Recent research suggests that local government needs to pass through six stages in their journey to smart city status, as John Fox, Managing Director of Lucy Zodion describes
The concept of smart cities is evolving continuously as technology advances, and as connected, data-driven cities become a reality, improving public services, achieving greater efficiencies and developing better urban spaces for all who use them. In the UK, smart cities are seen as a vital component of our future digital economy, and some initial funding has already been made available to trial technology to explore new initiatives.
However, the task of transitioning our cities into smarter and more connected urban environments lies at local government level. Individual cities are responsible for identifying the right solutions and initiatives to transform their services, yet in a challenging economic climate for councils and local authorities, realising this ambition can be challenging to achieve.
While a number of cities including Manchester, Milton Keynes and Peterborough are leading the way with smart initiatives in situ, others are yet to explore the potential of smart technology. Squeezed budgets, compounded by uncertainty around future funding following the Brexit referendum and further austerity measures, means investment in innovation risks slipping down the list of priorities for many councils across the country.
Lucy Zodion commissioned research on smart cities to explore attitudes, progress and priorities amongst senior representatives from over 180 councils across the UK. While opinions of the potential of smart cities were generally positive, 80% of those surveyed had little to no involvement with smart cities, and very few had named leads or a team to develop and deliver a city-wide smart strategy and coordinate smart projects. Some cities were keen to engage in trials and technology but faced barriers to delivery, and only a small number were actively involved in initiatives. Those cities who had projects up and running often had a project lead based in planning or economic development, responsible for implementing strategies and building partnerships with third parties and the private sector.
In fact, there were six clear stages identified that councils pass through on their journey to becoming a smart city.
Barriers to delivery
The research also sought to understand barriers to delivery, particularly amongst those with limited involvement. Predictably, a lack of funding was consistently cited as the biggest barrier; against a backdrop of budget constraints, this often contributed to the fact that smart initiatives were not seen as a priority in their council. Internal collaboration and knowledge sharing was also an issue, with current council structures deemed less conducive to smart projects that often sit above numerous internal departments. Combined with a lack of confidence in smart technology caused by limited proof of return on investments, many respondents felt gaining senior buy-in was a challenge: a catch 22 that means funding, prioritisation and collaboration is often unattainable.
A three-tiered approach to smart cities became apparent during the research: those striding ahead are the early adopters who secured external funding to progress projects. Others are keen to progress but lack the resources to do so. The final tier lack the knowledge or route to delivery to make smart cities a priority – and these are the majority. Devolution of delivery without funding or a clear path to delivery from central government is leading to de-prioritisation.
A toe in the water
So how to achieve more connected cities in a challenging climate?
The resounding message from the research is that strong leadership with a clear, smart vision is the single biggest factor in making smart cities work. Without it, it becomes almost impossible to create an over-arching strategy and mobilise teams from across the council to deliver it.
Building a solid business case can be a challenge, particularly with many projects in pilot phase meaning limited large-scale case studies demonstrating return on investment. But becoming a smart city isn’t an overnight process – it’s one of evolution. Finding ways to place the first foot on the ladder is essential, particularly if external funding is hard to come by.
Faced with tightening purse strings, optimising current infrastructure and street furniture rather than replacing it at high cost is an infinitely more palatable strategy for most councils. Smarter street lighting, for example, has proven return on investment and is easy to implement: replacing traditional street lights with LED lighting and remote control management can reduce energy costs by at least 60%, reduce maintenance and pave the way for smarter controls and sensors across the city.
Projects like these, with relatively low expenditure and a strong business case, can help to build confidence within risk-averse councils and pave the way for future initiatives.
Creating a path to delivery
It is clear that smart cities need to become a national strategic priority. This will ensure a consistent and cost-effective approach to future technology roll-out but also prevent cities and regions from being left behind. Until then, local authorities can begin with tried-and-tested projects to begin their smart journey, even with limited resources. The ultimate aim of a connected city is to achieve greater cost efficiencies and better social benefits: it would pay for councils and citizens alike to prioritise a path to delivery.