Devolution presents smart city opportunity

City devolution provides the perfect opportunity to create smarter and more productive cities, Policy Exchange has claimed.

In a report titled Smart Devolution, the think tank said that most cities have vast quantities of data at their disposal. If accessed and used effectively, this data could help improve public services, optimise transport routes, support the growth of small businesses and even prevent road traffic accidents.

Data will be fundamental to the success of city devolution and smarter cities, said Eddie Copeland, author of the report. Yet most cities lack the ability to join up, analyse and act upon the vast quantities of data they already have.

The report shows how UK cities could learn from the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics — the data-driven smart city model pioneered under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York.

Using the additional powers they receive from Whitehall, cities could replicate New York by employing a small team of data experts to collect and collate information from a range of sources, including councils, emergency services, voluntary organisations, mobile phone networks and payment systems.

Copeland explained: Devolution provides city mayors with a great opportunity to break down the data silos that exist between different local authorities and public sector bodies. With 80% of Brits residing in urban areas and the population of our cities ever increasing, it is vital that our cities become smarter to cope with growing pressures on public services, transport and housing.

Policy Exchange gave two examples of how better use of data could make cities smarter:

Preventing cycling accidents: HGVs travelling through city centres should be required to share their GPS data with the city’s Office for Data Analytics, the think tank said. Combining HGV routes with data from cyclists obtained by their mobile phone signals could provide real-time information showing the most common routes shared by large lorries and cyclists. Based on that evidence, city leaders could prioritise spending on new bike lanes or updating cyclists via an app of the city’s most dangerous routes.

Spending smarter: Analysing anonymised spend and travel information could help show where investment and services are needed most, based on real consumer decisions. This also applies to business investment, with data harnessed to identify the best locations.

Cities need help and encouragement to implement the scale of changes required to unlock the benefits of smart technologies, said Sean Weir, director of smart & M2M at Arqiva, which sponsored the report.

Many initiatives we see are only small pilots or lab-based experiments which gain little awareness and progress no further than the initial trial stage, he pointed out. A nudge to cities through the devolution agenda may be just what is needed to propel smart cities forward.

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