol to implement heat-sensitive cameras along the waterfront to quickly detect if people had fallen in. Using a highly advanced 5G test network, the first of its kind in Europe, high resolution images and changes to the water temperature are recorded and alerts sent to the emergency services. Two lives were saved in the six months since the cameras were installed. 

Smart city challenges

The benefits of implementing smart city initiatives are clear – they help to accelerate the local government’s objective to improve the quality of life of their communities through collecting and using relevant data to make better decisions. That being said, enacting large-scale change can be difficult, and aside from technical, economical and potentially political challenges, there are also organisational challenges that surround smart city initiatives. 

The Energy Saving Trust has identified some key themes surrounding the development of smart cities and their challenges. These include:

  • Siloing of assets – the way that procurement currently operates, things like fibre, street lighting, heating systems and energy are bought separately, limiting the opportunity for connectivity and efficiency. Procurement processes should be more collaborative to ensure the system can work as a whole.
  • Smart cities are only for major urban areas – while it’s true that larger cities and denser populated areas tend to have the biggest mandate, and very often the funding and capacity, communities of all sizes need to take responsibility for driving towards the 2050 target of net zero emissions. It’s important for smaller local authorities to recognise that in fact, they may be better placed and more agile to deploy and test new technologies on smaller scales. 
  • Preciousness about sharing data – smart cities are all about the sharing and availability of data. Data protection challenges aside – there should be more conversation and policy around sharing data between local government departments and private sector organisations in order to move initiatives forward. 

Smart cities and the current environment

A local authority has a central purpose – to improve the quality of life of their citizens. Employing smart city ideals and smart practices is an opportunity to accelerate this and make it sustainable into the future. Improving the quality of life of your community requires a focus on public health – and there are already a number of examples of how this has been implemented at an authority level. New Zealand has instituted a well-being budget at federal level, and the health officer and governor for the state of North Dakota, USA, have launched a joint initiative to make North Dakota the first smart state

An extremely relevant  and growing public health challenge for local authorities is supporting in the collection and utilisation of the data made available by COVID-19 track and trace services in order to slow down the spread of the virus in their communities. Amidst challenges with the centralised government system, many authorities have asked for this to be decentralised, citing experience and expertise in test and trace – employing the technologies and techniques for things like food poisoning outbreaks or sexually transmitted diseases. The government has made funding of £300 million available to local authorities to support with test and trace – and with the centralised government app in continued development, it remains to be seen what precedent will be set and what innovations will be developed to overcome this particular challenge. 

Outside of the obvious public health concerns of the current environment – there are other considerations too. In the introduction we mentioned the impact that the environmental and economic landscape has on how local authorities should shape and prioritise their activities to answer new challenges. COVID-19 will no doubt have a devastating effect on the global economy, and there will be on obvious impact on a local scale. How might local authorities use smart city initiatives to tackle this? Similarly, it’s well documented that during periods of lockdown, there was a noticeable reduction in pollution – how can local governments use this momentum and smart initiatives to continue the focus on reducing emissions in this landscape? 

As a global crisis, this most recent challenge demonstrates the importance for central and local governments to collaborate with and learn from other government agencies from all over the world – learning from each other and continuously improving the technologies, services and underlying policies to improve the response. 

The current landscape may also mean we see a change in the bureaucracy and how policy is made and enacted – an emergency situation requires things to be fast-tracked, for red-tape to be removed. Perhaps the responsiveness to the current crisis will see a shift towards more rapid deployments and willingness to support innovation more readily. 

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