To create effective ‘smart cities’ in the UK, we need to define what they are at a national level, along with articulation of compelling local level visions; enabling local authorities, industry and other organisations to work together to realise them

Think about green cities. People will generally understand what that means – clean air, leafy spaces, with sustainability built-in to create an altogether healthier, more liveable environment for all. In contrast, when we talk about ‘smart cities’, what do we mean? 

The definition matters because, to create connected, efficient and intelligent cities, we need to establish what they are and set out a compelling vision so everyone can align activity and effort behind it. 

In the UK, we do not have the advantage of some other countries, who can build a new city and network infrastructure from scratch and in a coordinated manner. Instead, we have to use innovation and ingenuity to retrofit existing infrastructure and address associated constraints.


It starts with articulating a compelling vision

The role of a Local Authority (LA) CEO or elected mayor in mobilising the LA, other public bodies and industry behind a common purpose cannot be understated, as we have seen previously in other areas, such as tackling crime, transportation and urban regeneration. 

They also have a key role in aligning and orchestrating a wide range of stakeholders, and avoiding the emergence of competing and parallel, but siloed, projects. 

To make the vision tangible, it needs to be supported by two to three scale, transformative and compelling use cases, achievable within a two to four-year time frame. With these foundations in place, attention can then turn to implementing actions that can make it a reality.


Realisation requires a partnership between public bodies and industry  

LAs have two crucial roles to play: first, enabling an efficient and consistent deployment environment, and second, offering ‘anchor tenancy’ via digital transformation of their services to enable widespread and contiguous network deployment.

Turning to the first role – facilitating effective deployment – whilst progress has been made via various national task forces, there remains work to do at both an inter- and intra-local authority level. 

Often, the structure within a local authority can inhibit progress, and there can be a lack of alignment between the ambition or vision of the CIO and digital transformation team, and the policies and working practices to access and deploy on, or alongside LA assets such as lampposts and signs. Several LAs have made significant steps to set the landscape, but further progress is required to create a pro-deployment environment. 

For connectivity providers seeking to deploy infrastructure and services nationwide, alignment of approach and vision with LAs will be critical, and this is likely to resolve over the medium term with support from central government.

The second LA role – providing anchor tenancy – is the key to unlocking high-quality, ubiquitous connectivity deployment. Commitment to scale digital services from internal departments with significant budgets such as healthcare, welfare and social services will be required. Without this, industry is unlikely to take a ‘build it and they will come’ approach, which will lead to delay. 

This remains a challenging conundrum for LAs to resolve as, whilst digital transformation delivers benefit in the medium term, immediate requirements often dominate and inhibit progress.


Efficient access to street level infrastructure is crucial at a tactical level

Deployment of networks on infrastructure closer to its point of use will allow people and connected objects to do the things they need faster and more reliably; and provide significant societal and economic benefit. 

With more people working nomadically and accessing increasing amounts of data on the go, we need to shift the network ‘down from the rooftop’ to increase capacity and reduce latency to where the need is right now, be that street-level, a transport hub, or nomadic work location. The same is true for businesses and connected objects, whether they are to enable static, nomadic or fully mobile use cases across areas such as e-health, asset tracking through to connected vehicles and transport networks.


Define the vision, support the realisation

The tech sector is eager to engage with mayors and local authorities to help define their smart city vision. With the right deployment conditions in place, the industry stands ready to deliver the connectivity that will transform people’s lives and support businesses in urban areas to deliver post-COVID economic growth. 


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