Guest blog: Smarter places need smarter government

TechUK’s digital board concept is an important step in helping local authorities drive forward their smart places strategies. However, GlobalData’s Tony Cripps suggests it’s now time for central government to take a closer interest.

The concept of smart cities and smart places has long been welcomed by local government, the green lobby and increasingly private investors as a vision for addressing the growing problems of urban life. Many everyday concerns resulting from overcrowding, diminishing resources and reduced budgets are now seen to be addressable using recent development in ICT, especially in terms of what is frequently described as the urban IoT.

These issues range across every element of urban living, including transportation and traffic management, waste and recycling, air quality and the reduction of greenhouse gas and particulate emissions, energy conservation and migration from fossil fuels, public safety and policing, the creation of a sharing economy, and so on.

However, while GlobalData has recorded several hundred instances of ICT deployments supporting smart places objectives in the UK, very few local authorities can yet make a claim to have achieved true “smartness”, i.e. to have both devised and fully implemented a strategy to build smartness (typically in terms of networks, sensors and software platforms) into the fabric of the environment and to make that available to the benefit of all.

To some extent this is a result of the largely piecemeal approaches to creating smart places that have proliferated until now. These have tended to focus either on the widespread deployment of specific technologies (e.g. smart street lighting) or on small-scale “demonstrators” that, while covering a broader range of use cases, tend only to cover a limited geographical area. Moreover, funding for such demonstrators tends to be short term and many disappear once the money runs out, even if some individual initiatives may continue under the radar.

This is why TechUK’s recommendations to local authorities for the creation of a “digital board” are so important. The idea of establishing a dedicated decision-making body led by the local authority but also including representatives from local businesses, academia, citizen groups, and technology suppliers is vital to place-based smarter places success. Such a group can help raise awareness of smarter places technologies and opportunities, while also supporting deployment and sustainable citizen-focused outcomes that are tailored for a specific locality.

While it would be wrong to think that different local authorities had their priorities for creating smarter places in the same order, it’s nonetheless true that most of the necessary groundwork has been done in terms of the use cases and technologies which make most sense.

The participants in Manchester’s high-profile CityVerve project – for which funding ended in June 2018 after creating what CityVerve partner Cisco described as “the smartest city in the world” – certainly thought they could build on the work done so far. The interest generated by CityVerve from around the world has shown that the key to a successful smart places strategy is the deployment of a replicable “platform of platforms”, a flexible and scalable data catalogue platform designed to connect an very wide variey of applications, systems and people at city scale. CityVerve’s partners also found a striking level of conformity in terms of use cases identified by local authorities both at home and abroad.

These commonalities suggest that stronger strategic and procurement guidelines regarding smarter places, not to mention greater funding and appropriate policies for such projects, need to start emanating from central government to the regions. It’s one thing building a smart city but a smart state needs to start with truly smart government.

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