Do we really need smart cities?

We consider the importance and economics of smart cities

By 2030, around 92.2% of the UK population will be living in a city, according to the World Resources Institute. And cities consume a lot of energy, output most of the world's carbon emissions, and account for the consumption of the majority of the world's natural resources.

This means how we build, manage and run cities will be key to our country's (and other nations') future. So the idea of smart cities has come to prominence as a means of ensuring the smooth operation of urban areas. But do our cities need to be smart?

Smart solutions

'Smart' technology provides the means for cities to address a range of difficult issues with which they are faced – sustainability, congestion and wider use of public transport, traffic management and energy management.

"There is no single solution but in most cases, combining data, communications and responsible analysis will provide measurable benefits for cities and better informed and empowered citizens," says Martin Howell, director of external affairs at Cubic Transportation Systems.

Andrew Yeoman, chief executive officer of Concirrus, says that we cannot afford to live in dumb cities that do the same thing despite changing social pressures.

"With rapidly growing and aging populations, and more vehicles, UK cities will break – they were not built to accommodate mass urbanisation at its current scale. The only way to adapt is to turn to technology to optimise the finite resources at our disposal for housing, transportation, public services and utility provision," he says.

While there are good reasons from a population standpoint to turn cities into smart ones, what about the economics? Howell says rather than looking at the cost of making a city smart, we should be thinking about the cost of not doing so.

He notes these are: "Economic slowdown, overburdened infrastructure, energy wastage, siloed services and frustrated citizenry who know solutions exist and are frustrated they are not being implemented."

Becoming a smart city

So how does a city become smart?

The making of a smart city

So how does a city become a smart city? Mike Blackburn, North West regional director at BT, and chairman of the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership, says that MK:Smart offers a useful blueprint. "First step is the objective. For Milton Keynes, the aim of its MK:Smart programme is to ensure that economic growth does not outstrip the city's infrastructure and services."

The second step was a £16 million (around $23 million, AU$30 million) investment in a citywide network of sensors which feed data streams into a single information hub. The third stage, says Blackburn, was to make this data available to partners who use it to create innovative solutions for the city, which in turn boosts business growth.

James Norman, UK Public Sector CIO at EMC, says that getting smart begins by understanding the city's key business initiative or business objective. As an example here, he cites identifying and understanding the decisions that city management needs to make to support the business initiative of 'improving traffic flow'.

"The city's management would need to look into everything from traffic flow, road repairs, maintenance, construction permits, events management, and how it would affect local parks and schools. Each grouping of decisions equates into a use case, or the 'how' we will accomplish the 'what' of the business initiative," says Norman.

He adds that government and other authority bodies will first and foremost need leaders who can recognise these opportunities, and have the powers to help deliver a smarter town or city in the future.

"There are a number of pilots being sponsored by central government at the moment, but local authorities need to understand the most cost-effective projects to support their own smart city agenda – whether that's reducing staffing costs, cutting down on waste, or improving the services provided to the public. Even though there are lots of grants available, ensuring teams have the right skills is also essential."

Neil Garner, CEO of WhiteSpace Norwich, says there is a need to define the proposition and sectors – such as retail, health, small business, transport, and so on.

"Given that a lot of smart city technology and initiatives are new, services need to be piloted in representative cities to generate feedback on business case, consumer adoption, practical implementation and scaling issues. Only once technology and business model has been proven in successful pilot deployments should they be applied across wider geography and demographics and then in other regions," he says.