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Building the smart cities of the future: Think long-term and local

By investing in public spaces, we can make smart cities places where residents, workers and tourists want to spend time, says Matt Bird, InLinkUK.


In 1900, only 14 per cent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. Today, more than half (55 per cent) of the planet’s population resides in cities, and this is expected to increase to 68 per cent by 2050.


With more and more of us living in cities, urbanisation is creating significant opportunities for social and economic development, as well as more sustainable living. It is also exerting significant pressure on shrinking resources, meaning that we need an immediate infrastructural boost to meet the growing challenges of an increasingly tech-savvy population.


Smart cities have been heralded as the key to tackling challenges presented by ongoing urbanisation. Advocates paint pictures of cities where everything is connected, and technology operates behind the scenes to ensure that all the elements of daily urban life run smoothly.


The question is: What will it actually look like in practice and why aren’t cities ‘smart’ or at least ‘smarter’ already?


In this picture, the outcomes of better-connected cities will have a profound effect on every aspect of an individual’s life, from getting around or planning journeys to undertaking financial transactions.


At a societal level, smartness enables cost savings for local government and their suppliers, creates opportunities for more innovative products and services, drives efficiency through automated production lines, increases sustainability in homes or offices, and can improve health and quality of life.


However, the ‘smart city’ concept is still evolving. The question is: What will it actually look like in practice and why aren’t cities ‘smart’ or at least ‘smarter’ already?


Investment in smarter cities


Many smart city projects are already taking place around the world. Take the city of Barcelona, for example, where the adoption of smart technologies including a municipal network of optical fibre, free Wi-Fi, routed via street lighting, and sensors to monitor air quality have saved €75 million and created 47,000 new jobs.


In the US, cities such as Boston and Baltimore have deployed smart trash cans – placing sensors inside 543 bins to take pictures of the contents, which can then be analysed to optimise collection routes. In Amsterdam, a series of connected Internet of Things (IoT) sensors support smoother traffic flow, energy efficiency and public safety.


In the UK, the task of transitioning our cities into smarter and more connected urban environments lies at the local government level – and individual cities are responsible for identifying the right solutions and initiatives to transform their services.


This has been bolstered by the formulation of the UK’s Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in 2016. The focus of this strategy was on productivity, with artificial intelligence (AI) making-up one of the strategy’s four grand challenges. This strategy will continue to be developed at the local level by local economic partnerships (LEPs) to drive local growth through innovation.


The squeeze on funding


It is widely known, however, that since 2010, councils have had less money to spend, meaning that recently certain activities have been prioritised over others. This has particularly impacted projects that require large infrastructural or technological investment.


The squeeze on local public funds has been greater in Britain’s urban areas, and research by The Centre for Cities suggests that built-up areas have lost a staggering £386 per head over the past eight years. This raises questions about cities’ abilities to smarten up.


Faced with a challenging economic climate, securing access to the necessary funding for digital innovation will be a challenge for local councils in the year ahead. Support and investment from the private sector will, therefore, be crucial to enable the UK to develop smarter and better-connected cities of the future.


The UK’s local authorities need investors to work with them in the co-creation or implementation of urban technologies, taking into account local context. Moreover, any investment strategy must take a long-term view, as results will not be instantaneous – and they must support local leadership to share this longer-term vision that extends beyond election cycles.


A safe and secure place to be


Investment in technologies such as 5G, big data and IoT can only be successful when the technologies deployed are genuinely able to improve the quality of life for a city’s inhabitants – making everyday processes more streamlined, efficient and sustainable.


Cities require a steady population to be able to thrive, and to maintain this they need to be attractive places to live for a range of people and their families. Thus, the smart city also has a role in improving the quality of life for its inhabitants.


A key part of a city’s attractiveness is having hubs or centres where people can spend time. Technologies deployed in the name of a smart city should be able to support this, as well as improve the behind-the-scenes activities.


By investing in public spaces – building wider pavements, improving facilities, encouraging more street performers and so on, we can make smart cities places where residents and workers, as well as tourists, want to spend time shopping and socialising.


This can then be joined-up with smart city infrastructure. Pedestrian flow, for example, can be improved both through better quality public spaces as well as through push notifications that suggest alternative routes, thus easing congestion.


A smart city’s citizens should be able to access help and support whenever and wherever they need it.


Furthermore, whether or not they are vulnerable, a smart city’s citizens should be able to access help and support whenever and wherever they need it. Smart cities should be for the benefit of everyone that lives in them, and a balance must be struck between engaging a city’s younger, digital-native residents, without alienating its older citizens. No generation should be left out.


Looking ahead


Urbanisation is likely to continue well into the future. Thankfully, in today’s tech-driven world, the application of emerging technologies such as IoT and automation can help us to tackle this ongoing challenge. Ultimately, the transition to smarter and better-connected cities lies with local decision-makers, but support and investment from the private sector will be essential as we embark on smart city research and development.


This investment, however, needs to be made strategically and with a long-term plan, with an understanding that unless it can improve quality of life, it will be redundant.


At InLinkUK, we are investing more than £160 million over ten years on infrastructure that we feel will better help communities in a digital age. With the national rollout of the InLinks, which offer a wide range free digital services to the public including free encrypted ultrafast Wi-Fi, wayfinding and one-touch charity helpline access, we are doing what we can to encourage communities to be smarter. We also hope to ease the burden of urban technology deployment currently shouldered by councils, to improve cities for everyone.


We implore other investors from the private sector to follow suit and work collaboratively with local authorities to ensure the delivery of smart city initiatives that truly support communities in urban places. This will be key to building smarter cities across the UK.


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