5 Things We Learned from the CityVerve Smart Cities Roundtable

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The CityVerve project is about connecting people – and things.

So, naturally, we were delighted to bring representatives of some of the UK’s leading smart city projects together for what we’re calling CityChat, a smart cities roundtable with CityVerve.

Joining our host, David Altabev – who you might recognise from a previous episode of CityCast, our smart cities podcast – were three smart cities experts from Milton Keynes, Manchester, and Southend-on-Sea.

David Cummings heads up the IT side of smart city projects taking place in Southend-on-Sea; Paul Garner, meanwhile, leads BT’s Future Business Technology research practice, and sat on the executive board of the MK:Smart project in Milton Keynes; and Adrian Slatcher is a senior policy officer at Manchester City Council, and currently bringing more than six years of smart city experience to the CityVerve project.

As expected, the discussion was wide-ranging and yielded some interesting results.

Over the course of the afternoon, five main themes emerged: citizen engagement; data; the examples set by smart cities abroad; funding; and, as you’d expect from a group who like to keep an eye on the future, how things are set to change in the coming years.

We were also on hand to capture the full session for a special edition of our smart cities podcast – scroll down to access a stream of the recording, or catch up via iTunes.

  1. Engaging with citizens

A city is built by its people: it’s almost a statement of the obvious.

But sometimes this can get lost amongst all the technological challenges and political intricacies that come with building a smart city.

As a result, the people who should be at the heart of the project can sometimes be left on the periphery.

Adrian highlighted this problem quite neatly: “If you ask the general public,” he said, “the phrase smart city still doesn’t resonate.”

So the question was raised: how do you make the idea of smart cities resonate with the people who’ll be living in them?

The panel concluded (unanimously) that the secret to engaging people in the smart city is to allow the public to take the lead.

This citizen-led approach is something that Paul experienced while working on the Milton Keynes MK:Smart project. “We tried to find ways to help citizens feel like part of the project form the very outset,” he recalled.

One of the ways that Milton Keynes managed this was by funding projects put forward by the public.

They crowdsourced the best ideas for new technological schemes directly from the public, and the best were invited to pitch for funding.

Even the process of selecting which ideas would go forward to the pitching stage was democratic, with a function within the crowdsourcing platform allowing the most popular suggestions to ‘rise to the top’ and ultimately receive the attention of the MK:Smart project panel.

Over the course of the programme, 13 citizen projects were funded.

For Paul, this represented “a real concerted effort to act as a broker to connect a citizen who has a great idea but doesn’t know how to do it with a small business or an academic with the expertise to help them build their idea.”

This is a definite lesson for other smart city projects: not just to integrate the project with the citizens, but to connect citizens to other citizens – something which CityVerve hopes to achieve through Citizen Journalist scheme, amongst other things.

  1. Data is a work in progress

Adrian opened the topic of data with an interesting point: “There’s this expectation that we have a lot of real-time data in the city – but there is still a lot of data which is hidden in back-office systems.”

Indeed, cities and their inhabitants are churning out huge amounts of data on a minute-by-minute basis. Yet most of it exists in siloes, or is used with little purpose at all.

The panel agreed that smart cities need to take on a more dynamic and agile approach to data, and be happy starting with the small problems.

“There is a tendency,” Adrian noted, “to say we can’t do this unless we solve it for the whole of Greater Manchester or the whole of the city.”

“But with data, it’s like if you were a librarian and you want to catalogue all the books in the library: it will take you years! Instead, if you first select the books which are most popular you might create some quick wins.”

David pointed out that there’s more work to be done with regards to standardising data.

“There is data for things,” he said, “like the street furniture that a local authority might own – lamps and park benches, for example – and there is data for people. The data for people is very difficult to standardise, because people aren’t standardised!”

With this, the discussion took up perhaps the most inevitable – and pressing – question when it comes to talking about data: what about data regulation?

This point is particularly relevant with the introduction of new GDPR rules in the next year, which will it much easier for people to see what is happening to their data.

David referred to a data issue that cropped up in Southend-on-Sea when they installed free Wi-Fi services.

In order to sign up to the service, you would have to provide some personal information. “Some people found giving away information on their gender, for example, to be very emotive,” Paul remembered.

Paul also acknowledged this: “Data issues are hugely emotive and this comes from the culture of the country itself.”

“It’s great to see the UK government specifying certain data standards across all local authorities,” he added, “this is why Europe and the UK are really leading the world in this area.”

  1. Smart city role models

The panel then moved on to discuss their ‘favourite’ foreign smart cities, or places that they think the UK should look to as examples.

