Smart cities – focus on people, not tech, says policy conference

Journalist and mindful urban planning advocate Jane Jacobs once observed, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Meanwhile, China Miéville’s 2009 novel ‘The City and the City’ describes two cities occupying the same geographical space, with each unseen by citizens of the other.

These could be described as the twin themes of a Westminster eForum policy conference I attended in London last week, which explored the future of smart cities. Like all eForums, it was a focused event of two halves. The first looked at how to support innovation, collaboration, and development – the subject of this report – and the second at intelligent delivery and improving citizen outcomes with good policymaking, which I explore in a second report.

Through both sessions ran the themes that smart cities need to engage everyone to be meaningful, and that focusing on the ‘smart city’ and the technology that supports it risks walling it off from the real city of citizens leading messy, complex lives. In a truly ‘smart’ city, several speakers observed, the technology should be invisible, seamlessly embedded in the environment to serve real human needs. Make it about the technology, and your project will fail.

Jon Kirkpatrick is Chief Delivery Officer of UK government-supported centre the Future Cities Catapult. His presentation on supporting innovation in advanced urban services explored areas such as predictive urban modelling, digital twins, the use of data analytics in improving transport usage, and the promising application of generative design algorithms to present alternative solutions in the design of public spaces.

Producer, artist, and cultural theorist Brian Eno has often suggested that the use of generative systems doesn’t replace human ingenuity, but augments it with a range of new options and possible outcomes – aka ‘try this instead’, or ‘here are some other outputs from your starting conditions’.

Despite his own focus on innovative systems, Kirkpatrick quoted architect Cedric Price’s provocation, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” He explained:

“People aren’t looking for a Utopian technological metropolis, they just want technology to make their lives slightly better.”

More, more, more

But as with many government-linked speeches at technology events, there was a strong subtext to the Digital Catapult presentation. Kirkpatrick zoomed in on the observation that when population doubles, economic productivity goes up by 130% – according to his figures.

This appeared to suggest that smart cities are largely about boosting urban populations, and thereby economic productivity in line with the UK’s industrial strategy, rather than making citizens’ lives better or the environment less toxic, for example.

With UK productivity near the bottom of the G7 league, and productivity growth plummeting from 2.3 percent before the 2008-09 financial crisis to just 0.4 percent in the past decade (according to the FT), the government is desperate to cut the long tail of productivity problems and the prevalence of low-skilled jobs.

Meanwhile, a recent report from McKinsey suggested that 60 percent of global GDP is rooted in just 600 cities. To a bean counter, therefore, more and bigger cities would seem to be the solution to making more money from more people making more stuff more quickly. Yet ‘more, more, more’ is surely not what smart cities are supposed to be about.

I asked Kirkpatrick whether he meant to say that the core purpose of smart cities is to boost economic productivity, at a time when many initiatives are – publicly, at least – supposedly about improving the environment, cutting energy usage, addressing the problems of ageing populations and loneliness, or – as at Huawei’s conference in Shanghai last year – increasing citizen surveillance and security.

He said:

“Absolutely! But as cities grow, we reach a tipping point where they cause more harm than good [referring to points he made earlier about rising congestion, health problems, stress, and environmental damage]. What I’m advocating is that throwing technology at that problem doesn’t always solve that. As a result, we need to focus on people and make human-centric design a key part of our approach.

“Of course, we have to look at cybersecurity, energy usage, the environment, air pollution, and so on, but switching from one mode of transport to another without thinking about the consequences, for example, won’t necessarily solve that problem.”

Indeed, Andrew Westcott, Head of Regulatory Affairs for transport provider Addison Lee, told the conference that throwing technology, such as ride-sharing platforms, at cities can have the opposite effect to the one planned, with reduced use of public transport, not of private cars.

Kirkpatrick concluded:

“We really do need to think about what we are doing things in the first place, and cities are fundamentally about people.”

A sportsman might describe that as ‘a good save’. But the impression that government spokespeople or their advocates have a prompt-card in front of them that says, ‘Remember to say IT’S ABOUT PEOPLE when you’re actually talking about money’ never goes away.

Designing public services

In April, the Future Cities Catapult is merging with the Transport Catapult, said Kirkpatrick. This represents a rare example of sensible, targeted simplification around a UK government that seems determined to create many organisations to address small parts of big problems (so they never get solved), while lumping things like digital, culture, media, and sport together in single departments (suggesting the government doesn’t think those things are individually important).

