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Steve Peel: Filling the smart cities void

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Much has been written and spoken about smart cities and what the integration of innovative technologies into our places could deliver. 

Global evidence proves new technologies, imaginatively deployed, will deliver significant benefits. So why, when faced with growing needs, is the UK still talking about the potential of smart cities technology? Why are our citizens and businesses missing out on the benefits?

For example, the deployment of 5G is expected to be a game-changer, evidenced by the recent Department for Culture, Media & Sport review setting the ambition that the majority of the population should have 5G coverage by 2027. Yet, can this be achieved against the current backdrop?

In truth, there are many stakeholders, all of whom have different drivers and measures for success and, therefore, struggle to collaborate effectively. Central government has no local mandate; local government has influence over some levers of control, but not all. The reality is that there is a void. No single entity has the accountability, funding or resource to deliver a UK smart city.

This column has been supplied and paid for by Pulse Smart Hub

Central government has attempted to fill this vacuum with grants and competitions, producing a proliferation of pilots and testbeds, but few subsequently deployed at scale. The potential is not being realised. In the private sector, voids are where new business ideas are developed, companies formed, innovative products imagined; but the private sector must not set the agenda for smarter cities. Public sector bodies are the stewards of our communities and that’s where responsibility must lie.

This provides a unique opportunity for councils to fill the void. They can become the digital choreographers of their place, facilitate the deployment of smart cities infrastructure and create the conditions for success. However, an environment conducive to smart cities needs to be established where public and private sector interests collaborate closely; one that accepts commercial bodies will only make significant contributions if they deliver a financial return and; one that welcomes innovative commercial models.

Equally important is the need for the public sector to collaborate with organisations of all sizes, mixing strategic and tactical projects, laying soil and seed. With 5G, DCMS recognises the need for more innovative investment and operational models if ambitions are to be delivered.

Devolution provided a great starting point as powers and funding were devolved, but more is required. Some are already adopting a culture of innovation and experimentation to ‘try different things’, but this needs to become the standard. Our call to action is for local authorities to see the smart cities movement as an opportunity to be bold, take risks, take ownership and try it.

Steve Peel, senior executive, urban innovation, Pulse Smart Hub

https://pulsesmarthub.co.uk

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