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Connecting future cities: how can devolved regions use the power of technology?

It’s about understanding customer needs and understanding the impact technology has on the ground

By Jon Bernstein  

This article was produced in association with Atkins

Connecting future cities: how can devolved regions use the power of technology?

When the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act was given royal assent in January, it was just the latest example of the government’s zeal for devolution.

There is a legitimate discussion to be had about the true extent of local autonomy on offer as well as levels of popular enthusiasm (witness the turnout for most mayoral and police commissioner elections outside London) but there are clear signs of movement from the centre, nonetheless. In his most recent budget, Chancellor George Osborne announced that from April 2017, Manchester, Liverpool and London would all retain revenues generated from business—and that there will be new mayors in Greater Lincolnshire, East Anglia, the West Midlands and the West of England.

Notionally, if a city has increased control over planning and procurement—to say nothing of its budget—it should lead to better planning and procurement. But challenges of creation, implementation and maintenance are not easily overcome. Into the mix of local autonomy can be added the potential use of technology. And it was in that spirit that Prospect, in partnership with Atkins, convened a roundtable discussion entitled “Connecting future cities: how can devolved regions utilise the power of technology?”

During the 90-minute discussion, the issues explored ranged from the role of data to trust, transparency and public participation; from the application of technology to the role of the private sector and the dangers of two-, possibly, three-tiered devolution.

Opening the debate, Janet Miller, sector director for cities and development at Atkins, floated the role of “digital engineering” in improving four key tenets of urban living: infrastructure, housing, education and travel. “There’s a need to address the needs of cities holistically,” Miller said. “There’s still a lot more to be done there—breaking down the silos and seeing the connections and the inter-dependencies of urban life… especially when looking at things like the productivity puzzle.”

Janet Miller (Atkins)

Janet Miller (Atkins)

The role of data

Dr Jeni Tennison, technical director and deputy CEO of the Open Data Institute, suggested that data could be key to solving that puzzle both in informing how infrastructure is built and run and as part of a city’s infrastructure in its own right. On the former, she said: “When we are thinking about how to arrange the infrastructure in a city we need data to make sensible decisions. That data tends to be held by a range of actors, not just held in public sector hands.”

As for the primacy of the data itself, Dr Tennison said it was “as important for the running of a city as any other type of infrastructure… the data has to be of good quality, it has to be accessible and it has to be easy to use. When it is then it can be an engine for economic growth in the same way other infrastructure is.”

Jeni Tennison (ODI)

Jeni Tennison (ODI)

Such is the importance of data that some, the Policy Exchange think tank among them, have suggested that devolved cities need to follow the lead of New York and Boston and create an office of data analytics. Scott Cain, chief business officer at Future Cities Catapult, described the idea as a “really healthy step” but cautioned against looking for a “cheerleader—someone who had a certain public profile who could then pull the threads together.” Rather, he said, it was a job for a practitioner. “You don’t need a rock star figure to do that.”

“An office of data analytics is very good for efficiencies but it’s less well suited for some of the more complex systems challenges.” To support his argument, Cain quoted the 1960s architect Cedric Price who once observed: “Technology is the answer but what was the question?” Cain continued: “It’s really important that you understand… what are the particular uses, requirements and needs first and then seek to identify the sources of data you need.”


User-centric need

Notions of purpose, objectives and user need were picked up by a number of panellists. For Dr John McCarthy, technical director at Atkins, “intelligent mobility” is useful shorthand for connected transport infrastructure. For example, this might mean meshing travel and healthcare information to improve the experience of someone heading to a hospital appointment. Dr McCarthy said every application of technology has to pass the “sister test.” His sister will ask him: “What do I get out of it and would I pay for it?:

“It’s about understanding customer needs, understanding the impact technology has on the ground.”

[L-R] Scott Cain, John McCarthy, Martin Capstick (DfT)

[L-R] Scott Cain (Future Cities Catapult), John McCarthy (Atkins), Martin Capstick (DfT)

So what might user-centric technologies look like to city dwellers? Panelists offered up a number of existing applications by way of example. These included OpenPlay (connecting sports facilities to their users), GoodGym (combining regular exercise with help in the community), Strava (connecting runners and cyclists by location) and the transport app Citymapper.

On the last of these three Lucy Yu, head of mobility as a service at the Department for Transport, sees potential. While contactless payment means that local authorities such as Greater London are able to track the journeys its citizens make every day, those authorities can’t detect need. “What Transport for London can see is where I have tapped in and out,” noted Yu. “What they can’t see, which Citymapper probably can see, is the journey I would like to have made had there been specific transport been made available.”

There were other examples, too. Bridget Fox, sustainable transport campaigner at the Campaign for Better Transport, offered the example of government-funded Total Transport pilots aimed at local authorities managing multiple transport fleets—non-emergency ambulances, social services minibuses and school buses among them—that sit idle at various times of the day. “In an age of public service budget constraints it makes sense to join up these services,” Fox said.

Bridget Fox (Campaign for Better Transport)

Bridget Fox (Campaign for Better Transport)

Meanwhile, Atkins’ Janet Miller cited a New York-based example where bringing together two seemingly unrelated data sets—one on vermin control and another that showed where people were defaulting on their rent—helped to identify the locations of likely domestic fire risk. “You can answer questions that you’ve never been able to answer before using data,” she said.


Bias against innovation

If the “sister test” answers citizen need perhaps there ought to be a “minister test” to address government need. Martin Capstick, Department for Transport director for northern transport strategy, said the government’s devolution drive is motivated by the promise of better economic performance. But how do you measure payback? “It could be that better, smarter developments means that we could deliver the same for less. Or that better understanding means you can deliver more for the same.”

