PCSG’s Dr Jennifer Macdonald joined a sustainability and smart cities panel at the Croydon Economic Summit. Here she explains, why ‘future cities’ strategies must focus on improving the lives of their communities. 

‘What’s a smart city?’ I once asked a colleague. Her reply? That a smart city, in many parts of the world, is one where you can turn on a tap 24/7 and expect clean water to come out.

This brilliant and thought-provoking answer underlined a key issue – that, while much jargon and an array of buzzwords are used in relation to ‘future cities’ – the most important focus is for the city to serve the needs of its citizens.

A smart city strategy must be focused on making peoples’ lives better.

Sustainability in action

Smart city strategies and aims were among the topics discussed on a panel-debate on sustainability at the Croydon Economic Summit, which I was privileged to contribute to earlier this week.

The setting for this event – which convened policy-makers, local businesses, senior industry leaders and cultural representatives – was the newly reopened Fairfield Halls.

Refurbished, rather than rebuilt, and still in use nearly 60 years after its original opening, Fairfield itself is a great example of sustainability in action.

One speaker at the summit alluded to the fact that many of today’s schoolchildren will go into jobs that “haven’t been invented yet”.  However, many of the buildings and much of the infrastructure we are constructing today will still be in use when they retire from those jobs!

For the construction sector, the sustainability challenge is how we can ensure that this infrastructure remains fit for purpose 30-, 40-, 50- (or more) years into the future? How do we achieve maximum lifecycle value? How do we keep its asset data relevant, up to date and secure for its operators (even if they are hoverboarding into work and receiving deliveries by drone?)

Digital debate

The first question I was asked at the debate was “Do you think that smart cities technologies are the answer to the sustainability question?”.

Technology is certainly part of the response – but being swept-up with it and regarding it as the only tool to respond to the sustainability challenge is to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Some of our own clients have talked about being sold “solutions in a box” by software vendors promising that they could solve all their problems, only to have been left disappointed (and further out of pocket) when the so-called solution didn’t fit their needs.

The danger now is of this happening at a city scale – with the heads of our city-planners and decision makers being  turned by the latest tech, whether that is IoT devices, driverless cars or drones – without thinking about how it serves the end citizen.

Resilient and adaptable spaces

As cities continue to grow worldwide, their health and that of their communities is a global challenge.

Cities are currently occupied by around 51% of the global population of 7+ billion but consume around 80% of the world’s resources – disproportionately consuming physical and social resource (PAS 180, BSi, 2014). New and sustainable models of resource consumption and economic growth are required.

A major challenge, in our commercially driven world, is how to best effect positive change?  We can’t do it alone, and cities themselves are rarely clients in the conventional sense. Partly this might come back to how we define value.

Defining value

Defining value and moving the infrastructure industry away from its current low-value, transactional based culture, to an enterprise based one with value to the ultimate user (i.e. the citizen) at its core, are key goals of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ (ICE) Project 13.

This initiative is supported by the Infrastructure Client Group, representing the biggest clients in the UK and responsible for something like £20bn of infrastructure investment over the next few years, so it has real power to influence change.

Its Digital Transformation Workstream: Infrastructure industry benchmarking report contains several recommendations that are equally applicable to the smart city client:

  1. Understand who the (city) customers are: Many of the infrastructure organisations who have direct impacts on our cities struggle to define who their ultimate customers are and don’t have a clear line of sight to the end user (i.e. the citizen).
  2. Break down the silos: Most large established organisations work in silos, and the data they own is typically fragmented, in different formats, not integrated etc. This only gets worse as we scale up to city level.
  3. Information security: How do we balance the benefits that can come from access to open data as well as access to our citizens’ data, with the need to protect those citizens and our infrastructure from threats. Data aggregation becomes even more of an issue at city scale – bringing together multiple previously innocuous single pieces of data into a whole can be of use for both good and ill.
  4. Incentivise whole life value and outcomes, rather than outputs, in contracts. This applies as much to the digital (data) twins of assets as to the physical. What outcomes will be delivered to improve the lives of citizens?
  5. Bridge the skills gap: we need more people with a range of multidisciplinary skills to be able to deal with hugely complex city-scale problems. How can we bridge the gap between the digital haves and have-nots, rather than continuing to promulgate the inequality that is so stark currently in “high tech” hub cities such as San Francisco.

Some of these are also captured within the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) Gemini Principles for developing digital twins, as well as the excellent Data for the Public Good report by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).

We need Smart City strategies focused on making peoples’ lives better. As with all our client-focused work at PCSG, we need to start with the end in mind

  • Start by considering what makes people unhappy
  • Then consider how to solve those problems
  • Then assess the degree to which we lack finance and resources to solve those problems
  • Then consider how technology might help us solve the problems in ways that otherwise we could not

And then we can have truly smart cities.

For a great video which captures the essence of this blog, visit https://www.linkedin.com/posts/andersriel_nordicedge2019-smartcities-smartcity-ugcPost-6582469942803775488-OpCV

For more information on how PCSG supports private organisations and the public sector in the UK and internationally to take a smarter approach to address their major challenges and improve their service delivery through a digital, data-driven approach, please contact our Business Development Director, Olly.Thomas@pcsg.co.uk