Guest blog: The role of the Local Authority in a smart city

Newcastle has a strong history of innovation. In my role as lead for Newcastle Council’s Digital Transformation Programme, I’ve seen how over the last 24months, the ‘smart city’ agenda has broadened our view of digital transformation; away from internal digitisation, chatbots and mobile working, towards a stronger focus on using technology and innovation to improve outcomes to make life more liveable – like cleaner air, better transport, more responsive local services and increasing independence for people in their own homes.  

We’ve transitioned from thinking about transformation of Council services to understanding opportunities at a much higher, City, level, and being clear about how the Council can use its position and presence to leverage greater impact. Our digital objectives stayed the same – improve the customer experience, reduce costs and encourage innovation and growth - but our prize just got bigger!

Reflecting on the change, I’ve identified 3 key roles for the Local Authority in supporting the smart city agenda – champion, choreographer and consumer. 

Champion

As a key point of presence within a local area and deliverer of endless public services, the Council is uniquely placed to promote the opportunities that tech can bring in improving outcomes and build public trust and confidence. In Newcastle this means being open and upfront about the value we see in tech and innovation, having clear political endorsement, proactively using our public Library buildings and open data to run events like ‘Algorave’ coding and data hacks, and in supporting showcase Smart City deployments such as Cisco’s UK Smartest Street in 2018. It also means looking hard at our own ways of working to identify how we can make improvements. That’s why last week, supported by Newcastle based digital agency Orangebus, we held a 5day Innovation Sprint focussed solely on making Newcastle the most attractive place to deploy connectivity and innovation. 

Choreographer

But there are many other organisations, assets and interested parties in a City than just the Local Authority. And that is where the second key role comes into play – that of a choreographer; enabling collaboration and building partnerships between the public, private, academic and third sector to maximise benefits for all.  Within Newcastle we are blessed with fantastic assets which lay strong foundations for our smart ambitions – including Newcastle University’s National Innovation Centre for Data and Urban Observatory on the Newcastle Helix innovation site; a thriving tech and digital sector, as recognised in Tech Nation and fantastic connectivity networks. And with so many different actors at play, the Local Authority has a key role in helping ensure that individual organisational ambitions are working towards a greater, City, good. That’s one of the objectives for our newly appointed Innovation Partner, Urban Foresight. Based in Newcastle, they’re currently working with the Council, City partners and the local tech sector to understand City scale opportunities within mobility, data and connectivity and assisted living, alongside developing appropriate city governance structures.   

Consumer

We also need to practice what we preach when talking about the value of data and smart technology. That’s why more and more we’re using data collected in smart ways across our City to inform our decision making. Things like:

  • Informing major traffic re-routing in the City Centre to improve air quality and City Centre retail experience using data from people counters and computer vision to analyse directional and route analysis combined with the Urban Traffic Management Centre data.
  • Remodeling our Council waste collection routes using smart sensors within our public bins to support the delivery of a £1.6m budget saving in waste disposal
  • Increasing independence through technology and improving quality of life with a successful pilot of assistive technology in 30homes, which we’re now looking to scale up

A ‘smart’ Council doesn’t make a Smart City, but without one willing to champion, choreograph and consume tech and innovation, I believe that a big piece of the jigsaw would be missing.

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