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New mayors have a pivotal role in creating smart city regions and communities, says Matthew Evans, head of programme, IoT and SmarterUK, techUK.  

There are multiple building blocks to creating a smart city but to drive forward the ambition the leadership needs to be there

New mayors have a pivotal role in creating smart city regions and communities, says Matthew Evans, head of programme, IoT and SmarterUK, techUK.  

Picture this. It’s 2030 and devolution is a success, digital is embedded in the DNA of the place. In adopting a smarter more holistic vision of citizen and place, communities are motivated to come together with shared values and skills to drive better quality of life for all. Data in city regions is shared more widely and utilised confidently across previous silos. This creates new pathways for delivery of priority services and economic growth. City regions have their own identities based on local specialisms driving towards a smarter UK.


The vision is there, but how do we make it a reality? There are multiple building blocks to creating a smart city but to drive forward the ambition the leadership needs to be there. That is where the new metropolitan mayors come in. Six mayors were elected in May 2017 with responsibility to drive forward the economic growth and transformation of their city regions. The mayors have the necessary power and levers to set the agenda to inspire and accelerate the pace of transformation but to do so successfully they must adopt a digital mindset.


The task ahead for the new mayors is monumental but so are the opportunities that devolution will bring – from public service reform to accelerating the pace of transformation and creating smart communities where citizens want to live and thrive. However, devolution needs to be digital if we are to fully realise the opportunities offered by smart cities. By this we mean taking a different approach along with the new powers of the mayor, to enable a strong digital infrastructure and culture that will ultimately deliver improved service outcomes for all and drive continuous economic growth.


Digital Leadership


The mayor’s vision will play a fundamental role in setting the tone for the pace of change. techUK’s Digital Devolution: Guide for Mayors details the practical steps Mayors can take in their first 100 days in office to put in place the digital leadership and create a culture that enables more user-centric services, empowered citizens and sustainable economic growth in their regions.


Andy Burnham’s recent announcement to make Manchester the world leading smart city and convening a Digital Summit on 6 July is a good example of leadership expressing a clear digital ambition. To deliver the vision, it is essential the Mayor has the right team in place. Mayors should look to appoint a Chief Digital and Innovation Champion (CDIC), who will play a unique and supportive role to help leaders, relevant council leads and heads of services understand how digital can be embedded in processes to deliver improved social outcomes whilst also create a smart community. The CDIC, supported by a dedicated Innovation Unit, will work across the city region to foster new partnerships and offer practical support to test new ideas in developing a smart city. With devolution bringing a more place based approach partnership building is crucial in sharing knowledge and avoiding any unnecessary duplication.


Collaboration & Sharing Best Practice


No smart city is or will look the same but that doesn’t mean city regions cannot learn from each other. Bristol has adopted a strategy which drives innovation within health and wellbeing and puts citizens at the heart of tackling urban challenges while Exeter has seeks to unlock a thriving energy sector, and engages citizens in transformative transport solutions to tackle acute congestion challenges.


Regions may compete but drawing together expertise and best practice should be incentivised. A properly constituted Smart Cities Forum, supported by central Government, would help drive this learning as well as providing a focal point for the wider UK approach.


Data Powered City Region


A city region powered on data, with a clear commitment from the mayor to open up data is key to designing smarter communities and cities. To unlock the full value of open data the CDIC can create a city region datastore, similar to that of London and New York, which can be utilised to empower citizens and afford local business and start-ups the opportunity to interpret the problem and become suppliers of innovative local solutions.


Future Peterborough (Peterborough was named Smart City of the Year in 2015) is a fantastic example of what can be achieved when city-wide data is opened up for business and start-ups to deliver local innovations.


Digital Infrastructure


At the core of smart city is connectivity. The new mayor, as a top priority, must ask whether the city regions connectivity meets current demand in terms of coverage, capacity and demand. In particular, they should be thinking about how to ensure that approaches bridge rather than deepen the digital divide and consider how they will take advantage of the new services that 5G will bring.


By creating a smart city region, the mayor can help increase the efficiency of public service delivery, making funding and resource go further and meet the rising expectations of citizens by reducing congestion, improving quality of life and creating new employment opportunities. A smart city is more than the tech, it is about the community it empowers and creating a place where citizens feel engaged and want to live.


With all eyes on the new mayors, they have ample opportunity to lead the way and set the example of what a modern 21st century city region will look like.



Matthew is the CEO of Broadband Stakeholder Group and Executive Director of SmarterUK.
He started with the techUK in April 2014 as the Broadband Stakeholder Group’s Policy Manager.
Matthew now heads the BSG and SmarterUK as well as leading techUK’s Internet of Things Programme. Matthew joined from Arqiva’s public policy team where he worked for over two years across the broadcast and telecoms markets. Before that he was a researcher for an MP at Westminster.


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