Round-up of thoughts from the panel at our South West Cities of the Future event

Further to our South West Cities of the Future event facilitated by Ken Livingstone on the 2 June, here’s a round-up of some of the key messages from our panel.

To build smart cities, we need a smart region

Our panel agreed that the South West provides an ideal environment for smart city technologies to both develop and become embedded. At the same time, they acknowledged that local and national governments can be very risk adverse, but Dan Byles felt that Bristol, in particular, is bucking that trend:

What is really exciting about Bristol, and a number of others, is that they are willing to be a pioneer and go out on a limb to do things differently to other cities. I think Bristol is proving to be a pretty good model for a bottom up, organic, yet planned approach to becoming smarter.

Louise Young pointed out that the South West has strong involvement in many of the sectors that will underpin smart city development, but warned that rigid regional boundaries could stifle their growth:

Having looked at the South West economies in general, Bristol and others around Gloucester and Swindon and the rest of the region, you have an incredibly prosperous high-tech and aerospace sectors. You need to be able to go beyond geographical regional boundaries to make sure that those sectors which are the core of your cluster of growth can actually expand as they need to.

Meanwhile, Rohit Talwar said that engagement and experimentation were needed to drive success:

Build participation, engage the citizen and engage business. Engage people in exploring the future, understanding what is coming next and defining the kind of choices we want to make about the cities of the South West. Also be prepared to fail – be willing to fail fast and cheap, to experiment regularly with new ideas because we’re moving into a whole new space.

Rohit also made the point that smart cities don’t develop in isolation, which is why we need a regional approach:

We need to think about incubation, not just as a place where you create start-ups but as a region that incubates new ideas and a place where we can test new ideas.

Osborne Clarke’s view: It’s clear that our panel recognised the South West’s strong economy and the fact that there are many talented, creative people working in the region. The region also has a reputation for doing things differently and being willing to consider new ideas. If, as a region we follow Rohit’s advice, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t lead the debate and the field when it comes to smart cities.

We need a high level of political will to make smart cities happen

Businesses and individuals might create and develop smart city technologies, but without political will it will be impossible to integrate those into our cities. Dan Byles set out the dilemma succinctly:

Can local government structures, that is, the way they make decisions, change? That is probably the single hardest part of this equation. We need the national and local governments to be able to drive this, to show leadership and vision, to enable it; but it is very difficult because we also do not want them to stifle it.

Louise Young thought that developing infrastructure was something that needs to be done collaboratively:

I wonder if an over reliance on local government to provide game changing local infrastructure could in fact be an inhibiter.

Dan Byles, said that governments need to understand the nature of the technologies that are being developed and the needs they are meeting:

When governments want to embrace disruptive technologies they ask the very sector that will be disrupted by it to roll it out. So, who do we ask to champion energy efficiency schemes? The big 6 energy companies – the very people who will lose out if energy efficiency takes off. I don’t think governments necessarily understand what disruptive means and how to get that right.

On a practical level, Rohit Talwar thought that there could be some very quick wins for local governments:

I think there are some very simple things that city leaders can do to actually shift the needle very quickly. For example, we have magistrate’s courts, doctors’ surgeries and schools that only need to occupy space for a part of a day. Why don’t we just combine them all – using the school hall and classrooms on a time-share basis? You would save a huge amount of money and you could repurpose the space freed up for other uses. If you start to experiment at a very low level you could do a lot of very innovative things quite quickly and win credibility that will be valuable when pursuing more ambitious plans.

Dan pointed out another simple action that governments could take to drive technological development:

The sheer buying power of national and local government when it comes to infrastructure investment and service delivery and procuring service delivery is huge. Government could do a huge amount simply by inserting a question into every procurement document that simply says demonstrate to us how you are going to use cutting edge thinking, smart city IoT technologies and business solutions in this tender.

