Making our cities work for us

Are smart cities on the horizon? Simon Hobday, partner at Osborne Clarke, takes a look at the concept of smart cities and explains how the legal and regulatory environment will drive elements in their development.

Are smart cities more than just cities with a lot of tech?

Technology is incredibly important, but smart cities themselves need to be real, vibrant places that people want to live and work in. Technology is a key enabler for many of the solutions to the challenges posed by urbanisation–for example in ensuring that traffic flows well, the air is clean and energy is reliable.

But technology is a means to an end, not the end itself. It’s very easy to get obsessed with technology, but it’s important to plan for a city in the context of the citizens living and working in it, its efficiency, sustainability and economic viability. Look at what you want to achieve, your city’s goals and, equally importantly, what you do well. Then look to the technology to solve the problem.

What exactly is meant by a smart city? What are the aims of pursuing smart cities?

The answer is not that obvious. In essence, smart cities are places that deploy innovative technology, creating new ways to deliver public services and make better use of existing resources and infrastructure, with the ultimate aim of becoming more prosperous, sustainable and better places to live.

According to research by the European Parliament released in January 2014, 51% of Europe’s 468 cities with a population over 100,000 are smart cities. While this may sound like a sizeable proportion, cities only need to have developed a strategy or plan to implement a single smart city initiative to qualify as smart. The reality is that, of this group, only 28% have actually fully launched at least one smart city initiative. The remainder are still at piloting stage.

Cities need innovative solutions to help meet the long-term challenges arising from urbanisation, be that controlling increasing traffic flows, managing ever increasing volumes of waste or meeting energy efficiency targets.

Can you give any examples of technology making cities smarter?

Bristol is Open

Bristol is Open is a joint venture between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council. It involves the establishment of three ultra-fast communication networks in the centre of Bristol capable of transmitting data relating to energy consumption, air quality and traffic generated from a series of sensors.

Once anonymised, the data is made public through an open-data portal. Companies and academic institutions will be invited to prototype new smart city applications and services that leverage this data.

Milton Keynes ‘Internet of Things’ (IOT)

In early 2014, Milton Keynes was unveiled as the location for a new city-wide, open-access IOT network to demonstrate how connected devices might be utilised to provide smart solutions. It is the first city-wide, open-access IoT network in the UK. Participants include Milton Keynes Council, BT, Open University, the Future Cities Catapult and the Connected Digital Economy Catapult.

Private sector companies are invited to develop ‘smart’ use cases that leverage this network. The first use case involves the installation of sensors into recycling bins across the city. The sensors inform the council via the IoT network when bins are full and ready for collection, enabling refuse collectors to provide a more efficient service.

The second application involves the installation of sensors in car parking spaces to inform motorists where vacant parking spaces are.

Newcastle traffic lights

Newcastle University is leading a new project to trial the implementation of fully automated traffic lights. The smart traffic lights will be able to provide personalised information to drivers to help adjust their speed in order to efficiently pass through a series of green lights. They can also warn drivers of obstacles and give emergency vehicles priority at junctions.

By optimising the travel network, the traffic lights aim to help motorists drive more efficiently and therefore reduce congestion and pollution. The infrastructure will link an in-vehicle communication system with Newcastle’s existing urban traffic management control centre.

The priority technology, which gives emergency vehicles priority at junctions, has initially been fitted in 14 non-emergency north east ambulance patient transport service vehicles. It will give them priority when approaching traffic lights to limit appointment delays. This first wave of the project aims to demonstrate the potential benefits of the technology.

What is the potential market for smart urban technologies?

The potential market for smart urban technologies is vast. Globally, 54% of the world’s population live in cities–a figure the United Nations predicts will rise to 66% by 2050. Traffic congestion alone is predicted to cost the UK economy $3 bn annually by 2030–a 63% increase on the cost in 2013.

Urbanisation is making the development of smart cities more important than ever. In 2014, $265bn was spent on smart cities initiatives. By 2020, cities are expected to spend $20bn on sensor technology alone.

The legal and regulatory environment will drive elements in the development of smart cities and investment in smart technologies. For example, the EU recommends that member states install smart meters for 80% of consumers by 2022. The EC predicts that EUR 56.5bn will have been invested in European smart grid technologies by 2020 and that this will grow to EUR 390bn by 2030 and EUR 480bn by 2035.

How can companies work with public authorities to create smarter cities?

The buying power of public authorities, when it comes to infrastructure investment and service delivery, is huge. But governments can be risk averse when it comes to new ways of doing business. To justify investment in smart technology, they first need to be able to point to case studies where the technology has been deployed at scale and delivered tangible benefits.

Some of the most innovative technology is being developed by early-stage companies that simply don’t have the funding to finance a large scale demonstration of their technology. Governments can play an important role in not only providing grant funding to smart city demonstration projects directly, but also in amalgamating funding from multiple sources.

City-wide demonstration projects have been launched successfully and companies and public authorities are working together to secure funding for and initiate innovative projects.

One issue with private companies is that they typically only operate in a very narrow and isolated area of city infrastructure. Take the example of transport. While bus and train operators own or lease their modes of transport, the network on which they run is usually owned and operated by a different company or public authority.

Many city transport authorities across Europe are unable to trial smart technologies because they either lack the power or the funding to commit. If transport authorities are to implement smart technology in collaboration with the private sector, they need sufficient powers and resources.

Also, simply changing the way that public authorities contract with private sector companies could encourage investment in smart technology. One way of doing this would be by providing an incentive to become more efficient by setting up the contract in a way that enables private sector service providers to keep any cost savings they are able to generate through innovating.

What are the risks and rewards of engaging with the smart city movement?

Cities, all over the world, are growing at a furious pace and they will keep on growing, no matter what. We need to build smarter cities to cope with larger populations, who are living longer and more densely, as well as remaining economically and socially competitive in an increasingly globalised market. These challenges are faced by all cities, no matter their stage of development or which continent they are on.

No single city, country, government, economic bloc, or company can build a smart city alone. It is going to require rallying expertise around some pretty big ideas and then collaborating to overcome the challenges, sharing best practice, which, in turn, will enable innovation and accelerate the development of smart cities.

The trailblazers, the collaborators, the risk takers of today will be the leaders of the future.

Interviewed by Alex Heshmaty.

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