Smart cities - Policy and best practice from the front line

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton February 26, 2019
Chris Middleton presents the second of two reports from the Westminster eForum on smart cities.

Image of a city - Hong Kong
How do you know you’re living in a smart city? What are the signs?

For Dr Jacqui Taylor, CEO of data visualisation and analytics provider, FlyingBinary, they would take the form of a frictionless experience for citizens; for Dr Jennifer Schooling, Director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at Cambridge University, living in one should feel no different to being anywhere else; and for Dr Peter van Mann, Executive VP of Research & Development at IoT systems provider Living PlanIT, you should generally feel safer and experience less disruption.

Chief Digital Officer of Glasgow City Council, Colin Birchenall, thinks that the hallmark of living in a smart city is that services are at once more personalised and less visible; and Jono Adams, Associate Director and Smart Cities Lead at sustainability consultancy Anthesis, believes a smart city is one that bears up under the everyday strains of using it – something that all commuters certainly hope to experience one day.

Meanwhile, Sam Ibbott, Head of Smart Cities at the Environmental Industries Commission, thinks you won’t know you’re in one. Things will just happen without your intervention, he says, as all the barriers to a productive life begin to fall (but hopefully not on your windscreen as you exit the car park in your connected electric vehicle).

All of these luminaries spoke in a panel discussion on developing best practice at last week’s Westminster eForum conference on smart cities, which took place in the belly of British government: next to the banqueting hall in Whitehall.

Despite that, the only presence from central government itself (as opposed to NGOs and arms-length agencies) were the two chairs: Lou Downe, the impressive Director of Design and Service Standards at the Government Digital Service (GDS), and, fronting the second half, Tony Sceales, Head of Programme Development, 5G Testbeds and Trials, at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and (for some reason also) Sport.

Sceales described DCMS as “in some ways the Department of Life” in this government – as opposed to the Department of Zombies, perhaps (that’s on the other side of the road). It’s vital that we think about digital infrastructure in the widest possible sense, he said, as being about people, not smart things.

The common thread in all of these presentations was surprising, therefore. In a sense, smart cities don’t exist – or shouldn’t exist as programmes that scream ‘platform’ and ‘big technology’ at people in the street. A smart city, the panelists implied, should be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye as a ticket gate opens, as the right money is deducted from your account, as you find a free electric bike just where you need it, and as your taxi tells you it’s arrived.

As Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer in the Mayor of London’s Office at the Greater London Authority observed in the first half of the event (see my separate report), smart city design needs to be seen as a core part of democracy itself. That’s because smart cities primarily agglomerate people and their movements, not technologies and data points.

In a wide-ranging presentation, FlyingBinary’s Taylor – who described herself as an advisor to both the British and Chinese governments as well as CEO of her company (and a hot ticket at the World Economic Forum this year) – spoke about improving outcomes for citizens as a public good. That’s a good outcome in itself for an engineer who started out testing jet engines in wind tunnels.

Her company visualises data under a range of different headings, from security in the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, to the emerging field of data journalism – such as visualising the human cost of war in Afghanistan by mapping the locations of everyone who has been killed. She explained:

“For us, citizens are genuinely at the heart of the Internet of Things, as they literally dialogue our journey [sic].”

However, FlyingBinary’s focus has now shifted to “Generation Alpha”, she explained:

“Generation Alpha, the children of Millennials – aged between five and 14 – they are a completely different shift in terms of what our Web science work does.”

Taylor let this point hang without further explanation, but said later that the emerging generation of young people sees connectivity as a human right, not as being about technology. This suggests there may be tensions ahead for any smart city programmes that are too tightly focused on technology, things, and ageing people in ageing cities, despite the latter being one of the biggest problems facing humanity this century.

Taylor’s own focus has become more international, she said, while trying to shift the UK’s thinking away from ‘technology as an outcome’ to simply being the enabler of better services. Smart cities should be about shaping the places where people live to deliver better outcomes for them. In this regard, the UK is slipping behind its peers, she suggested.

