The growth of Britain’s smart cities

Brid-Aine Parnell

Wednesday 25 February 2015

A new government focus on creating standards and strategies for building smart cities has led to open data initiatives and citizen-led projects up and down the country.

The idea of smart cities might seem as futuristic as the world of The Jetsons to many people, fuelled by internet-enabled gadgets, smart cars and connected homes. However government officials around the world are coming to realise that smarter cities aren’t a luxury for the future, but a necessity right now. The world’s population has already broken the seven billion mark. By 2050, the UN predicts that this figure will have increased to 10 billion, with 75 per cent of that population living in urban areas.

To cope with overcrowding, pollution and the huge amount of stress this growth is placing on transport, utility and services infrastructure, cities need to start getting smarter now. The establishment of standards is crucial to that process. Here in the UK, the government has already taken steps to encourage interoperability between different data sets and smart city projects by introducing the Smart Cities Framework as part of a partnership involving the British Standards Institution (BSI).

“With a standard, you have a way to abstract out information from the city and the services, and then start to find the algorithms and techniques that allow you to tweak what you’ve got to optimise things,” explains Rashik Parmar, president of IBM’s Academy of Technology and adjunct professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Imperial College London.

“Without standards, we get engaged to work in one city, building one set of systems. When we then go to another city, those systems need to be built once again. So you don’t get any economies of scale, and you don’t get transfer of assets in any kind of efficient and effective way.

“Standards start to allow IT vendors to become confident that the investment they’re putting in place will be there for the long term,” he adds.

The British standards, established early last year with help from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skill (BIS), are a light touch strategy rather than strict rules, but that’s what’s needed right now.

“If you look at the trajectory of standards, what you normally find is that you start off with a consortium agreeing on a standard based on the understanding of what they can achieve and the capabilities that exist at that time,” Parmar continues.

“You’re in a competitive situation, of course – and, once you have standards, you have a level playing field, so the vendor has to create additional value on top of that standard. Sometimes you do that just by better implementation of the standard, but sometimes you improve the standard itself. So the standards will evolve.”

In 2013, The UK government also set up the Future Cities Catapult, “a global centre of excellence on urban innovation” with up to £50 million of funding from Innovate UK over five years. As part of a broader partnership with the BSI, the group recently launched the ‘PAS 181′ Smart Cities Framework. The group’s executive director of strategy, business development and communications, Scott Cain, believes that greater interoperability and the ability to scale projects that this sort of initiative can provide is enormously helpful for IT firms.

“PAS 181 can be the sort of provision that, in effect, takes something out of the too-difficult-to-consider box, for it to then become something which actually reassures firms that what they’re doing is in keeping with best practice. It can also can give city officials greater confidence that what they’re doing is ‘leading the pack’ rather than ‘behind the pack’,” he explains.

This government focus on smarter cities is already bearing fruit in the UK with projects up and down the country. Leeds has established an open data project, known as Leeds Data Mill, that pulls in information from multiple sectors around the city to try to encourage innovation in city services and new businesses. Opening up data like this has led to various initiatives, such as citizen-led projects to bring together allotment owners with similar interests and future objectives.

“Those kinds of citizen-led initiatives are creating a sense of community amongst citizens because the data is now open and easily accessible,” says IBM’s Parmar.

While Leeds has opted for raw, unprocessed open data, other cities like Bristol have launched open data initiatives using an IT firm’s proprietary APIs.

“It doesn’t have to be an open source data platform, it just has to be a platform that’s API-able, so you can choose to take your data out,” Cain points out.

Opening up data sets and having standards to make them interoperable are key to getting smart city projects off the ground.

“Up until a year ago, nearly everything that was being built was transport-related. Now, because of other sources of data becoming available, other kinds of solutions and services are being built, using in part public data and in part proprietary data,” Cain concludes.

Look out for part two on the future of smart cities in the UK and the opportunities for technology firms and entrepreneurs.

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