Central government could do more to support smart city initiatives

SUMMARY:

A new report from China-based networks operator Huawei states that Bristol has overtaken London in its ranking of smart cities in the UK.

A new report that ranks the UK’s top smart cities has highlighted new emerging trends and has outlined the greater role that central government could be playing in their development, despite a greater push towards devolution.

China-based network operator Huawei’s annual Smart Cities Index has found that Bristol is now ranked as the UK’s number one smart city, thanks to its significant strides in extending its innovation programmes and closely integrating those initiatives into city operations.

Bristol was closely followed by London, which has increased its commitment to data-driven policies and an ambitious new environmental plan. London also recently appointed its first Chief Digital Officer – Theo Blackwell – who has made firm commitments to making London one of the smartest cities in the world.

Other cities that followed closely behind as ‘contenders’ for the top spot included Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, Birmingham and Milton Keynes. A full copy of the report can be read here.

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.

Emerging trends

Beyond the ranking of the cities – which is always interesting for those living in the areas, as well the insights into some of the plans taking place – the report also identifies a number of key trends that are emerging with regards to some of the more successful approaches taking place.

This is useful, as it’s often difficult to get to grips with the practicalities of smart city initiatives, given the fragmented and diverse nature of implementations.

  • Greater integration – The leading cities have laid strong foundations for the development of innovation – both technically (in terms of test beds and platforms) and culturally (in terms of a trusted ecosystem of partners). The key to success is integrating this innovation culture with the day-to-day operations of the city. These cities are strengthening the links between innovation teams and city departments.
  • City platforms – Cities are developing more cohesive strategies for the deployment of IoT technologies and the necessary communications infrastructure. These cities have deployed or are planning large-scale deployments of low power networks, are vying to be test beds for 5G technologies, and are looking at future fibre needs to support these ambitions.
  • Partnerships – The report claims that there is a strong desire among city leaders to build more public-private sector partnerships. For example, universities can provide research support but also define projects, secure funding, define strategies, and contribute to or provide leadership of programmes. Universities, in turn, can show the effects of their work, gain access to real-world big datasets, and build closer bonds with local communities and decision makers.
  • A holistic view – The opportunity to take a more holistic view of city challenges – and better them through new technologies – is one of the foundational concepts of the smart city movement. However, as the report notes, it is much harder to achieve in practice. But the leading UK cities are now taking their experience with diverse pilot projects to develop approaches that embed such a perspective in the design of programs, in the scoping of projects, and the measurement of benefits. Some cities, for example, are looking at the idea of smart districts or communities where the interconnection between transport, health, energy, housing issues, and innovations can be tested at scale.

Devolution doesn’t mean no help

As Huawei notes in its report, one of the major influences shaping city and regional strategies in the UK at the moment is the further devolution of powers away from central government towards local areas. However, as the report hints, this doesn’t mean that central government should abdicate itself from responsibilities, if it wants the UK to be a pioneer in smart city technologies.

There are three areas that the report argues that central government could play a more critical role in supporting smart city initiatives. They are:

  • Underwriting risk – Huawei states that one of the most common requirements of smart city teams from central government is support in helping cities accept and manage the greater risk involved in the large-scale adoption of new technologies or innovations in service design and delivery. There is still a need to bridge the gap between funding for demonstration projects and full-scale commercial deployments. It adds that 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.
  • Procurement – The age old problem. Not something new or unique to the UK, but one that continues to rumble on, despite developments such as the Digital Marketplace being run out of the Cabinet Office. The report rightly acknowledges that the debate continues as to how public sector procurement can be better designed to accommodate innovation, new technologies, and outcome-based approaches.
  • Collaboration – The report noes how devolution is already enhancing collaboration networks at a regional level. However, there still appears to be room for structured national programs for sharing insights and resources. This has been something that has always been in demand at a local level, but has failed to materialise in many meaningful ways nationally. Programmes to support the use of AVs and the establishment of 5G test beds seem to be well coordinated. The work on Smart Planning was also commonly referenced as touching critical issues in smart city development. However, it is less clear that there are good structures for sharing development around city IoT developments.

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