Australia, England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Technology

Collaborating for innovation in smart cities

Photo: Hannah Muirhead 2020

In a post-Brexit reality, an importance is being placed on finding new ways of collaboration between the UK and Ireland. Hannah Muirhead, International Partnerships Officer at LGiU, went to Limerick to attend Joining the Dots – an event organised in partnership with Connecting Places Catapult, the British Embassy in Dublin and Limerick City and County Council to explore how the UK and Ireland can collaborate in various ways, but particular with regard to building smart cities.

There was an impressive number of delegates – well over 100 – from local authorities, industry, enterprise and various other local and regional bodies. Using a toolkit that Connected Places Catapult developed for opportunity identification in innovation locations, we combined the various types of expertise we had to identify and discuss strategies and barriers around developing a collaborative smart cities blueprint.

From the breakout discussions we had, two issues stood out that we all agreed were probably universally (and indeed globally) key to establishing effective smart city ecosystems; building trust in data, and getting data use into the school curriculum.

Sharing and building trust in data

Two barriers to effective smart cities are mistrust in data and small datasets. Small cities generate small datasets that they often struggle to draw meaningful analysis from (this is why China is so good at this). In order to boost the capacity for the analysis required for a thriving smart city ecosystem and also to compete internationally, it’s going to be important for small and medium sized cities in the UK and Ireland to collaborate with each other – to share and pool the data that’s coming out of their projects both domestically and across the border.

But sharing data raises all sorts of trust issues. Do we trust the data of others? Do we trust our own data? Do the people we’re collecting the data from trust us to use the data responsibly? Is sharing our data with those we’re collaborating with responsible?

Thanks to Facebook and Huawei and the like, there’s a big issue at the moment with mistrust in data collection. People read all the time about their personal data being “bought” by “state-sponsored actors” or “accidentally leaked” by an “international hacking forum”, so they’re wary of giving away information about their lives to anybody.

If local authorities are going to be collecting data through and for legit smart city purposes, we’re going to have to start building trust, and it’s probably a good idea to start small. Start faithbuilding from the ground up with the projects that impact people’s lives – like overflowing bins and potholes and blocked drains – and make sure we can show people how the data solved the problem (and also that the data didn’t end up in the hands of a seedy multinational).

 Getting problem solving using data into the school curriculum

A need to improve the ability of the workforce to use data effectively was recognised as a barrier to the development of smart city ecosystems, and that this needs to happen as early as possible.

The school curriculum and examination methods that we use today are largely the same as they were 50 years ago yet the world, and the application of what we learn at school, is hugely different. It stands to reason that the skills and knowledge students are leaving with may not be adequately tailored to the work that needs to be done, particularly regarding the use of data to solve real world problems.

It’s a big shift, but including how to solve problems through the use of data, and other “smart” courses, in the school curriculum, ideally from a primary level, could contribute to the evolving of a workforce with the skills and knowledge – and crucially the mindset around the use of data and its practicalities – that will be an asset to the development innovation in smart cities.

Final thoughts

These are issues not only impacting Ireland and the UK, but any country with small to medium sized cities looking to reap the efficiencies of using data to become “smarter”.

On another note, in a year that’s so far been filled with mostly-isolating Brexit vibes, it was nice to focus on the continued importance of British-Irish collaboration. This collaboration will have take on a different and unknown form going forwards, but through this event the FCO displayed an encouraging recognition of the need to find out ASAP what that form is and how we can make it work for us both.

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