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'To make cities smart, harness data and focus on outcomes'

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Local government’s focus is shifting from technology to objectives. But a conversation must happen on how it uses data


  • Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer, Greater London Authority
  • Philip Broadhead (Con), cabinet member for reorganisation and economic growth, Bournemouth BC
  • Sarah Calkin, deputy editor, LGC (chair)
  • Davina Fell, digital infrastructure programme manager, Southwark LBC
  • Patrick Fisher, chief executive, Pulse Smart Hub
  • Tom Hook, director of policy and participation, Barking & Dagenham LBC
  • Jenny Nelson, programme manager, Digital Newcastle, Newcastle City Council
  • Steve Peel, senior executive, urban innovation, Pulse Smart Hub
  • Andy Ralphs, strategic director of customer and corporate services, Plymouth City Council
  • Dick Sorabji, corporate director, policy and public affairs, London Councils

Back in November research published by bollards manufacturer ATG Access suggested that a quarter of Britons would be happy for at least some of their taxes to pay for ‘smart city’ innovations, including for initiatives dealing with congestion, environment and health monitoring and analytics, public Wi-Fi, and dimming street lighting.

Though still a minority focus, there is some public recognition that digitally connecting urban and community infrastructure will require a financial commitment by local, national and municipal authorities. This is potentially good news.

Yet while the opportunity of smart technology can look great on paper the reality of turning these emerging technologies into a force for sustainable, positive social change is often complex.

In a fast-changing environment how do you ensure you are making the right investment at the right time, so as not to be immediately behind the technological curve? How do you join up often disparate initiatives? How do you connect and engage with ‘hard-to-reach’ groups or use such technologies to fulfil public health objectives? And how can smart technology be used to help lead or shape communities?

With these questions in mind, LGC, in association with technology firm Pulse Smart Hub, brought together an expert panel to discuss how local government can unlock and harness smart city technologies as a force for social good. Sarah Calkin, LGC’s deputy editor and chair of the debate, began by asking participants to outline their thinking around smart technologies and work they were already doing.

“We’ve done a pivot on smart cities, thinking not so much about technology per se, but how we can mainstream the principles of digital transformation across London and bring greater scale and co-ordination with our partners in the 32 London boroughs,” said Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer at the Greater London Authority.

“The big challenge for everyone, whether you’re a borough or a strategic authority, is that London’s population will be growing to 10.8 million over the next 20 years. So that will bring pressures on public services, and technology – or fundamentally data – will be the way in which we help to solve that.”

“A large issue for us is around cohesion and bringing different communities together,” said Tom Hook, director of policy and participation at Barking & Dagenham LBC. “We have a hugely diverse and changing population, and a vast proportion of under-16s. There is a huge case for different solutions to bring those communities together.”

Smart cities are a process rather than a thing

Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer, Greater London Authority

“With Theo and the mayor, we’re in the process of launching the London Office for Technology and Innovation, which will address issues around the foundations one needs to find particular solutions,” said Dick Sorabji, corporate director, policy and public affairs at London Councils.

At the time of the roundtable, Philip Broadhead (Con) was a councillor handling government reorganisation and economic growth at what was then Bournemouth BC. The council has since been reorganised into Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council. Cllr Broadhead said tackling congestion was a key issue for him, which included “trying to harness the new technology to make everything better”.

“From my side, we’ve got a piece of kit on the pavement that’s got power and data, but also has the potential to do a lot more than that,” said Patrick Fisher, chief executive at Pulse Smart Hub. “Those raw elements of the power and the data and the space on the pavement can evolve to deliver real benefits to communities.”

His colleague Steve Peel, senior executive, urban innovation, at Pulse Smart Hub, agreed. “It is about the data and how we get insight from it and how we plan interventions, using that to establish a baseline to measure what works and what doesn’t work, identifying expected and unexpected outcomes. And then using that as a continuous feedback loop to improve health and social care and economic regeneration.”

Jenny Nelson, programme manager for Digital Newcastle at Newcastle City Council, argued that the smart city conversation needed to remain focused on the improved outcome of more efficient and effectives services, rather than the technology itself. “We are very much not taking this from a technology-first perspective. We want to take this from a needs-first perspective and then think about how the technology can support that,” she said.

pulse logo

pulse logo

This roundtable discussion was sponsored by Pulse Smart Hub. The topic was agreed by LGC and Pulse Smart Hub. The report was commissioned and edited by LGC. See for more information.

Joining up thinking was also a focus for Andy Ralphs, strategic director for customer and corporate services at Plymouth City Council: “We have started to think about what we need to address and what communities and our industries in Plymouth are asking us for.” He added that it was about “how we use data more strategically” and “how we get it out of the sausage machine and make more sense of it”.

“It is about seeing how smart cities can enable data collection and smarter, better outcomes that can fit into our digital transformation journey,” agreed Davina Fell, digital infrastructure programme manager at Southwark LBC.

Ms Calkin asked what panellists felt were the biggest barriers to achieving transformation within their organisations in this context.

“One of the biggest ones for us is trying to understand the business case for investment from the outset, when a lot of the time the benefits are perhaps intangible,” said Ms Nelson.

She highlighted how a council could invest in putting smart technology into people’s homes to support them to live independently for longer. That could lead to savings on care packages. Probably the bigger benefit would be to the NHS rather than the council because those individuals might not need to go to hospital so often, or even at all.

