Why are UK cities finding it so hard to become smart?

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The term ‘Smart Cities’ is frequently used but will mean different things to different people. In this report, Business Leader looks at what a Smart City is and investigates why UK cities are so far behind their global counterparts.

A ‘Smart City’ might conjure up futuristic images of flying cars, high spec tech and a large metropolis straight out of a sci-fi movie, but the reality is that it has real world applications that are taking over the world’s major business regions.

Smart city developments are designed to incorporate all facets of data, telecoms and people-centric technology to enhance the quality and performance of urban services.

Whether it is transport links, utility services, or a way for businesses and homes to reduce wastage and cost – smart city applications are the future for major cities across the world.

What is a ‘Smart City’?

The confusion and disagreements over the meaning of ‘Smart City’ are often the first hurdle in getting a universal system in place.

Paul Swinney is the Director of Research and Policy at Centre for Cities – an independent think tank that looks into why economic growth and change happens in UK cities.

Paul explains the issue with the definition of ‘Smart Cities’: “The term ‘Smart City’ is very loaded and means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. On the one hand, it gets sold as the dream of having buildings talk to each other with cars flying around – all very tech-heavy and futuristic.

“The reality is that this is about managing a city – it is less sexy, but it is where we are with the current smart city agenda. What it actually means is looking at the current way we do things, and finding a way of doing it smarter to yield better results across a variety of fields.”

This management of a city is the essence of what a smart city aims to be – to make the city run smoother, with fewer emissions, and ease of transport and living – all through the use of innovative IT.

What is the biggest issue in the UK?

The UK is a world leader in tech and innovation, and with a talent pool that is arguably the envy of the sector – it would be conceivable to believe that the UK is perfectly placed to be the global leader in smart city applications. However, this is not the case.

Vassilis Seferidis, the Co-Founder and CEO of Zeetta Networks, says the UK is being let down: “It is clear to me that the UK has a golden opportunity to remain a world leader in this sector thanks to the creativity and technological expertise of our people. However, we are badly let down by an outdated and inadequate infrastructure.

“While countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Japan are deploying ultra-fast Gigabit connectivity to every single home in their countries, here in the UK, high-speed Internet access remains a dream to the vast majority. We desperately need large infrastructure investment from both the public and private sectors, and a comprehensive national communications strategy that addresses the fact that nearly 70% of the UK public still don’t know what a smart city is or the benefits that it can bring to their lives.”

It is this infrastructure, or the lack of it, that is the primary concern for the future of smart cities in the UK.

Peter Boucher, CEO of Excalibur Communications continues: “The physical infrastructure is not in place to deal with the level of data needed to run a complete smart city. The core internet, and data network infrastructure needed to connect, store and analyse this data and information – as well as billions of individuals’ personal and business devices across the UK – are not ready.

“In theory, every lamppost, every fridge, every car door – everything can be connected in a smart city. This is the Internet of Things. You could sit there with thousands of connected touch points across all sectors, businesses and private properties – but the core issue is that the sheer amount of data involved is going to explode. The UK is in the bottom three in Europe for being the slowest developing nation when it comes to fibre connectivity.

“It is vitally important and as well as the infrastructure, we will need the right algorithms in place to process the data and make it usable. Leading worldwide businesses have whole sections of their companies looking at how best to use data and tech in the future.”

Hisham Elkadi, Dean of the School of the Built Environment at Salford University, agrees that getting the right infrastructure in place will lead to the introduction of new smart city tech.

He says: “Getting the right infrastructure in place is what will make smart cities succeed in the future. If you look at mobility, for example – it will be huge for smart cities. Reducing car ownership and implementing disruptive tech within this area is a key area of future research. Car sharing works today, but in the future, it might be autonomous. We need to look at what this means for businesses and people living within cities.”

How does the UK compare to the rest of the world?

With places like the USA, China, Singapore, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid and Stockholm leading the way in particular facets of smart city applications – where does the UK actually rank?

