Smart cities: people first, technology second

The recent Westminster eForum smart cities conference emphasised societal outcomes over obsession with tech, reports Philip Mason

Smart cities are likely to become an increasingly relevant topic over the coming years, not just in magazines such as Land Mobile, but also across the wider, non-tech geek, world.

There are a variety of reasons for this, the primary one being the impact that the widespread roll-out of Internet of Things solutions in an urban context is likely to have across different facets of society. These include law enforcement, tourism, city governance and transport, just to name a few – something which will in turn likely transform how everyday life is lived across the board.

With that in mind, it’s also likely that the discussion, which up until now quite understandably has centred in the main on infrastructure and solutions, will shift towards the needs of the citizenry themselves. What actual benefit are they getting out of it and, more to the point, what level of say do they want/should they have in the matter? (Governance of technology rather than through technology, in other words, to paraphrase someone who will feature later on in this article).

This was the core focus of the Westminster eForum conference looking at ‘Advanced urban services’, which took place at the end of February and consisted of a variety of speakers, mainly from organisations involved in the planning, governance and analysis of burgeoning smart city projects.

As such it was a breath of fresh air, not just from the point of view of not having to continually hear about bit rates for a change, but also in terms of insight received as to how this most potentially game-changing of technologies might actually be put to use in real life.

Trickle-down effect
The day kicked off with a presentation from Deborah Colville, portfolio manager, innovation and Smart Belfast at Belfast Council, who discussed the work being carried out across the city. This includes a collaborative project with the UK Space Agency using satellite technology and air quality sensors to analyse pollution, as well as the generation of a detailed 3D model of Belfast to facilitate future city planning.

This was followed by a panel session featuring representatives from a variety of stakeholder organisations, including chief digital officer at the Office of the Mayor of London, Theo Blackwell.

Talking about the “next steps for smart technology” – as per the title of the discussion – as well as the ongoing task of putting residents at the centre, he said: “I find the term smart cities actually quite unhelpful. It seems to have traction with politicians, but the main challenge for us is how we design digital services for citizens.”

He continued by discussing the ways in which smart technology is already becoming integral to everyday life in the city, for instance in the gradual incorporation of sensors, data analysis and AI into public services, as well as the use of solutions such as drones (one example of which would be by the Metropolitan Police Service).

A core reason for this ongoing process, Blackwell said, was the “received learning” that is now trickling down from central government, fed out through the “diaspora of ex-GDS [Government Digital Service] employees who are now spread across municipal public services”. He specifically named the chief digital officer of Croydon Council, Neil Williams, in relation to this trend.

Blackwell went on to say – embarking on a theme that would be continued over the course of the day – that any roll-out of urban IoT technology has to be suitable to the location in which it is going to be used. This will be further complicated in London, he said, by the fact that the city itself is made up of 32 separate boroughs, all of which have their own identity, needs and – crucially – legacy systems and infrastructure.

“As a city we have the challenge of how we adopt the technology in the London that exists today, while at the same time building new technology for the London which is going to exist tomorrow,” he said. “What we’re building now, compared to what we roll out over the next two or three years… the lag will be really quite substantial.

“The other crucial thing we need is data, as well as new organisations to deal with the data economy that is increasingly all around us. The main challenge we have at the moment, from what I’m seeing, is to be able to move ahead with this while at the same time dealing with the vast array of legacy networks we have at the moment. London doesn’t need a uniform approach, but it does need a consistent one.”

21st century technology, 19th century governance
The day continued with a further presentation, this time delivered by Dr Jacqui Taylor, chief executive officer of data specialist FlyingBinary. This was followed by a second panel discussion, looking in particular at the development and dissemination of standards.

The discussion began with Sam Ibbott, head of smart cities at the Environmental Industries Commission, talking about obstacles to the sharing of best practice within the sector. “One of the problems we found very early on is what I tend to call ‘Have you heard’ syndrome,” he said. “I’d come to conferences and hear people talking about different projects, without there actually being a central repository bringing case studies together.”

With that in mind, his organisation set out to create such a thing in the form of a website. “Our aim is to build relationships, acting as a neutral broker between all the stakeholders which are required to make this market work. The tech firms can’t do it on their own, and neither can local government, law firms, or universities.”

