For us to succeed in making cities smarter for transport and everything else, central and local government must rise to the challenge togetherby Iain Stewart / May 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
New technology is going to transform our urban environment and pose some serious challenges What is a “Smart City”? It’s an idea that means different things to different people. For the energy sector it will mean the wider use of smart meters and grids to help smooth the peaks and troughs of electricity usage. It will also allow residents greater control over their energy use and costs. For someone like me, however, whose primary interest is in transport, it will mean something quite different. The evolution of connected, autonomous and electric vehicles, plus new rail and air technology, will profoundly alter our transport system. And so the very breadth of smart technology itself poses a challenge—the range of public policy and business activity it covers is so broad that we lack a comprehensive definition. When making plans for cities, progress must be both holistic and logical. There is a tension there, which will require subtle thinking and carefully-crafted policy. After the last general election, I took over the chairmanship of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for smart cities to help confront the fundamental question of definition. We are operating like a select committee: taking written and oral evidence with the view to publishing recommendations. The smart city concept is broad, but the issue of transport illustrates the scale of the challenge—take for example the issues of connected and autonomous electric vehicles, that is, self-driving cars. These will pose huge new challenges for how our roads operate. But they will also affect a huge range of policy areas far beyond transport. The electricity grid and digital networks will have to handle significant extra demand in order to power these vehicles. Cyber-security is another consideration. We have already seen examples of cars being hacked. The defence against this sort of criminal activity is crucial if the technology is to be viable. Concerns over data privacy will also have to be addressed. Any data collected from vehicles should be used benignly—to help plan road and parking layouts. But what if that data also shows a person’s movements and whereabouts—who will own that data? And is the current law fit for purpose? Furthermore, do we have enough engineers to oversee the construction of the vast new infrastructure without which the system cannot function? New systems will also be needed for our rail and air transport networks. This will have substantial knock-on effects on the structure of the workforce—how will the Unions react to any changing requirements? Does the current industrial dispute over the introduction of driver-only trains give us a taste of wider resistance? Then we must consider even more disruptive technologies such as passenger drones. These may sound like science fiction, but they are not, and legislators will have to deal with them. For us to succeed in making cities smarter for transport and everything else, central and local government must rise to the challenge together. For Britain to take advantage of the rewards on offer, we must retain a clear and logical focus on what smart cities can do for us.