Huawei: Bristol overtakes London as UK’s smartest city
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Bristol has overtaken London to become the UK’s leading smart city, according to the second UK Smart Cities Index, commissioned by Huawei UK and conducted by Navigant Consulting. The Index is based on evaluations of 20 cities and their strategies, projects and overall readiness in using digital technology to improve crucial civic services.

The most improved city is Manchester, which has climbed two places to third, while Cambridge has entered the top ten despite not featuring in last year’s report. The report also names 12 “contender” cities which are: Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Milton Keynes, Glasgow, Nottingham, Peterborough, Cambridge, Oxford, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Newcastle.

However, a similar study published by Juniper Research last week put London in first place, followed by Edinburgh and Glasgow, with Bristol in fourth place.

Bristol’s move up the rankings in Huawei’s UK Smart Cities Index is due to the extension of its innovation programmes and their closer integration into the city’s strategy. The Bristol Is Open project provides a large-scale connectivity testbed and the new City Operations Centre ensures that services are effectively implemented. The city also leads in data access, energy innovation and community engagement.

London’s smart city plans have evolved since the 2016 Index to focus on data-driven policy initiatives and an ambitious new environmental plan. There has also been considerable progress in several London boroughs, notably in the ambitious Digital Greenwich programme. The report’s authors expect that the appointment of a chief digital officer will accelerate London’s development in coming months.

The Index also emphasises the important role of partners such as the Future Cities Catapult, Innovate UK, the Scottish Smart Cities initiative, academic institutions and the private sector as being key to driving smart cities progress. Central government support is also beneficial to smart cities programmes, with the Index urging central government to underwrite risk, address procurement issues and support collaboration.

During the launch of the Index, which took place at the Corinthia Hotel in London, Raj Mack, head of Digital Birmingham highlighted the need to focus on each city’s specific requirements, noting that Birmingham had been approached by a technology provider to trial a smart parking solution on the basis that they believed that Birmingham like other cities would have issues with parking in the city. The pilot showed that there was no additional value that the solution provided or was there a need for this type of technology at the time. This exemplified the need for the cities to identify its challenges rather than being technology led.

He added that Birmingham also recognises that although there was value to developing the digital and smart cities agenda at a city level, in some cases taking a West Midlands Combined Authority approach would provide greater impact both in terms of scale and competitive advantage and Birmingham is actively working with the WMCA to develop this approach.

Julie Snell, managing director of Bristol is Open, said that her organisation is targeting “housing that is suffering”, through the use of damp-detecting sensors. She also highlighted Bristol’s close links to Bath and the surrounding area and expressed a desire to work at a regional level to ensure the region as a whole benefited.

When asked what the panel saw as the biggest barrier to large-scale adoption, Snell, raised the issue of cybersecurity, noting the public’s awareness that wherever there’s a wireless connection, there’s a potential cybersecurity threat. She added that “We need to put cybersecurity at the top of the agenda to make it [smart city projects] happen.”

Mack said that smart city developers shouldn’t let cybersecurity become a stumbling block – “we need to do it anyway”. He added that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to smart city cybersecurity, noting that the police already have vast expertise in using and storing sensitive information on the public. He also stressed the importance of designing cybersecurity in from the beginning and his preference for there being embedded controls which regulate and enable the release and the flow of data, rather than putting additional security layer in place that potentially hinder innovative approaches.

L-R: Navigant Consulting's Eric Woods, Digital Birmingham's Raj Mack, Bristol is Open's Julie Snell and Theo Blackwell, the GLA's recently appointed chief digital officer

Erin Walsh, head of city strategies at the Future Cities Catapult, discussed how her organisation worked with Belfast City Council and Northern Ireland’s Land & Property Services (LPS) to help address the issue of business rates not being categorised correctly and the lag in assessments resulting from the dependence on a two-yearly ‘boots on the ground’ property survey. Future Cities Catapult worked with the organisations’ various departments to define the issue, created a detailed concept for a tool, put out a call to big data SMEs through a Small Business Research Innovative (SBRI) competition. This resulted in two SMEs being selected to develop and test the tool and Walsh said that using 12 datasets, they were able to identify £358,000 in additional revenue for the council in a small geographical area.

Daniel Clarke, smart cities programme manager at Cambridgeshire County Council, said that LoRa is fairly cheap to deploy, adding that it cost £10,000 to build a LoRa network that spills out from the Cambridge city centre into the surrounding region. He explained that the council had tried to deploy low cost air quality sensors, only to find after an initial deployment, that a city-wide rollout would have been prohibitively expensive.

Gordon Wright, digital economy manager at Aberdeen City Council highlighted the importance of data quality, adding that on one occasion, it tried to work with an organisation, but their data was in such a state that nothing could be done with it.

Future Cities Catapult’s Walsh said that “One key area is around risk or perceived risk in this space… It’s okay to fail in this space. I think we need to take the pressure off ourselves a little bit and say it’s okay to do that,” while agreeing that this does go against organisational culture. She also suggested publicising the risks associated with smart city projects before starting them.

Clarke said that while the members that oversee the work that his team does, “talk a good game when it comes to risk, but when it comes to delivery they say: ‘Yes fine we understand the risks, but why aren’t you delivering it because failure is not an option?’… it’s really difficult.”

L-R: Rory Cellan Jones, Future Cities Catapult's Erin Walsh, Cambridgeshire County Council's Daniel Clarke and Aberdeen City Council's Gordon Wright

The report’s section on underwriting risk states that: “There is still a need to bridge the gap between funding for demonstration projects and full-scale commercial deployments. It is still not clear how funding for pilot projects can evolve into support for the broader adoption of smart city technologies.

“Central government and its agencies should work with cities – and suppliers – to examine means for reducing, sharing, and managing the risks involved. This should encompass the funding burden of testing new solutions at scale, but also the means for balancing the risks against the potential benefits for all.

“Suppliers are also frustrated at the gap between pilot projects and the move to commercially sustainable models. There is an ongoing need to facilitate engagement between cities and suppliers and cross-industry groups like SmarterUK to explore how they can better manage the risks associated with large-scale deployments.”

Sir Andrew Cahn, Huawei UK Board, said: “The successful cities of the future are going to be smart cities. It’s clear from this report that cities across the UK have made considerable progress over the last year, developing and implementing strategies to improve the delivery of public services and the urban environment. The scale of progress throughout the country is represented by a doubling in the number of cities included in this year’s ranking index compared to 2016. While Bristol and London are named as “leaders”, other cities have entered the index with exciting smart initiatives, such as Newcastle’s City Futures programme and Cambridge’s Smart Cambridge intelligent City Platform (iCP).”

Eric Woods, research director at Navigant Consulting, who led the study, said: “UK cities are demonstrating an impressive commitment to service and technology innovation. They are now embedding smart city ideas into city planning and operations. They are also preparing for the impact of the next wave of technologies, including 5G, autonomous vehicles, and machine learning. The growing contribution that local universities are making to these programmes further emphasises the importance of advanced technologies to the future of UK cities.”

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said: “The digital revolution is gaining momentum all over the UK - smarter cities can improve people's everyday lives from accessing healthcare to simplifying waste management and streamlining public services. We are backing smart cities and the recent review into Artificial Intelligence highlighted how we can establish ourselves as the world leader in this area of emerging technology."

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