Possibly the most compelling words of the day were delivered by Dr Jennifer Schooling, director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure at the University of Cambridge, who gave a detailed vision of what she believes smart cities have the potential to be from a societal point of view. “Smart cities are not a destination,” she said. “Rather, the smart city concept is a toolkit to [arrive at] social, economic and technical outcomes which we’d intended to deliver anyway. It’s very easy to be beguiled by technology, but if we focus too much on it, we distort the lens.”

She continued: “What we’ve found is that a lot of smart city initiatives have failed to scale, in part because they were focused on the tech itself rather than the outcomes which were required. Governance through technology has to develop symbiotically with the governance of technology. The right solutions for a city are highly context-specific, and as such they require context-specific governance frameworks – technology without a purpose is just a toy.”

Schooling went on to elaborate her belief that the aforementioned changes in governance need to be not only location- but also time-specific when it comes to acknowledging the overarching context. Or to put it another way, in her words, “we don’t want to end up imposing 21st century technology on a 19th century governance system”. These governance systems will in themselves, she suggested, be influenced by increasingly “data-rich processes” as they start to inform decision-making on an ever-larger scale.

Discussing the expectation of the population itself, meanwhile – specifically how the tools are being used – she continued: “It’s highly likely that citizens will demand and expect greater transparency from us. And they may wish to exercise more of a voice in decision-making. Now that’s fantastic, but it also brings with it the need that we listen to all the voices and not just the ones who shout loudest in this technologically enabled age.”

One of the final speakers in the panel discussion was Dr Colin Birchenall, chief digital officer for Glasgow City Council, who gave an overview of the progress made by the organisation following Glasgow’s time as an Innovate UK ‘future cities’ demonstrator in 2013 (prior to the Commonwealth Games being held there a year later). During this, he said, a central digital ‘operation centre’ was established, as well as a single platform for harvesting data from across the city.

Speaking of the experience, he said: “It shook our foundations – as well as the foundations of those in the Glasgow city chambers. [What we’ve discovered is that] you can’t go from just demonstrating smart city technologies to being a smart city, because it’s much more than that. It’s a culture shift; organisational change. It sounds trite, but technology really is the easy bit.”

Describing this culture shift in more detail, Birchenall said it has been necessary to “re-imagine, re-think and re-design” services across the board, on an unprecedented scale.

This has included, according to him, a focus – again – on outcomes, including increased transparency, better decision-making, more proactive preventative services and so on.

A new ‘Digital Glasgow’ strategy has resulted from this, which, he said, now focuses both on the economic opportunities around digitisation, as well as scaling up the IoT infrastructure across the city from a public services point of view. (“A world class city with a thriving digital economy and community, where everyone can flourish and benefit from the best digital connectivity and skills, where technology is used to improve everyone’s quality of life, drive businesses’ innovation and service design and improve our city, its neighbourhoods and its success” is how the Glasgow City Council website rather breathlessly describes this vision).

Discussing the ‘unique needs’ of Glasgow itself, meanwhile, Birchenall said: “We’re one of the fastest-growing economies in the UK, with digital and tech being our fastest-growing sector. At the same time, the city’s not without its challenges. We have generational poverty and unemployment, and there are parts of Glasgow which have among the lowest life expectancy in Europe.”

In the fullness of time, smart cities will no doubt change the way we live as a society, and as individual human beings. That being the case, it’s human beings themselves – rather than the technology – who must ultimately be the core focus.

Glasgow smart city song
Glasgow City Council’s efforts to roll out IoT-based urban solutions for the benefit of its citizens began in 2013, when it obtained £24m of funding from Innovate UK (or, as the organisation was known at the time, The Technology Strategy Board). There were two core elements to this – a ‘data hub’ and a ‘city operations centre’.

The council describes the latter as a “state of the art integrated traffic and public safety management system, [bringing together] public space CCTV, security for museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence”. It is “managed and mapped” in order to chart its impact on behalf of “residents, businesses, visitors and stakeholders”.

The data piece, meanwhile, has evolved by encouraging organisations to make non-personal information ‘discoverable’ online with the purpose of being “more transparent, improving partnership working, and stimulating innovation”. Integral to this – again, according to the council – has been the creation of an open data catalogue, bringing together information streams from more than 60 partners and providing in the region of 370 datasets.