Published in the Lighting Journal March 2017

If the concept of Smart Cities is ultimately about making us all happier people, then Smart Cities has got to be about us as individuals and our personal connection with the environment in which we live. Possibly a rather holistic, or indeed idealistic statement to begin with. But surely, we mustn’t lose sight of this when thinking about how we integrate smart technology into our public services.

However, as we are all aware, it takes much more than a few ‘happy thoughts’ to make Smart Cities a reality. And that’s really what this article explores; where does Smart Cities start and what can we all do to play our part in bringing it to life across the UK?

Everyone says a smarter city starts with having a vision – but what does that actually mean? Sense would suggest that we begin with an understanding at a macro-level of what obstacles are in the way of improving the connection between the user and city. Obstacles such as aging infrastructure, more cars on the road and so on. These are issues that every city, town and borough has to deal with. So it’s a good place to start and there are many initiatives that the UK Government is (and should be) implementing to address some of those commonalities. Teresa May’s industrial strategy, for example, has a key focus on upgrading infrastructure and delivering affordable energy and clean growth. This is all very relevant to facilitating the growth of a smarter way of living.

But what about the obvious fact that there are many, many differences between our towns and cities throughout the UK. For a small island, we offer big diversity; structurally, environmentally and culturally.

We recently spoke with Cllr. Stuart Tranter about the vision for Medway. Cllr Tranter also happens to be the current Mayor of Medway and so his passion and enthusiasm for the place he has lived in all his life is palpable. Very aware of the day to day challenges that the citizens of his borough face; from travellers setting up camp in protected locations to boy racers abusing the local carparks – Cllr Tranter and his colleagues at Medway Council are very excited about how smart technology can help solve these very real, day-to-day issues.

But he also speaks about the strengths found within Medway and the opportunities that can be realised by joining up the dots across the towns that sit within the remit of the council. He fully understands that any excellent strategy starts by working out how to use the known strengths to help mitigate the weaknesses.

And this is probably one of the most powerful realisations we can have when considering how to make Smart Cities a reality; true innovation isn’t coming from the big technology developers. Nor does it come from the smart solution providers (as much as we at urbancontrol would like to think it does!). It comes from those who deeply understand the environment they are responsible for. Real Smart City innovation comes from the ability to join up the unique dots that make up an individual town and then being able to use the technology to leverage the strengths and seize the opportunities.

But yes, we are still looking at Smart Cities from the higher echelons of strategy and vision. What about the point where strategy becomes a plan and we implement that plan?

The team at urbancontrol are particularly passionate about this point in the Smart City journey. Because this is where we are seeing Local Authorities having the biggest impact on the lives of every day citizens. And what we have come to realise is that the biggest leaps are occurring where collaboration is being championed.

In a bid to really understand the correlation, we spoke with Ian Hawthorn, Head of Highways Maintenance and Projects for London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Ian is responsible for over 413km of highway, 45,000 items of street furniture and 21,000 street lights, illuminated signs and bollards. When it comes to understanding the complexities of managing multiple assets and making decisions on how to improve them, we felt that Ian was more than qualified to educate us on what it actually means for a Local Authority to implement a smart technology solution.

Here’s what he had to say:

“The very nature of smart technology dictates the need for interdependence across our entire city’s infrastructure. In other words, there are huge benefits in sharing the data from one asset with those who make decisions about another. Promoting a culture of sharing knowledge and data among organisations and departments is vital – even if right now the challenges seem unrelated.”

Ian’s words resonated with us because we know that where resource and insight is pooled, Local Authorities will obtain the greatest savings and the greatest benefits from their smart technology investment.

But culturally this is a challenge and Ian went on to explain to us how many of the silos within authorities and organisations have been created as a result of the fight for a slice of budget. No doubt his words ring true to many of you reading this and you understand the genuine risk this poses to the future of any Smart City strategy – no matter how visionary.

It’s obvious to see that any cultural change has to start from within but that takes leadership. Not necessarily just from those at the top of the chain but just as importantly from those on the front line. And that is what we are seeing happen. We are seeing that smart technology is being championed and lead by those who are responsible for the day to day management of our urban assets. And of course our humble friend, the street light is very much at the centre of this.

Why? Well they provide a ready-made backbone of infrastructure on which to position a node or a sensor to collect and transmit Smart City data. From here we can create a living network across our towns and cities allowing the transfer of a vast amount of invaluable data; pollution levels, foot-fall, vehicle numbers, asset condition and so on.

So suddenly our street lighting infrastructure becomes very meaningful to not just our street lighting engineers – who of course can use the technology to manage their own maintenance plans, save energy and manage resource – but also other departments within our Local Authorities. If our street lights are capturing useful information and providing a data network above our streets and houses, then how can that benefit other areas?

As Ian Hawthorn points out to us, this can only happen if departments talk to each other – and if this happens then the benefits are in fact mutual.

He goes on to explain;

“Our highways department must find common ground with the departments delivering services across a wide range of other areas. Highway design plays an important part in people’s lives – including how other services are delivered. And these other services may know that there is a problem before the highways department does, so having smart channels to communicate this back through the chain is vital to ensure we keep our city moving.”

So finally we need to do a full circle back to where this article began. Because from the outset we recognised the importance of remembering that it is the simple desire for personal happiness that is driving our adoption of smart technology. The voice of the ultimate consumer, (which of course includes all of us) needs to be heard and needs to be part of that vision. So it would seem that collaboration doesn’t just need to happen within our local government, but also with those that live, work and play in our towns and cities.

So on reflection, the evidence suggests that Smart Cities really is starting to happen. The subject for discussion is moving away from the question of ‘what is a Smart City?’ and instead its shifting towards ‘what can I do to make my city smarter?’. And this is exciting because it’s obvious that the journey ahead is one that we need to be travelling together. And in a country that has seen more talk of division in recent months than we have seen in many years, that is an uplifting thought. And one that needs to be championed by all of us.