Adrian highlighted Finland as a general role model in terms of applying open data standards in its cities.

He also spoke of his admiration for smart cities that have moved to provide free public Wi-Fi – something which the UK is not particularly good at.

“Perhaps,” he mused, “other European countries are very good at public Wi-Fi because of the weather. In Barcelona, it’s nice to sit outside on your phone – but in England, you have to keep ducking into doorways to take shelter from the rain!”

David had an alternative perspective on the best European smart cities, based on a single criterion: how happy does it make its citizens?

For David, this happiness test means that Vienna comes out top. “It’s not often mentioned,” he said, “but it’s a great example of a good smart city: one of the happiest, safest, and cleanest.”

However, David also acknowledged the appeal of Barcelona: “sitting on a beach with free Wi-Fi in Barcelona did make me happy.”

While the panel for the most part chose to focus on Europe, Paul pointed to the huge investments made in smart city projects in the Middle East and China.

These cities are largely greenfield, which is a massive advantage in terms of introducing smart technology – because they can be designed as smart from the ground up.

But Paul also countered his own point by acknowledging that one of the most interesting things about smart cities is working out how to apply new ideas to places where people already live.

This is happening at the moment in Chicago, where the city is digitally mapping lots of its existing infrastructure, particularly underground, in order to coordinate utilities work.

And it’s been successful so far: already showing a return on investment.

But fundamentally, Paul added, the UK is the best place to be in terms of smart cities.

The challenges of working in historic cities is more exciting, he said, and in terms of policy and data, the UK can be seen as a world leader.

  1. Use the resources at hand

Another important topic that came up for discussion was funding.

Turning a smart city demonstrator into a long-term project represents a significant challenge, but the panel were fairly unified in their advice for solving it.

Paul came at it from a commercial perspective, indicating that smart cities can only endure if they are in some way profitable.

“For us as a business to sustain our ability to be part of the collaborative effort,” he explained, “we need to find the business cases that make sense, where we can start to offer commercial services alongside the discovery work.”

Adrian agreed with this point on the importance of commercial opportunities for smart city longevity.

He pointed out that “you can’t just rely on a big pot of money from central government – things change over time.”

He also urged smart cities to make use of the resources they already have – the businesses which are active and running in the local community, who already have “skin in the game,” as he put it.

In one sense, this is another way of saying that we need to get more citizens into smart cities, but from a business side this time.

This is interesting, as it reinforces the very first idea that emerged from the roundtable: the need to engage with the people of the city.

  1. Looking ahead

The final part of the discussion turned, appropriately enough, to the future of smart cities.

David referred to tech analyst firm Gartner’s annual ‘Hype Cycle’ report as a likely indicator of the influences at work on smart cities in the coming years, underlining machine learning and cognitive computing as particularly important.

But even as David highlighted the significance of global trends, he was also keen to point out that “it’s really how we adapt locally and regionally to them.”

“It’s all about staying on point whilst looking at global trends,” he noted, “helping citizens, tourists and local businesses to cope with these changes.”

An example of one such global change is the switch to autonomous vehicles. This was Paul’s primary prediction for the future of smart cities, drawn from his experience in Milton Keynes, where the city is already beginning to deploy driverless vehicles.

Adrian rounded off the future gazing with a general point about the amount of change coming to Britain.

He touched on the ongoing Brexit process, and the implementation of greater devolution in Manchester, as vital elements that will shape the CityVerve project going forward: “It’s very important that we see our city challenges in that context,” he said.

But in more concrete terms, Adrian anticipates that user experience (known in engineering and design circles as UX) will become ever more critical to the development of smart cities.

“We are used to interfaces such as the mobile phone, laptop, or screen,” he said, “but the Internet of Things means we don’t have to be confined to just that – in the future we’ll have new, gesture-based interfaces to communicate with.”

This new type of interface has been underused so far in smart cities, but according to Adrian, will become a far bigger phenomenon in the future.

We were incredibly grateful to all our experts for taking the time to participate in our roundtable.

Clearly the discussion brought out many interesting and valuable ideas – but there was one overarching theme: the need to collaborate with the city’s people.

Citizen engagement was a consistent thread throughout the discussion of data and funding, and when our experts considered good examples of smart cities they looked at it in terms of the public experience.

And even in terms of the future of smart cities, it’s clear that it will be all about making new technological developments that are relevant to the people benefiting from them.

An article from Vicki DeBlasi.

More information is available on the CityVerve website. 

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