Seferidis believes that whilst the UK is behind in regards to application, it often leads when it comes to ideas: “Although we lack the resources of larger cities and nations, our smart city programmes lead the world for innovation and creative use of technology.

“Take our smart city programme here in Bristol. Compared to other smart city programmes, which are typically dominated by a large technology vendor, we have been the first in the world proposing the use of open networking technologies and standards.

This means we offer access to any company – or even individual – that wants to gain access to the city’s resources for experimentation or development of new applications and services.”

This expertise in the UK is clear to see with Telensa, too – a smart lighting, sensing and control platform firm based in Cambridge. This company is an example of where the UK is leading the world in a certain area of smart city applications.

Keith explains: “If I was to look at an individual city that is world-leading in smart city tech, I would look at Cambridge. We are working with Smart Cambridge alongside companies like Microsoft to introduce the Urban Data Project, which is about collecting more detailed information, especially on traffic movements and how they relate to things like air quality. This has never really been done in the UK or anywhere in the world before.”

Which UK city is the ‘smartest’?

Due to the ambiguous nature of the term ‘Smart City’, unsurprisingly many different parts of the UK claim to be the ‘smartest’.

This is clear when the debate around the future of the concept is brought to the public.

Last year, Huawei released a Smart Cities Index Report, to analyse where all the major UK cities rank for smart city applications.

In the eyes of Huawei, Bristol is leading the way, with the capital hot on their heels. Other tech hubs such as Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Leeds and Birmingham have also ranked highly in the report.

However, many believe that due to the UK’s heavy business focus on London, the capital is in fact far ahead of the other cities.

Paul explains: “In terms of places that do that well, the only real example of that in the UK is London, which has been using smart city applications for a number of years in certain fields. They have done it through Transport for London (TFL), for example, through its contactless card system. It was just through the Oyster card, but it can now be used by your contactless credit or debit card. What that allows us to do is generate a lot of data about people moving through London and using the infrastructure available to them. That then allows the correct infrastructure decisions to be made, and shows where funding needs to go.

“What is most revealing is that no other city in the UK has the same extent of data on how people use the transport system when compared to London. That is why data is key, especially as a management tool.”

Advantages for businesses

With Smart City applications spreading out across the UK, it is important for all businesses to look into how it will affect them, their staff, and their operations, and consider what a smart city will mean for the future of business in the UK.

Paul comments: “The better management of the city means that workers should be able to get through the city more easily from their home to their place of work than they otherwise could. Public services function better than they do currently, which then reduces the cost to business. There aren’t any direct benefits to businesses, but having a city that is better managed means that it will function better. It does mean that people can be better transported to the places they need to be, be that work or otherwise. It also helps moving goods in and out of the city, the quickest way possible.”

When will ‘Smart Cities’ be commonplace in the UK?

So, what conclusions can we come to? Britain has the knowledge but not the nous to implement what is needed to make our cities smarter. It seems we are being held back by not having uniform governance or long-term smart city plan.

But is Britishness one of the main barriers to solving these problems, and are we simply not thinking big enough?

Peter explains: “We as British people don’t think big enough when it comes to 50 to 100 year plans for what our cities and industries will look like and operate – we are stuck in a five to ten year cycle. The problem with infrastructure is that we don’t think long term, and that is exactly the issues smart cities are facing. Most other leading nations in Europe, Asia and North America are so much better at taking long-term views, and are putting the right infrastructure in place.”

However, it is not just that the British think too short-term to make sure that the right infrastructure is in place. There has also been little discussion as to how all areas of society will all link together.

Peter continues: “The digital issue is a relatively easy issue to fix – we just need to build the right fibre and connectivity networks to be able to house smart city applications in businesses. There is a lot of infrastructure to put in place but it is achievable, and will provide long term benefits. When it comes to hospitals, schools, roads, and the logistics of people moving around a city, they are huge investments, which need to be discussed and implemented before any of this becomes a reality.”

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