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Smart places must go beyond cities

Many towns and smaller cities are down on their luck. Will technology help them get back up or see them falling further behind? Sarah Wray takes a look

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When we think about “smart cities”, we typically envision bustling urban centres, skyscrapers, neon and millions of people. The terminology doesn’t help and neither does the imagery we often choose (guilty as charged over here!).

There’s a whole world of variation beyond that, though, of places that could use technology to benefit their communities, from small and medium cities to towns and even villages.

Hailing originally from a small town myself, I often think about where the smart city movement leaves those places and the people that live in them. Way behind, for now at least, is my perception – but pockets of activity suggest that could be changing.

A tale of two countries

In many countries, including the UK and the US, the gulf between cities and towns is massive and growing. Research last year from the Centre for Towns in the UK found that since 1981, more than a million people aged under 25 have left Britain’s towns and villages, and more than 2 million over-65s have moved in. Meanwhile, major cities have seen an influx of over 300,000 under-25s and an exodus of 200,000 over-65s.

This shift affects everything from jobs and economic prospects to the balance of political power. Such is the divide that academics Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker refer to “two Englands”.

In the US, about 1 in 7 Americans live in places outside metropolitan areas.

A report in the Wall Street Journal notes, and shows through data and graphics: “A generation ago, most of these places had working economies, a strong social fabric and a way of life that drew a steady stream of urban migrants. Today, many are in crisis. Populations are ageing, more working-age adults collect disability, and trends in teen pregnancy and divorce are diverging for the worse from metro areas.

“Deaths by suicide and in maternity are on the rise. Bank lending and business start-ups are falling behind.”

Think smaller

If smart city initiatives take the term literally and focus only on big cities, these issues are likely to get worse as investment and enthusiasm drains away.

However, necessity is the mother of invention and many towns and cities which are often overlooked are being forced to revisit how they do things, and they’re turning up interesting results.

Places such as Ohio in the US and Preston in the UK are achieving success with their drives to ensure as much money as possible is spent locally. And, we are seeing how technologies like blockchain and platforms could scale these efforts and see them replicated across other locations.

A recent report by the US Conference of Mayors and IHS Markit found that 30% of existing smart-city projects are happening in small cities with a population of 150,000 or less. The research concluded that it may be easier to test and implement new technology in smaller cities.

It also found that these cities looking for economic growth are likely to be keen to attract investment and therefore could be more likely to implement smart city projects than their larger counterparts.

Playing catch-up

As always, there’s a way to go – in many villages and small towns we need better basics like reliable broadband before we go big on blockchain. The potential, though, is there.

My home town is down on its luck. I’d love to see technology play a part in helping it get back up, rather than falling further behind.

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