It is not hard to see why most people equate the term “smart city” with the increased use of digital technology, almost for its own sake. Most of the pilot projects being implemented in the UK involve the use of mobile technology, Wi-Fi and smart sensors to capture and share data.
However, the speakers at Britain’s Smart City Conference in London on 21 October sought to challenge this perception, encouraging delegates to stop seeing smart cities as being all about technology and instead to see them as part of a wider agenda focused on achieving positive impacts for all residents. But what does this look like in practice and how can we change people’s perceptions of the smart agenda?
For me, a smart city is one which uses technology as a mechanism to help local government and other stakeholders achieve their environmental, social and economic goals and improve the lives of residents.
For example, Transport for London has made its travel data available for developers to make transport apps such as Bus Mate and Tube Map, which run on smart phones. Although these apps use mobile technology as a vehicle for disseminating timely and relevant information, their ultimate goal is to increase the use of public transport, by making journeys around the city easier and helping users to make better transport choices.
In Greater Manchester, the council is looking to use the smart agenda as a way of transforming the way they deliver public services including health and social care. Here technology will help them connect with vulnerable residents in new ways, with the aim of enabling them to live independently rather than in council care.
Getting the most from smart systems requires a holistic approach, which synchronises the use of technology and data with a city’s strategic vision. In many cases issues cannot be solved by local government alone, and identifying successful solutions requires the collaboration of multiple parties including the end user, the data holders, technology manufacturers and specialists located within industry and universities.
The cities who are leading the smart agenda in the UK are already building these networks to allow them to foster innovation, access the skills and expertise they need and gain the required insights. The Bristol is Open project brings together the city council and the University of Bristol, while Milton Keynes is working with partners including the Open University, BT, Anglian Water and Community Action: MK.
But how do we go about changing wider public perceptions? I believe that getting communications right is one of the most crucial components of delivering a successful smart city. It goes without saying that you could have the best project in the world but if no one knows about it, then it will have no impact at all. And with the continued cuts in services, it is vital that councils are able to show the community the benefits of any spend, especially ones which have such positive impacts on a social and economic level.
At the conference we discussed whether we should refer to the term ‘smart city’ at all, because the word ‘smart’ is so synonymous with technological products. Think smart meters, smart watches and smart phones. Instead it was suggested that the term 'future' or 'resilient city' should be used, as this reflects what projects are trying to achieve.
However, these words are rather ambiguous and have little relevance to the average person on the street and their daily lives. I think to achieve success we need to stop using industry titles to describe approaches within the public domain and get better at articulating to the public what we are trying to achieve. To do this we need to use storytelling in a way that helps us to clearly link policy and goals to schemes and activities, showing how these impact and change residents’ daily lives for the better.
For example a local authority might create a set of stories about improving lives for elderly residents and supporting independent living. One of them might focus on how they have installed GPRS on their Ring and Ride buses to help them track vehicles and improve the service, while also drawing out the benefits for the end user, such as the ability to notify passengers when the bus is due to pick them up, preventing delays when people are not ready and long waits outside in the cold and rain on the return journey.
Creating day-in-the-life scenarios is another way of communicating to individuals the benefits of new schemes and approaches, so they can easily grasp and understand the positive impacts they will have on the lives.
Whatever we choose to call it, the smart cities agenda has a lot to offer all residents, but we must get better at communicating with communities to help them understand how activities are linked to policy and resident benefits.