The policy implications of smart cities are wide—politics has a job now to catch up and stay aheadby Seema Malhotra / May 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The majority of the world’s seven billion inhabitants are city dwellers, and it is estimated that over 70 per cent of the global population will be living in cities by 2050. In Britain, all of our major cities are growing.
But a recent OECD conference in Westminster highlighted the stubborn challenges still faced by cities: traffic congestion, poor air quality, low incomes, high housing costs, waste production and issues of community cohesion and loneliness. How can “smart cities” help with all this?
The idea is to integrate connected technology and communication services with the operation of the city’s infrastructure for the benefit of both public and private services. Add to this the power of big data and the increasing number of objects and appliances that are connected, and you begin to see the potential for changing the way a city is run. Everything, from public transport to the water supply could benefit from this.
Barcelona has been especially good at adopting new innovations. Take the new sensors which have reduced the amount of water used by city parks. There is also an app for drivers that displays real-time information on parking spots. Street lamps are fitted with motion sensors which dim the lights when there is no activity. These simple, elegant ideas have reduced resource consumption, increased quality of life and created new jobs.
Britain is doing likewise, especially London and Bristol. In 2013 Glasgow was awarded £224m funding from Innovate UK to work on its smart city plans.
But we lack an integrated strategy. A scatter-gun approach by government to smart city investment means that the UK is currently missing out. The Department for Transport has admitted it does not have a Smart Cities model and individual operators and suppliers must formulate their own ideas. The lesson from elsewhere is that won’t work—government has to step in and lead.
And then there’s Brexit. The European Investment Bank and Horizon 2020 have contributed over £23bn to the UK over the last three years. The government needs a strategy for how we are going to compensate for this loss of funding once we leave the EU. At the moment there is no strategy.
There is also a question of how the risks of new investments and projects can be shared. To help the smaller technology companies, the government should encourage more test bed environments in cities, where new projects can be tried out. The new city region mayors should be partners in this—it will help link national with local aims.
The policy implications of smart cities are wide—politics has a job now to catch up and stay ahead. From transport, energy, telecommunications, healthcare and more, there are questions about big data policy in general, privacy and ethics, and about 5G communications networks which will be critical to supporting smart cities. But none of this should stop us grasping the opportunities and leading the way. In the context of a growing population, climate change and resource scarcity, smart city technology can help us to create a more efficient, less polluted and healthier urban environment. And wouldn’t that be a nice place to live?