England & Wales Technology

Wolverhampton Policy Café

Photo Credit: gifrancis Flickr via Compfight cc

At LGiU we’re keen to have more – and better – conversations with our members. As part of this, we’re holding a series of short, lunchtime events (Policy Cafés) around the country. This month we were in Wolverhampton talking smart city strategies – Charlotte Maddix tells all.

What is a smart city? At its simplest, it means supplementing existing infrastructure and networks with technology, to make the way a place functions more efficient.

New technologies open up new opportunities for places. The smart city agenda in local government is driven by the apparently limitless possibilities of these technologies – but also by austerity. As resources shrink, making cities smarter increasingly looks like one way of preserving – as well as improving – services. But developing a smart city means grappling with technology, with big data; working with new private sector partners; and dealing with risks – many currently unknowable.

At our Policy Café, the City of Wolverhampton Council shared their ideas for developing a smart city approach. The council is at the start of its journey to make the city smarter. That journey is largely without a fixed destination – after all, not every technological leap can be foreseen, and neither does technological development stand still. If you lock yourselves away in a room and spend two years writing the perfect smart city strategy, you’ll emerge to find that the world has moved on.

There are some key building blocks to create a smart city. You need smart data; smart connections; and smart people. Data has to be easily accessible, mineable and shareable. You need to have digital infrastructure and digital channels in place. You also need to enable others to innovate, including businesses, citizens and communities. Once you have those building blocks in place, you can design smarter services – and develop your city in a smart way.

It’s essential that making your city smart is a process grounded in reality. You need projects people can see and touch. In Wolverhampton, they’re delivering ‘hero projects’ that they can learn from, share and build on for the future. They’re also keen to learn from elsewhere – what great ideas have you seen that make places smarter?

Building a smart city also means working closely with partners in other sectors as well as other places. What does it mean to develop a strategy for a place if our understanding of ‘place’ is becoming ever more fluid?

Councils around the country are grappling with how to make places smarter. There are plenty of examples of innovative uses of technology – sensors in bins that tell you when the rubbish needs collecting; microphones that measure rainfall and predict floods. Who is responsible for scaling up this technology? Central government’s current role in rolling out smart technologies is unclear.

Developing smart cities is not without risk. The security threats of new technology. Worries about intrusion into everyday lives. The ownership of data. Ensuring that local people feel included rather than excluded. Councils are grappling with how much, and what, data they hold; with the concept of artificial intelligence, and how quickly that might happen. Right now, we are planning decades ahead.

Making a city ‘smart’ is part of the general direction local government is going in: the smart city agenda does not stand alone, but fits within place-based policy making. It’s also inevitable that smart technology will be an integral part of our economy in the future. Planning for this distant, unknown future is difficult. One thing we can do to is make sure people are educated, engaged and adaptable. For many areas, the major challenge is not to do with technology – but with skills. For a city seeking to be smart, it is about education as much as it is about sensors and broadband speed.

The future is one of limitless possibilities as well as limited resources. Technology is changing the way we work, move around, and relate to a place. The population of the world is increasing. Natural resources are diminishing – so the very components we need to build new technologies are becoming scarcer and more expensive.

Place shaping is a weighty responsibility, and one that still rests largely with local government. Councils are well placed to understand what it is that their communities need from the place they live. Whatever else a smart city strategy might be, it has to be local; individual; people-focused. The needs of people, not technology, should be the main driver.