However, this does at least create a diaspora of talented, multi-skilled people, ex-employees of wavering initiatives such as the GDS and the G-Cloud, suggested Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer in the Mayor of London’s Office at the Greater London Authority. (He didn’t describe them as wavering; I do.)

Blackwell – a former Camden councillor and tech developer in the games industry -stressed that the main challenge of smart city initiatives is how to design digital services around citizens and open data, rather than obsessing about the technology of the moment, such as digital twins.

Indeed, he and his team tend not to use the term ‘smart city’ – he finds it “really quite unhelpful” – when most projects are just about designing better urban environments. But at present, politicians tend to discuss platforms, products, and concepts, he said, rather than how to make cities better places for people.

Last year, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced his intention to make London the capital of AI – something it already is as far as startups, employment opportunities, and the economy are concerned. But Khan’s message made perfect sense in the context of Brexit, the EU’s then newly announced AI strategy, and the rise of China as a technology superpower. London needs to look to the future, retain global confidence, and attract inward investors.

The capital itself has a heritage of new technology creation and city-wide adoption, acknowledged Blackwell, but – organisations such as TfL apart – it consists of 32 separate boroughs and, at present, 40 new urban development programmes.

In other words, London is not one, but 32 separate smart cities, in terms of its administration and policy – even if most of its citizens are able to engage with digital services. And that administrative challenge exists in a fast-moving technology world in which it’s hard to predict and plan for how systems, and the vendor landscape, may change.

This contrasts with smaller cities such as Belfast, where the smart-city programme presented by Portfolio Manager for Innovation and Smart Belfast, Deborah Colville, is able to operate more as a single, coherent entity, pulling together private, public, voluntary, and academic institutions to create a framework for innovation.

Throughout this process, Colville and her team have been looking at ways in which technology can impact the design of public services while attracting more foreign direct investment, in partnership with the Future Cities Catapult.

She said:

“We needed to take a more human-centric approach to how we deliver, how we design our services, and how they interact with our citizens.”

But as the GLA’s Blackwell observed, many smart services are not just about planning for the future, but are also a response to over eight years of UK austerity. This has forced councils to engage with citizens in new and more efficient ways. He said:

“A smart city is one that looks at how we embed the principles of service design in what we do, how we use data better, and how we engage with the wider ecosystem. So a smart city is not a thing, it’s a process.

“London doesn’t need a uniform approach, but it does need a consistent one. One of the dangers with a lot of smart-city talk about ‘platforms’ and ‘big data’, is that [it creates the impression that] it’s one approach for a city. But I don’t think that speaks for, or is desirable in, a city as diverse and different as London.

“What we really need is data. And new organisations, new institutions, to deal with the data economy that’s all around us, to mobilise it for civic benefit, and ensure that we can face the future.”

Sarah Kenshall, Director of the Technology and Communications team at law firm Burges Salmon, reminded the conference that smart cities present serious big data management, governance, regulatory, and security challenges, both locally, nationally, and internationally.

But a city as old and complex as London faces a different kind of big data challenge too: its ageing infrastructures. Blackwell said:

“The main problem we have at the moment is that if you want to move ahead with data, you cannot do it with the vast array of legacy networks that we have. So the first step for us in London, is – to use the phrase we talk about in the local digital movement – to fix the plumbing. You can’t build AI on legacy.”

My take

Of course, that’s a national problem: the UK has about the slowest fixed-line and mobile broadband speeds in the EU, and the government’s strategy of speeding up the rollout of full-fibre connections is, at best, 15 years from reaching 90 percent of the country (according to its own figures last year).

So not only may the UK crash out of the world’s biggest trading block in March with few deals in place, it will also be an island of shoddy connectivity when it does so – not to mention some of the most expensive public transport in the world. Don’t expect smart city programmes to fix those problems overnight. Indeed, some projects are being held up by them.

So how can smart city programmes make citizens, not technology, the focus in the meantime? Use the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a guide, suggested Dr Rick Robinson, Digital Property and Cities Leader at built environment services provider, Arup. The 17 SDGs represent “a good average” of what citizens actually want from their cities, he said.

That’s a theme that has emerged in numerous conferences, recently – on AI, robotics, digital health, and more. A welcome sign that this global initiative is being taken seriously by thought leaders and senior executives, even if the UK’s central policymakers only hear ‘productivity, productivity, productivity’ when they stand up to speak.


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