It was imperative to have buy-in and active support from the top, argued Ms Fell. “From our point of view it is councillor support, so political support. We are quite lucky that they are pushing through the agenda: it is always at the forefront of what we want to do and achieve.”

“The basis of the smart city, I think, is good connectivity, for you to enable citizens to do stuff, not for you just to get a platform but for you to do things,” said Mr Blackwell. “You need senior leadership to say ‘this is important for my area’. Smart cities are a process rather than a thing. I don’t think there is a destination. It is about your abilities as a city or a municipal area to be more open to innovation.”

“I agree,” said Mr Sorabji. “It is about the soil not the seed – the actions one takes to lower the barriers to innovation. The more one can create common approaches and systems, the more chance there is of there being real scale in how one moves data. The more one can then get data out, the more chance people whose business is thinking up clever apps will think up clever apps that we actually want.”

Schoolchildren were actually carrying air quality sensors on their walks to school

Jenny Nelson, digital Newcastle programme manager, Newcastle City Council

Another problem was keeping abreast of the different technologies coming through, argued Cllr Broadhead. “For instance, we have a well-advanced programme of fibre optics, and you start to have to make strategic investment decisions, particularly as a local authority, on how you do that. Do you work in collaboration with outside partners? Do you just facilitate it?”

And then there was the sheer speed of change, such as whether the arrival of 5G will supersede everything else. “It is very difficult from a local authority point of view to pick a horse,” Cllr Broadhead said. “But if you don’t do anything then you are paralysed.”

The conversation turned to the opportunity, difficulty and value of data collection in the local government context, including the tricky question of whether local government should ever be ‘monetising’ the data it collects for commercial gain.

As Cllr Broadhead put it: “I think this is a national conversation we ought to have. Local authorities are probably the biggest harvester of data that there is. Yet there is still a perception of nervousness from people about how we use it.

“One of the things we have struggled with is that in a normal world with any other commodity you’d use it and trade it. Yet data is one of those things you shouldn’t be selling, particularly as a local authority.”

He added that there needed to be a national discussion on what local authorities do with data. “We have got terabytes sat there, really useful information that everyone is so nervous about using for anything good. It is an absolute complete waste.”

The importance of engaging with and involving citizens was emphasised by the panellists. As Ms Nelson put it: “How can we use technology to help people make better sense of the data, so that they might make better decisions?”

She highlighted an innovative primary school-based air quality sensing trial involving the Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University. “Schoolchildren were actually carrying air quality sensors on their walks to school.

“So they could understand the air quality in their particular area; parents could understand that, the school could understand that, and actually people could start making decisions themselves about their actions, recognising that if they were driving their children to school they were contributing to that poor air quality,” she said.

“That’s brilliant,” said Mr Hook.

“People need information to feel empowered. The more we can make that easy, the better,” added Mr Sorabji.

As the discussion drew to a conclusion, Ms Calkin asked participants to look ahead. “What might smart cities of the future look like?” she asked. “What tangible change might we see becoming widespread, in five, ten years’ time?”

“I would like to think that in five or 10 years’ time we won’t be using the term ‘smart city’, because it will actually just be the way we live our lives,” said Ms Nelson. “For me, the idea is we won’t talk about smart tech, we will talk about the actual difference it is having on people’s lives.”

Often it is small changes, small improvements in people’s lives, that can have the most impact, said Mr Blackwell. “For example, going back to my days as an elected representative in a ward just south of Hampstead Heath, the number one concern at 4pm, apart from parking, was dog mess.

“So if we could design something – dog facial recognition or whatever – we’d have dealt with that. It is things like that, changing our systems in order to fix not just the big things but the small annoying things in people’s lives too.”

We have got terabytes sat there. It is an absolute complete waste

Philip Broadhead, Bournemouth BC

“For me, five years’ time means we have actually grown up and parked the squabbles about asset ownership and commercial funding models and are focused on delivering some value, some benefit, to the communities – people are talking about what has been achieved as opposed to what could be achieved,” said Mr Peel.

“For me, it is about efficiencies with the use of data and hopefully improving services to local authorities. That is the end-game at the end of the day, isn’t it?” said Ms Fell.

“At a national level you have this political paralysis and have done for a while, where innovation and creativity is happening at a local level,” said Mr Hook. It was, he added, all about responding to different needs in different places and asking people to feed off each other. “Is some of that inefficient and duplicative? Yes. But it is hugely positive at the same time.”

“There are incredible things that can happen – if we get that infrastructure right,” said Mr Sorabji. “Dramatic drops in hospital waiting times to all sorts of things about care and home security and so on – if we get that soil right.

“It is a social and legal and creativity infrastructure isn’t it? It is having organisations that are good at being able to share their data because we have the right systems – but also because we are good at why we are sharing the data, what we are going to do with it.”

“It feels to me like there has been this momentum growing with smart technology,” concluded Mr Fisher. “I think identifying new funding models to get smart tech on to the streets is key to unlocking it.

“I think there will be things that make ‘smart’ change, like 5G when it becomes ubiquitous. Fibre rollout and connectivity will also underpin it. When we’ve got that, I think the next decade is going to see a huge amount more smart city technologies rolling out.”

Steve Peel: Filling the smart cities void

Steve peel

Steve peel

Steve Peel

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.

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, the DCMS recognises the need for more innovative investment and operational models if the UK’s 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.

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