Nick Wilcox, CEO, Giosprite, looks at how smart city technology could be used in towns and rural communities to halt, or even reverse, the trend for city living.
According to think tank Centre for Towns, a million young people in the UK have moved out of smaller communities over the past 30 years, in pursuit of smart living in a big city. Will smart city technology accelerate this brain drain, or could it be used by local authorities for towns and rural areas, to turn the tables and retain young talent?
When we talk about smart city concepts in the UK, we often reference large metropolitan cities such as London, Bristol or Manchester – bustling hives of innovation that are embracing technology to improve and enhance the lives of citizens. Recent government figures report that just over 45 per cent of those living in rural areas are now aged below 45 years, compared with almost 60 per cent in cities.
This represents a real challenge for the many small cities, towns and rural communities across the UK as young people continue to be lured away from their home towns for work and university. The adoption of smart technologies in these large cities adds to their appeal and is potentially accelerating the flow of younger, digitally native citizens from town to city.
There is a perception that smart technology requires the big budgets and overarching strategies that are the preserve of the UK’s top cities but I don’t believe this is true. There are many cost-effective smart technologies that can have a huge impact on a local area. For example, free public Wi-Fi can help to keep communities connected and provide a foundation to bridge the digital divide, and environmentally-friendly smart street lighting can help to improve safety for residents.
Successful smart city projects provide solutions based on the genuine needs of people, and local authorities serving smaller communities are highly experienced in identifying and meeting the needs of their communities. Because of this, they may have an advantage over their larger counterparts when it comes to planning and implementing new technology.
If smart city technology can be used to address specific local challenges, and can be implemented in a gradual, cost-effective way, this surely presents local authorities with an unprecedented opportunity to make their communities more attractive to younger people.
How to pay for it
If smart technology has the potential to help towns and rural communities survive, what options do local authorities with limited funding streams have and where do they start? It is important for councils to remember that they do not have to solve every single issue all in one go. Public consultation is essential to identify need and begin the engagement and empowerment of citizens that will continue into the long term.
In our experience, small communities of people tend to have a strong sense of local identity and shared values. This unified vision can make the process of rolling out a smart city project easier and quicker, not just in a single town but on a much wider scale.
Building a smart town or city is about making smart investments now for long-term success.
Using pilot projects gives local authorities an opportunity to conduct feasibility studies that could reveal revenue opportunities, show where cost savings could be made and initiate engagement within a community. Pilot projects should be able to evidence whether the challenge and the need has been met, and if the right technology has been deployed.
Play to your strengths
Often, we see local authorities developing lots of projects in isolation, with multiple departments scoping and budgeting for the same underlying infrastructure. This creates lots of projects that don’t communicate or work across complementary departments such as transport and environment. While this is a common problem across all local authorities, it is particularly difficult in larger councils with complex administrative structures.
Again, it is here that local authorities for towns and rural areas are likely to be at an advantage. Projects can be developed on a smaller scale and adopt a joined-up approach to planning and implementation by communicating plans with a number of council departments, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS) and Chambers of Commerce, from the outset.
To support this, a Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) can help councils test smart technologies quickly and easily, without having to worry about the network or technology required to support them.
As more cities in the UK become smart, we also see an opportunity for local authorities to work together and implement technology to develop smart regions. These smart regions will work to a much wider consensus of issues and be able to cost-effectively replicate smart projects across multiple communities. If all are using the dedicated LPWAN for local authorities, it will make this collaboration even easier.
From small business cases to the creation of smart regions, we can see how the roll-out of smart technology could help towns to build on their offering to a younger generation, and begin the fight back to ensure that younger people can build happy and successful lives, staying near their family and friends.
It could, in time, enhance a region to the point where it becomes a tech hub that could attract large technology employers into the area, bringing exciting job opportunities to help retain university graduates and skilled people.
At that point, society may be digitally inclusive enough that we begin to see the start of a reversal of the trend towards city living, ensuring our towns across the country can thrive in the 21st century.