Local government holds the key to smart city success. From Glasgow to Peterborough, the UK boasts some leading examples of cities trialling innovative solutions and connected technology – but transition isn’t happening at the same pace for every city.
Lucy Zodion recently commissioned research into attitudes and progress towards smart cities by local government officials in the UK, and some of the findings have raised concerns. The research has shown that unless fundamental changes are made, the UK risks being left behind as other countries surge ahead with smart city delivery.
An independent research agency, DJS Research, spoke to members of 187 councils across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; over 80% have no teams or individuals for smart city delivery and low awareness of smart initiatives, while many more were keen to develop smart solutions but had no means to do so.
There are a number of reasons for the lack of smart progress in some regions, and they are all interlinked. Funding was cited as a major barrier to smart initiatives: at a time when council budgets are stretched to capacity, allocating funds or resources to projects not deemed to be critical is an uphill struggle.
Another difficulty is the perceived lack of sustainable business cases for smart city projects – with the majority of live examples in pilot phase funded by competition or third parties, proof of return on investment can be hard to come by, making it difficult to convince senior council members to invest at all. Faced with tightening public purse strings, many have not yet found the sustainable business models to make the compelling case to gain funding and internal prioritisation to progress projects.
A lack of collaboration, attributed to the siloed nature of local governments, is another barrier to smart delivery; with different departments not sharing information or working together in the most efficient way. Sharing information and knowledge both internally and across councils will prevent multiple councils or departments from developing similar initiatives and essentially reinventing the wheel, saving money as well as time.
The learnings from those ‘enlightened’ few who are leading the way in smart cities is the need to collaborate both internally and with private organisations, create over-arching strategies, prioritise problems to pinpoint the right initiatives to progress, and create open data to enable third parties to develop solutions. Cost efficiency will be key in motivating councils to invest in smart cities, and so highlighting the ways that existing infrastructure can be optimised (rather than replaced) is another way to ensure that smart cities move up the list of council priorities.
Yet the overriding conclusion was that smart cities are simply not deemed to be a strategic priority by most local authorities, resulting in low resource allocation and a lack of direction or over-arching strategy to provide a pathway to delivery.
While empowering local governments will enable cities to create a smart infrastructure that is tailored to the specific needs of their citizens, it’s important that devolution does not lead to de-prioritisation.
Unless smart cities are prioritised – from national government down - councils across the UK may not allocate the right funding or resource required to achieve a consistent approach across the country. In a current climate, where the vast majority of councils are focusing on balancing budgets, the potential benefits of streamlined services, greater savings and optimised infrastructure may not be realised.
For an in-depth analysis of the research findings, read the full report.