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'Do smart cities need more small firms to succeed?'

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Smart city initiatives have typically begun through small grants, for testing ideas and concepts. In many cases, they have had to rely on large multinational, engineeringled organisations to make matched or speculative investments.

As someone who has worked in such firms, I know a key justification for using these resources is the anticipated scale of return.

Any resulting product or service would be highly scalable, generate large revenues and be transferrable to other places and even industries. Many smart city projects have therefore become strategic: big outcomes, big investments, complex solutions, and long delivery times.

We are now seeing some benefits of that work in products and services that address issues in mobility, energy management, health and social care etc. The question is whether these are developed mostly for the benefit of service providers, the public sector and the corporates or the citizens.

The latter will of course see some benefit. But the business cases are typically based on reducing service delivery costs or boosting revenues. Aren’t smarter cities supposed to be more about improving the health, wellbeing and sustainability of our communities? Have big organisations almost done the smart cities movement and the delivery of citizen benefits a disservice?

Do we have the right balance between strategic and opportunistic, even tactical programmes? Have we ignored or blocked opportunistic projects and programmes more often carried out by smaller firms, in favour of more strategic programmes by big firms?

Small and medium businesses have been involved in some strategic projects, but their time to value equation is completely different. They must move at pace, deploy at scale, and deliver outcomes and value in short order. If they don’t they will not survive. Their products and services are more likely to be tactical or opportunistic and better at helping citizens. Such projects are visible and valued.

The smart cities movement is perfect for young, innovative, small, agile, design-led, service-oriented firms. These companies are driven to succeed because they are often conscious capitalists, and in a post-Brexit economy they need to succeed for the UK.

So, what is the right balance between opportunistic and strategic projects, and are we achieving it? My feeling is we are not: smart city programmes are oriented towards the strategic rather than the opportunistic.

We need a pragmatic combination of the two. This means allowing smaller firms some airtime and giving them the opportunity to innovate and deliver – alongside their larger peers.

Steve Peel, senior executive, Urban Innovation, Pulse Smart Hub

Column sponsored and supplied by Pulse Smart Hub

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