THE BLOG

Devolution Is Not The Future If We Want Our Cities To Be Smart

11/08/2017 12:34
jamesteohart via Getty Images

Last month, London mayor Sadiq Khan outlined his vision for the capital for become the world's leading 'Smart City', using smart technologies and data to improve public services and city living. In a UK on the verge of Brexit, it's not a bad suggestion - having opened a new innovation centre (Plexal) dedicated to solving urban challenges, and with multiple accelerators dedicated to clean and smart tech, we have everything we need to succeed and be competitive in the global environment.

But what exactly is a 'Smart City'? For most, it would conjure up images of self-cleaning skyscrapers, robot receptionists and pavements that generate electricity. Don't get me wrong - these are brilliant innovations and have their place in the overall picture. I would argue, however, that the best smart technology is not about being flashy and new. Instead, it works quietly in the background focusing on improving day-to-day experiences.

In fact, much of this technology is invisible, from sensors that connect two services to one another, 3D visualisations that help councils manage their assets, and increased data sharing. The key is that this technology is inclusive and collaborative, working across borders and operating systems to enable all pieces of the puzzle to come together seamlessly. It cannot be domineering, or ignore the world around while pursuing its own goals.

Uber, for example, continues to face numerous challenges to its authority in London. Last month, its licence to operate in London was renewed for only four months as transport authorities continue to deliberate whether to grant Uber a five-year licence amid challenges from black-cab drivers and unions. This follows issues including employment tribunals, new requirements for English tests for drivers and needing a London-based call centre. Simply put, the technology tried to usurp the market without consultation, and has been punished.

But it's not just the technology that needs to be collaborative. Boroughs and councils too must come together, along with the private and public sectors, to minimise fragmentation. Currently, with each council having a budget to spend independently, it's perfectly possible for one to significantly invest in a piece of infrastructure that ultimately has no use beyond its borders. The result - the technology falls to the wayside, because what consumer wants to have to think about swapping from one system to the next as they travel through different regions?

When it comes to smart cities, devolution doesn't work - with the best intentions in the world, if councils are all pulling in different directions to come up with their own individual solutions, they only complicate the landscape, meaning their efforts to do good are nullified. So we need to start talking to one another more, and making sure that there's consensus and a commitment to all act together if we are to advance.

This is not limited to London - if we want to replicate this success across the country, the same principle applies. We are the musketeers fighting all for one and one for all. And I have to say, I find it fitting that as the UK prepares to stand alone on the global stage, it needs to be more together than ever before.

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