UK: Smart Cities - Lessons From The Global Village

Last Updated: 8 April 2014
Article by Malcolm Dowden

The world is becoming a smaller place

Cities (and the data they generate) are growing at an exponential rate. The idea behind Smart Cities is to utilise new technologies to respond to the challenges growing cities bring. Those challenges range from traffic management to the maintenance and operation of infrastructure. The connecting theme is finding ways to use data to manage or influence human behaviour. By way of example, a scheme used to make a city smarter would be to provide the ability for smartphone-equipped road users to take pictures of potholes and send these to local councils, so that the potholes can be fixed as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Being smart however does not necessarily achieve a sustainable and smart economy. In Rio de Janeiro, an award winning 'mission control' approach to monitoring and improving Brazil's infrastructure and economy is only as effective as the capability or willingness of the population to utilise it. To date, the greatest impact of the Rio control room has arguably been to provide, through live feeds of civil unrest in the City, a compelling new form of reality TV. Nonetheless, advocates of Smart City projects persuasively ague that harvesting of information and data about mobility, population and the environment can generate solutions with the capacity to alleviate pressures and to make cities "liveable".

The types of demand a Smart City must address include:

  • Energy Consumption
  • Infrastructure
  • Waste and recycling
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Food

Case Study - Lessons from the Global Village: Wuhan

Speaking at Charles Russell LLP's seminar Smart Cities: Lessons from the Global Village Kevin Schofield of BDO drew on his experience of working on the creation of a vast new logistics centre in China to demonstrate the gains that can be achieved.

Population growth, sustainability, transport logistics and air pollution are inextricably linked problems. The Smart City of Wuhan in central China planned to tackle all of these common issues in one large scale project.

Utilising Wuhan's geographical location and proximity (1,000km radius to Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou), this project focussed on five guiding principles:

  • Natural Capital
  • Low Emission Transport
  • Industrial Interdependence
  • Community
  • Renewable Energy

Wuhan provides a striking example of the scope for transition from a merely "digital city", in which huge amounts of data are created but with little or no coordination or application, to a genuinely "smart city". A smart city is an instrumented, interconnected and intelligent city. It uses computing technologies to make critical infrastructure and services, including city administration, education, public healthcare, real estate management and operation, transport and utilities more efficient. Working to a plan that involves having the information technology infrastructure in place by 2015, Wuhan aims to become a fully functioning "smart City" by 2020.

Breaking down the Elephant: Tackling smaller problems

Undertaking a large scale project such as Wuhan, requires significant guidance, expertise and fundamentally, investment. Few countries can pour resource and directed effort into a project in a way that could match China. However, Robert Bell, Managing Director of Ricardo-AEA explained that instead of seeking to tackle all issues at once, it is possible to break things down and 'pick and mix' solutions. Relying on one or more aspects of strong governance, accessing quality data, better city planning and intelligent technology applications can all to help to mitigate the challenges cities will continue to face.

UK Contribution

Arup estimates that the global market for smart urban systems will be $400 billion p.a by 2020 and the UK's share should be 10% of this. With smart innovative technologies developing here and now in the UK, this is not merely fanciful economics.

Smart bus technology currently utilised in Riyadh to reduce air pollution by up to 40% through greater 'drive cycle' efficiency was developed and trialled in Brighton. A smart floor tile capable of generating electricity energises a dance club in Kings Cross. This technology has been extended further by harvesting energy from cars in a road in Israel and transferring it back to the grid or for public infrastructure purposes.

Future Consideration

With smart technology enabling both small and large scale solutions, will the ability to equip machines, gadgets and devices with sensors, lend itself to not owning anything? Will sensor technology accelerate the move to a service dominated business economy? If level of usage, state of repair and functioning of everything (from Rolls Royce engines to fridges) can be remotely monitored, why not just pay-as-you-go for everything and avoid the capital cost of acquisition and the inefficiencies of de-centralised maintenance and repair?

Exactly how advanced smart cities can become is still to be determined. What is however clear, is that the increased pressures cities are faced with will lead to the necessity that they move towards becoming smarter and more sustainable bringing with it a host of opportunities.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Malcolm Dowden
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