Smart cities roundtable, report

Digital City

Socitm was delighted to host an exciting roundtable on smart urban planning earlier this month, in partnership with The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis(CASA) at University College London (UCL).

Chaired by Socitm associate Jos Creese on a sultry London afternoon, the event brought together a terrific blend of digital thinkers. Their purpose was twofold. To discuss:

  1. why solving urban problems and addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by smart city concepts and practices requires a broader definition of place beyond just cities; and
  2. how services and civic responsibilities need to be joined and integrated differently if citizens are truly to feel the benefits.

Aligning closely with Socitm’s work on smart places, the roundtable was designed to contribute to CASA’s research programme on Applicable Urban Informaticsfunded by the MacArthur Foundation.  The programme is exploring ‘new ways of understanding the complex and interconnected challenges faced by cities around the world, from violence to climate change, and new ways to plan, manage, and govern to address them’.

Introducing the workshop, UCL professor Mike Batty, chairman of the CASA programme, described a range of innovative work being undertaken globally on the ‘science of cities’ and the acknowledgement of a need for a broader planning horizon to tackle many emerging and existing challenges of urban areas.

There was general agreement amongst the participants that the success of communities will depend on data and technology and how they are used. And it will be data and technology that could provide the solutions to many of the challenges faced today in areas such as environmental protection, waste management and pollution, equality of opportunity, democracy, privacy, congestion, health and social care integration, crime and its causes, troubled families and the opportunity to create jobs and build economic prosperity.

However, if was noted that, if used badly, data and technology can exacerbate problems and create new challenges, such as cyber vulnerabilities of regions, communities and individuals.

Governance and the government’s role

Local governance closer to the challenges and opportunities faced by places would be a key success factor. National governments should be using data to scale down, empowering communities and councils, rather than scaling up service provision and design, as is often the case, so the roundtable reckoned.

It was felt that lighter governance was needed as well, with more automation and management intervention only when necessary. Regulation was important, but should be kept simple and transparent, especially in smart places where over-complex systems and standards could become irrelevant, expensive or stifle innovation.

Concerns were raised that gaining public trust is essential, and there was a general feeling that strategic planning for smart cities is sometimes frustrated by a lack of high-quality data, an inability to analyse and use it, and low levels of trust in the organisations that hold it.

The role of managers 

As the afternoon unfolded, the discussion led to role of managers and management in local government and their role in reshaping public service organisations for a digital future that puts citizens at the heart of design and thinking for future public services.

One attendee noted that the structure in councils tended to still be ‘vertical’, and that what was needed was a broader matrix management of functions and responsibilities, even across public service boundaries. That would help to ensure an effective digital infrastructure was in place – including mobile, wireless and broadband connectivity – still far from universally available today.

Whilst there was some concern about managing the development of IoT monitoring in cities, it was also observed by one attendee that artificial intelligence and machine learning is still just ‘IT’ – it is up to us to keep pace and to manage the risks, as with any new technology.

The role of planning 

The sandwiches had been devoured and some milk had even arrived for the tea, such was the level of opulence, when the roundtable moved to planning.

The participants agreed that planning functions are critical to smart city design, but that things are currently somewhat fragmented and often ‘non-digital’, leading to under-performance of planning in both rural and urban areas.

It was noted that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) will require local collaboration not typically found across councils at present; for example, data collection, sharing and analysis, as well as its use for local planning.

A vision of local government as a ‘broker’ for local and regional planning was posited as a strong model for the future, but is held back by a lack of tools, data sharing and a political will to restructure.

So, what was concluded? Here’s a handy summary of the day’s highlights for those that adore bullet points:

  • The is a need for strategic deployment of data and technology in a sustainable city region
  • Community interests need to be put first, balancing the risks and benefits of new technologies and their providers
  • Smart city problems need solving from outside the city area, not just from within
  • There is a need for greater digital maturity of citizens and the institutions that support them
  • Local and central government needs to bring technology, people, policy and ambition together in a coherent plan and vision for social and economic benefit
  • Sharing data is essential and this requires skills as well as political will to share sovereignty at times across organisations
  • Planning, as a function, needs to be broader, shared, integrated and modernised for smart places to thrive.

Plenty here to think about, we think you’ll agree. And, it ain’t over yet! Socitm and CASA plan to hold another roundtable later this year, during which time we hope the above ideas will develop further.

Would you like to get involved? We’d love it if you did.

Please email max.salsbury@socitm.net to register your interest now.

Smart cities roundtable, report

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