The need to deliver results means that ideas “tend towards the tried and tested” rather than the truly innovative. Capstick added: “Generally, the sums involved in major transport investment are very large and that tends to mean that government seeks a degree of assurance that developments that cost a lot of money have got some foundation. That moves us towards the iterative rather than the groundbreaking.”

Martin Capstick (DfT)

Martin Capstick (DfT)

There are other tensions around devolution. One is the uneven nature of devolved powers that in turn may lead to a partial view of citizen need because there’s a partial view of the data. “Aside from transport, in lots of other areas these cities aren’t getting a great deal of power,” said Stephen Clarke, research and policy analyst at Resolution Foundation. “They are not going to know a lot about their schools, the benefit recipients in their area, the employment support in their area.

“Connecting these things up might be difficult. If you understand the transport needs of your populace but you don’t understand where the people are who are unemployed… or where are your pockets of isolation and your pockets of social exclusion. There is more to be done to devolve and open up data.”


A problem of scale

Another tension is around scale. While a city like London might have a critical mass of population to make technology-led experimentation and implementation worthwhile, other smaller urban areas might struggle. As Suzanne Moroney, strategy director at the Institute of Civil Engineers, put it: “London has Citymapper. Northampton doesn’t have Citymapper.”

The potential result is that you have first and second delivery of services. “Perhaps in future we’ll have devolved areas versus non-devolved areas,” Moroney said. “Will the southeast of England be left behind, for example, as the north goes ahead with its devolution?” Her more optimistic interpretation, certainly where smaller devolved areas are concerned, is that the act of bringing local authorities together will encourage digital integration. “They need data and technology to come together.”

Suzanne Moroney (Institute of Civil Engineering)

Suzanne Moroney (Institute of Civil Engineers)

Scale presents another challenge too, one articulated by Simon Craven, special advisor at transport operator Go-Ahead Group. Craven argued that a lot of the data that is useful to cities and their citizens is in the hands of national, supranational and global-scale platform businesses. This, he said, presents a negotiating imbalance. “It would seem to me if you are going stand up to an Alibaba or an Amazon or a Google, you have to do so on a very broad public sector scale and you have to do so in a very coordinated way.”

Jennie Martin, secretary general of the Intelligent Transport Systems association, agreed, pointing to the example of the data that will be generated by autonomous vehicles. This will require coordination at a national government level, at least. “A local authority trying to engage with Volvo or Ford is not going to happen,” she said.

Craven also raised concerns about dealing with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google. “A lot of information-based technology businesses are inherently monopolistic, not because they are evil but because that’s the way the technology works. It has massive benefits of scale so in the end there’s only one [company] that can be very large and very dominant without a clear sense of business model or with any real maturity in its governance.”

Prospect Connecting Future Cities round table discussion

Prospect Connecting Future Cities round table discussion

A lack of competition leads to a lack of resilience, said Craven. He cited the example of satellite location technology. It used to be a monopoly business: GPS (“controlled by the US military for the US military”) was the only option. Latterly,  European and Russian alternatives emerged. Counterintuitively, these may have reduced efficiency at first glance, but ultimately they increased it, noted Craven. “That’s the antithesis of the platform efficiency argument.”


Trust, transparency and the profit motive

Implicit in the debate about the use of technology, is that many of the useful applications—and the data produced—come from commercial organisations. Some panelists were instinctively positive about the role of these companies. Lucy Yu at the Department of Transport said: “There needs to be a much deeper collaboration between pubic and private in the future”. Joseph Kilroy, policy officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute, characterised private firms as “the good guys… they are quite aware of how much they benefit from the local economy.”

For others, concerns around trust and transparency needed to be addressed. “We’ve seen a suspicion around the profit motive,” said Dr Jeni Tennison. “But that can be mitigated when private companies are encouraged to open up data for public benefit.” Why would private companies want to open up their data? For two reasons, said Dr Tennison. “[It] brings new thinking into their own businesses and it establishes them as a major player in the space. When lots of people reference and come to rely on your data, then you have become an information platform for a lot of people.”

One way to allay public fears about technology and commerciality is to include the public in the process, said Joanna Hale. postgraduate fellow at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. “It’s really important to get peoples’ inputs, to co-design. This creates a challenge for data-driven approaches and using technology because we tend to see that as quite a top-down approach, it’s something that experts run. Perhaps there’s a role for technology in providing people with more of a voice.” Others agreed—Dr Tennison offered the Breathe Heathrow Project as an example, which helped those living near the airport to place sensors in their back gardens to map air pollution.

Jeni Tennison (ODI) and Stephen Clarke (Resolution Foundation)

Jeni Tennison (ODI) and Stephen Clarke (Resolution Foundation)

“It’s crucial that there remains strong democratic, devolved government oversight,” said Bridget Fox, “otherwise you will have a system that just works for the agile and the early adopters.”

“Technology is morally neutral but we should not be morally neutral. Local authorities have the power and responsibility to make sure it works for everyone. It’s not just about Uber Pool, it’s about the night bus too.”

The Prospect round table discussion, “Connecting Future Cities: how can devolved regions utilise the power of technology?”, was supported by Atkins. It took place on Tuesday, 5th July 2016 in London and was chaired by Jon Bernstein, Prospect Associate Editor. The discussion was part of Prospect’s Future of Cities programme, you can access the report here.

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