The challenge of data protection

A further challenge facing all cities today is that they exist within data protection regimes (in the UK’s case, GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018). But those rules are regional, not international, she said – a point also made by lawyer Sarah Kenshall of Burges Salmon earlier in the day.

Cities exist throughout the world, but also welcome people from other countries to visit and work in them, so smart cities and the IoT demand a rethink about what cybersecurity and data security should look like in the connected age, she said. And it can’t be an end-to-end solution.

As it stands today, the cybersecurity industry “doesn’t have a future”, claimed Taylor, as its command-and-control approach is ill-suited to securing connected services and smart cities; what’s needed is a more appropriate and proportional response.

Yet another challenge is that city leaders tend to think about outcomes and long-term impacts locally, while elected politicians tend to focus on shorter-term matters of policy at national and international level. This political tension can make smart city projects more complex to deal with.

Glasgow City Council’s Birchenall observed that you can’t go from creating smart city technology demonstrators to actually being a smart city overnight. He said:

“It’s much more than that. It’s a culture shift, it’s organisational change. It sounds trite, but technology really is the easy bit.”

A relentless focus on citizens

Most cities that have evolved over centuries have never had to redesign public services at scale – at least, not since the days of building vast public sanitation or transport systems. Few cities outside of Paris, New York (Manhattan), Dubai, or Shenzhen have had the luxury of being designed or redesigned by engineers, architects, and urban planners from scratch. As a result, while technology demonstrators are useful, far more useful in smart city programmes are good leadership and a relentless focus on citizens, Birchenall suggested.

In December last year, his own city established the new Digital Glasgow strategy, which embraces the economic opportunities of digitisation, connectivity, 5G, digital inclusion, participation, skills, and more. At the same time, the city is scaling up its technology initiatives, such as smart street lighting, and investing in telecare and new data programmes.

The critical point is that above all this sits a new leadership programme, he said, which explores culture, methodology, and service design, along with partnership opportunities between public, private, voluntary, and academic institutions.

Cambridge’s Schooling expanded this point with some useful insights from the university’s research:

“Smart cities are not a destination. Rather, the smart city concept is a toolkit to help us deliver social, economic, and technical outcomes – that we ought to be delivering anyway. It’s very easy to be beguiled by technology [...] but if we focus too much on the technology then we distort the lens.

“From the research that we’ve been doing, what we’ve been finding is that a lot of smart city initiatives have failed to scale, and in part that’s because they were focused on the technology and not on the city outcomes. That’s understandable, because in the early days of any technology, you try it out to see what it can do for you. But we are now maturing as a society and as city governments in how we understand it.

“It’s important not just to think about governance through technology, but also governance of technology. And those two things need to develop symbiotically. And the other thing we’re finding is that the right technology solutions for a city are therefore highly context specific and they acquire context-specific governance frameworks as well.

“What this also implies is that, as we adopt more digital, data-rich processes and tools that will help us make better decisions, there will be implications not just for decisions we’re making, but how we organise our governance systems.

“In short, we’re going to end up doing things differently. So we don’t want to impose 21st Century technology on a 19th Century governance system. We would be foolish to do that and still expect radically different outcomes from those we had with 19th Century governance.”

My take

This was an excellent perspective, and the most insightful one at an event that was big on aphorisms, sustainability, and cultural ambitions, but sometimes sketchy on practical takeaways.

One thing the current UK government seems to be doing with its approach to technology in general is the flip side of what Schooling described. It sometimes tries to impose a hierarchical, 19th Century political viewpoint on a networked, bottom-up, digitally enabled society that works peer to peer rather than expects wisdom and wealth to trickle down from beneficent men in stovepipe hats.
Smart cities need to work for those 21st Century citizens, and not for the hoary ghosts of the banqueting hall.