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Our smart city adventure and the innovators of tomorrow

We all know that society is getting older – the impending impact of an ageing population has long been discussed and increasingly makes the headlines. From debilitating stress on the NHS to lack of funding for social care; the weight of supporting millions of pensioners lies heavily on the shoulders of the workforce and every government across the western world is met with the task of finding ways to alleviate it.

But delve further into the impact of the post-war baby boom and you uncover other issues which, if ignored, may have an equal impact on the long term future of our constantly developing world. But arguably more important is the fact that if recognised and acted upon, these issues may well provide, in part, a solution.

A perfect example is the subject of ‘innovation’. The Oxford dictionary definition of ‘innovate’ is “to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products”. Which is of course is absolutely vital to the growth of smart cities.

In 2016, Andreas Irmen of the University of Luxemburg and Anastasia Litina of the University of Ioannina, published a paper on the relationship between the ageing population and inventive activity.

What is the relationship between a population that is ageing and the propensity to engage in inventive activity? The answer to this question matters for at least two reasons. The first is related to economic growth. It is widely recognised that an ageing population poses serious challenges for many important fields of economic policy, including health care, pensions or public debt. Economic growth is often seen as a means to solve, or at least to alleviate these problems. Since innovation and technical change are the main drivers of economic growth it is important to know how inventive activities adjust in ageing societies. The second reason is cultural. It concerns the hypothesis that old societies tend to lose dynamism, are less forward-looking and more reluctant to accept change.

They studied a panel of 33 OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) in the period 1960–2012 to find the actual relationship between our ageing population and inventive activity across countries and time. The results showed that the relationship is humped shaped. The increasing part of the hump captures the awareness that an ageing population requires inventive activity to guarantee current and future standards of living. The decreasing part reflects the tendency of ageing societies to lose dynamism and the willingness to take risks.

Looking specifically at the subject of innovation, the graph below (source Harvard Business Review) shows the steep incline of ‘great innovators’ from the age of 20 to 35. An interesting thought at both a macro level and a micro level within our own organizations.

So what does this mean for our smart city adventure? At #urbancontrol we strongly believe that true smart city innovation comes from those who deeply understand the environment they are responsible for. That’s our local government, our councillors and of course, the citizens.

So the question is, what should we be doing to ensure the innovators of tomorrow, have a say in the smart city vision of today? If our population is ageing and the research suggests this will lead to a decrease in innovative thinking, then surely we must not only be protecting our innovation budgets but also be actively engaging and seeking input into our strategies from younger generations.

How do we give the innovators of tomorrow a voice today?

It is all too easy for us to strategise amongst ourselves with like-minded and equally experienced colleagues. Much easier than engaging in discussion with those dubbed as ‘millennials’ (a person reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century). They are less eloquent, possibly? More impatient…? Certainly they have a different outlook on life having grown up with the world ‘on-tap’. A whole different generation with their own strengths and weaknesses. But ultimately the generation that bears the burden of a pensioner-heavy society and who surely hold many of the answers to securing the future of our most treasured assets such as the NHS.

The rapid development of technology has caused a great division between the immediate post-war generation and the young work force of today. But for those of us born before 1982 (which is the arbitrary date given to divide millennials from the last generation), we must some take responsibility for providing a channel from our junior workforce through to our current leaders and decision makers. And this is a challenge for not just Local Authorities but to every part of the smart city ‘supply chain’.

‘Smart cities’ will happen. It is happening. But the relevance, the creativity and the pace will surely be influenced by how we capture the thoughts, ideas and inspirations of our younger workforce.


Amy Barker – Marketing Manager @ urbancontrol

Before joining urbancontrol, Amy spent 15 years in consumer marketing working with some of the best known retail brands in the UK, including several years at retail technology innovator, Ocado.

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