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Cities turning to tech to tackle tough challenges

Intelligent transport systems! Driverless cars! Mobility as a service! How can these and other such smart city technologies combined with a multi-disciplinary approach meet the needs of people and their communities when taking our cities forward? That was the question posed by the IET’s Swindon local network at a recent event staged in partnership with Constructing Excellence (Swindon and Wiltshire Club).

But what exactly is a smart city? There’s no shortage of definitions. To a greater or lesser extent, most describe smart cities as being about places which deploy digital technologies – from sensors and other such hardware to mobile phone Apps and other software solutions– to monitor, measure and manage a city (its infrastructure, buildings, transport systems, utilities and other services) in order to improve efficiency, reduce waste and costs and improve quality of life for citizens.

Whilst tech companies and the industry created to promulgate smart cities understand and get smart cities, the public don’t! That’s one of the main findings of a recent research report from the IET entitled ‘Smart Cities – Time to Involve the People’. Image of swindon on the map  

Why is that? Thus far, the story of smart cities has been one of a ‘top down’ ‘tech first’ approach which has been largely incomprehensible and irrelevant to the public at large.

Seeking to reframe the debate, Maria Shiao, an experienced smart city practitioner and a member of the IET’s Future Cities working group, showcased the opportunity and contribution smart city thinking can bring. Her keynote speech to the assembled delegates cited both good (Copenhagen) and bad (Masdar City, UAE) examples from across the globe. Shiao was keen to emphasise the need to put people first (not technology). Combining both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches, smart city thinking can help communities of all shapes and sizes, including Swindon.

Back in 2013, Swindon had been one of 30 UK towns and cities competing for a share of a £36m pot from the Government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK to trial smart city technology solutions. Sadly, the bid, like the town’s previous attempts at gain formal ‘city status’, failed. Nevertheless, Swindon isn’t about to give up on its digital ambitions any time soon.

Ranked fourth in the league table of the UK’s fastest growing cities alongside Cambridge and Milton Keynes, Swindon is a thriving community with major plans for the future, not least accommodating an anticipated increase in its population to 250,000 by 2030.

Shiao stressed the need to involve the whole community and bring all multiple stakeholders together when considering and planning smart city initiatives. The combination of increased demand on everyday services and the financial pressure to fund those services (after several years of austerity) is forcing councils, hospitals and other public services to completely rethink what services they provide, how they provide them and the business models applied to fund and sustain them into the future.

Opening a two-way dialogue, engaging and collaborating with local people and their communities isn’t an option anymore, it’s essential says Shiao. In much the same way, the approach taken by the professional teams responsible for delivering the smart services people want is changing too. Responding to the impact on the engineering profession to become a vital part of that wider, holistic team delivering smart cities, Shiao outlined the steps being taken by the IET’s Future Cities working group to develop the competencies and approaches which will be needed to create the smart city engineers and technicians of tomorrow.