All agreed, however, that local governments will need to adapt in order to lead on smart cities. Rohit highlighted the importance of smart city plans having cross party approval and being owned by the city and citizens rather than political parties, while Ken Livingstone thought that greater devolution will also have an impact:

I hope that all this debate about devolution might lead to a real re-birth of local government.

Osborne Clarke’s view: Looking at our panel’s comments it’s clear that governments can be a huge force for good in developing smart city technologies. To achieve that, businesses have a role to play in helping governments understand the possibilities and limitations of technology and helping them build realistic and achievable visions. They also need to help governments sort the wood from the trees.

Clear vision and good planning are at the heart of smart city development, but a new way of planning is needed

If cities grow in a piecemeal fashion, they won’t be smart. Our panel was absolutely clear that a planned approach is the only approach. Rohit set out the challenge:

Before you start pouring in technology, you need to be really clear about what we are trying to create in terms of the place. What is the experience we are trying to create for the citizens, the community, businesses and investors? How do we include people in the visioning and planning process? If we have a clear vision of where we are going, then we can think about what we need to automate, and how to deploy intelligent technology solutions to deliver the vision.

He also pointed out that in order to plan smart cities, cities need to approach planning in a fundamentally different way.

We are talking about fundamental shifts. How do I get to the future? Can I get there simply by playing within the rule set or do I need to change the game? I think at the city level that is the real challenge now.

Dan pointed out that population growth makes the need to change approach extremely urgent:

We are going to reach the stage where urban leaders, city councils, city leaders are going to have to change the way they deliver services and change the way they plan for and deliver infrastructure. A great statistic that really puts this into perspective is that London is growing, the population is growing at the rate of 1 full tube train every 3 days.

Ken said that a collegiate approach has worked for London:

When I was elected as Mayor of London, we spent 3 years bringing together business, trade unions, community groups, faith groups. We had endless debate about where London should go. Boris made a couple of changes after he got elected but broadly that strategy has held.

Osborne Clarke’s view: It’s clear that smart cities need bold visions and detailed but flexible planning. Some will be concerned about the technologies being applied, so an inclusive approach is needed to engage populations in the process. Such an approach will also capture the ideas that will make smart cities liveable.

Smart cities are about technology AND people

Smart city technology is incredibly exciting, but smart cities themselves need to be real, vibrant places that people want to live in.

Dan gave his definition of a smart city as:

…one that eases the friction of the citizen’s path through life. They do not necessarily need to know or understand what is going on under the hood to make that work. I think it is easy to sometimes to get a bit too wrapped up in the how. Technology is hugely important, it is the key enabler for a lot of these sorts of solutions, but it is a means to an end. The bottom line is a smart city needs to be a nice place to live, work and do business.

For Rohit, mind-set is also important:

For me it is all about mind-set. The technology is secondary; it is all about getting the mind-set right about how we navigate the next 20 or 30 years.

While for Ken it is about striking a balance:

You want an absolutely smart city that is at the cutting edge of technology in every field which economic base, but to keep people in the city you need that cultural offer. You need the places they will go to, the museums, the good restaurants – that is what creates a great city.

Louise, pointed to the role of the city’s leadership:

The personal journey of citizens being empowered by smart choices and smart uses of data is a given. I see the smart decisions that city leaders make together and individually also being data driven as being very important – and that is based on looking at what you do well.

Rohit, said that Bristol is one of the cities that is striving to get the balance between people and technology right:

Bristol is a smaller city that is trying a variety of experiments to make it a liveable city, while not getting obsessed with the technology. Seeing technology as an enabler, a way of making things simpler for the citizen and cutting the cost of running the city is vital, but it must not become the prime focus of city planning.

 Osborne Clarke’s view: Smart city technologies are, by definition, people-focused but people will only adopt the overall smart city concept if the cities are liveable. Once again, that puts forward a strong argument for collaboration, consultation and a collegiate approach – involving government, business and citizens.

Please click here to download a copy of Rohit Talwar’s presentation.

Sign up to our newsletter

Meet our experts