Our smart cities industry needs leadership and responsibility

When we talk about smart cities, the image that comes to mind is often of a productive hub of happy citizens whose surroundings, underpinned by efficiently analysed data, perfectly balance sufficient greenery with business space, seamless mobility and sustainably sourced energy. And, they are always really, really well-lit in the pictures.

So how do we get to this enviably efficient, green, happy place? As we stand right now, the transition looks drawn-out and difficult. But it doesn't need to be that way.

Making our cities smarter, through the application of digital and technological solutions has the potential to deliver substantial benefits to UK citizens and the economy. However, the end goal cannot, and should not, be to just to show off shiny new tech. Rather, a city's smartness should be about what it enables; more engaged, healthier, happier citizens living in a sustainable and attractive environment. Delivering these outcomes relies on more than just the technology – it requires a change in culture and way of working. Making that happen requires leadership.

As it stands, the UK's smart city ambitions are limited by a lack of leadership and responsibility from central government.

Devolution has allowed local authorities, the front line of transformation, to take greater control of the smart city agenda for their locality and focus on the reinvention of user-centric service delivery. However, a side-effect of devolution is that digital transformation at the local level has fragmented along the boundaries of localities, impacted by the variation of understanding and expertise in technological and digital transformation and limited by local authorities' budget and risk appetites.

There has been much to applaud. But local authorities should not be expected to design and deliver the nation's smart city agenda alone. Local delivery of smart needs to be strategically guided at a national level - something that should be the role of central government. Currently, Government does not provide this convening role. Further, when Government has set out ambitions or indeed invested, it has done so intermittently. If we are to take realise the promise of smart cities for our citizens, and capture a significant part of the global market, this needs to change.

Specifically, techUK is specially calling central government to:

  • Re-instate the position of Smart Cities Minister, or at least bring the responsibility under one Minister's remit. The lack of a clear point of contact and sense of singular responsibility is widely vocalised pain point for the Smart Cities sector in the UK.
  • Provide leadership through the development of a coherent, overarching policy that aligns transformation efforts and supports meaningful implementation. The UK has seen this concept in action with Manchester's CityVerve, where the central government incentivised the local authority and delivery bodies to think and do differently. We love a success story, so are happy to hear that CityVerve, after recently celebrating its 2nd birthday, were able to give us a behind the scenes tour.
  • Be consistently bold and ambitious in its approach to large-scale projects, tests, trials and demonstrators. The allocation of significant funding packages, such as the Urban Connected Communities Project under the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, is certainly promising. However, the Government needs to ensure that the various packages are not fragmented in a way that means the separate projects are able to lose sight of the final goal to which the funding was originally dedicated. Within this, the Government should look to implement an ongoing communications and engagement plan that is able to draw experience and lessons learned from projects, and easily share these across the testbed and demonstrator landscape. A recent white paper from the Future Cities Catapult, Smart City Demonstrators – A Global Review of Challenges and Lessons Learned, demonstrates how this can be facilitated, and the value of doing so. These plans need to extend well beyond the end date of specific projects, to enable the Government to continue to monitor the experiences of projects.

techUK believes that there is still time for the UK to capture a significant proportion of the Smart City market, although making the most of this opportunity will be driven by stronger, strategically focussed leadership and direction from Central Government.

  • Jessica Russell

    Jessica Russell

    Programme Manager | Justice and Emergency Services
    T 020 7331 2031

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