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How smart is the city of London?

Wed 15 Jan 2020

London’s strong intracity collaboration and interoperability are qualities that are receiving international attention

Earlier last year Singapore, London and Barcelona took pride of place as the top three most smart cities, according to Philips Lighting.

What made these cities smarter? Even Philips admits the ‘smart city’ moniker can be interpreted in various ways. London was commended for being community focused in its approach, Singapore for its forward-thinking use of buildings and transportation, and Barcelona for involving the top level of government. Digging into the report it seems like the methodology was more an attempt to demystify smart cities than arrive at any objective ranking.

Ahead of Smart IoT London, taking place at the ExCeL next week in London, we wanted to know if it’s actually possible to arrive at a universal concept of a smart city, and if so, to use it to measure the performance of London.

Smart concepts

A smart city definition oft-recited is the following:

“A city can be defined as ‘smart’ when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with wise management of natural resources, through participatory action and engagement.”

The “modern ICT infrastructure” is now well defined, consisting of smart IoT sensed devices that collect data that is then analysed and used to manage assets and resources efficiently, and also refers to autonomous transport systems powered by machine learning and 5G.

But parsing out the technology from the effects, smart cities mean different things to different people. Does this mean arriving at a shared definition is a fool’s errand? For Ben Hawes, Government policy lead on Smart Cities, the term is not inaccurate just “broad”.

“I think it does describe a genuine area and shared aspiration, particularly in public policy terms. But to have a definite conversation about a particular issue or solution, you generally have to drill down to a more specific term,” he says.


There are two interlinked aspirations driving smart city developments. The first is a financial incentive emanating from the public sector. Governments want to cut costs, and given the purported savings, that incentive is red hot. Financial value derived from smart cities will be delivered directly to the council: improving the quality and efficiency of services: transportation, energy, planning and utilities to reduce wastage and costs. 5G connectivity, for instance, will underpin a more efficient London transportation network by helping to reduce congestion.

The second value derived is experiential: improving the day-to-day city experience for citizens. 5G connectivity will allow TfL to more accurately inform commuters of (via data received through connected lampposts and bus stops) the least congested routes on any given day.

Both motivations inevitably bleed into each other, and as shown the technical elements benefit both parties. Smart city citizenry will gain financially from smart city components, albeit indirectly, through a council tax dividend.

Councillors, too, are not just penny-pinchers, they possess a strong desire to improve quality of life for the citizens they represent.

“Above all it begs the question from whose perspective are you measuring success?”

“The different elements of it – digitising local public services and utilities; empowering citizens, businesses and local government with data – can be linked,” says Ben.

People power

Kathy Nostine is Future Cities lead at innovation foundation Nesta and is speaking at this year’s Smart IoT. She is influential in shaping the evolution of smart city environments and the policy decisions pertaining to them. In her definition of a smart city, it is clear she is driven first and foremost by improving the lives of citizens. A city is smart if it ‘is where there is a diversity of economic, transport and housing opportunities’ that are ‘resilient and sustainable’, she says.

“It is not about tech-led solutions, but more about local decision-makers being equipped with tools that are responsive to the public’s demands and that can create healthy, inclusive places where people want to live.”

Kathy’s work on the Flying High programme, a project exploring how drones might play a part in cities’ smart futures, exemplifies this approach. Kathy is not seduced by utopian notions of flying cars, but maintains a critical distance from their possible inclusion into the future city framework, by convening city leaders, regulators, public services, and central government to place peoples’ needs first.

“Too often, a new technology comes along and cities are left to manage it. We feel the time is right now for cities to learn about and shape decision-making around new tech, such as urban drones, to develop governing frameworks and technical systems based on public desire,” she says.

Putting IoT, data and drones to one side, Ben also adds that we mustn’t forget that cities can be made smarter through less ‘sexy’ technologies.

“A smart city is one that is able to choose and use the best available solutions to its challenges,” he says. Part of the work Future Cities Catapult has done for Belfast City Region was to help improve collection of business rates. It’s not as exciting as many data-driven innovations, but for local government it goes straight to what’s important, and what can show the way to further innovations in urban services.”

Measuring the grade

This all makes it hard to accurately measure London’s smart city progress. Initiatives take different forms around the world and prioritising different technology. Above all it begs the question from whose perspective are you measuring success? Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that in the short-term, smart city success will be defined by intra-city collaboration.

Why? Like other major international cities, progress is undergoing a slump due to the problem of scaling up projects across a city’s boroughs and districts. London in particular has a large number of towns within its confines. Ben says London’s track record of collaboration, referenced by Philips Lighting in its 2018 rankings, makes it well-positioned to adapt to the challenge of scalability.

“London is a global centre of technology innovation and investment, and it has the continual change and needs for adaptation that all major cities share,” he says.

The Greater London Authority is addressing the problem of scale differently, he says, as it grasps the need for collaboration between boroughs and the importance of involving both citizens and businesses. He also praises the GLA for ‘getting the plumbing right’: helping and encouraging local government to digitise their operations and services.

This a cultural, or “process” advantage that London is getting repeatedly recognised for in its smart city efforts.

It’s not necessarily about the number of different initiatives, more about getting the initiatives that work working well for all boroughs and all their citizens. It’s on this key metric that London is leading the pack.

“There are now 700 data sets open for citizens, businesses and civil society organisations to use”

“Collaboration is key. For cities to truly benefit from the potential that smart cities offer, a change in mindset is required where local authorities plan longer and across multiple departments,” says Andreas Knobloch, alliance specialist at Philips Lighting.

Open data

It’s not just a question of culture and dialogue. There are also technological foundations to London’s collaborative success. Achieving borough interoperability requires interoperability between data and systems. A failure to attain this technological requirement was famously the undoing of the abandoned NHS record system.

Interoperability requires open data systems, and London knows it, which is why there are now 700 data sets open for citizens, businesses and civil society organisations to use, a tally strong by any measure. There are only 448 public data sets available on Barcelona, the city that ranked alongside London in the 2018 Philips Lighting table.

“In London I think we don’t necessarily notice what an innovator TfL has been, in releasing data and contactless payments. And that release of data supported Citymapper, which millions of people use every day.”

London’s future success also depends on how it addresses its own needs – and there are good reasons to use its housing crisis as this yardstick. Future Cities Catapult is leading efforts to encourage the reimagining of the housing planning system, which Ben says is ‘slow, opaque and uneven’. He say the UK’s top-shelf geospatial data and strong supply of talented architects and engineers will all play vital roles in realising this ambitious vision.

“If we can put the capabilities and challenges together in the right way, we could improve planning and get the benefits, including for local economic decision-making and accelerating development of new housing.”

Staying ahead

For all that London is doing right in solving the challenge of scale, collaboration still needs to be underwritten by investment for it to translate into lasting outcomes. For this, resources and cash flow need to widen, at a time when budgets are shrinking. Ben says that local authorities’ restricted resources remains a seriously limiting factor.

But it’s difficult for a public body to allocate resources to innovation when the priority is delivering its social responsibilities within limited budgets. Even if, Ben adds, innovation could be what solves some of their challenges.

“Everyone needs to get more realistic, and understand that if we want good local services now, and better ones in the future driven by data, we need to support local service providers and ensure they have the right tools, capabilities and resources.”

Connected for a brigher future

Smart IoT will return to ExCeL London on 12-13 March 2019 with the biggest and best programme to date.


internet of things London smart cities smart city smart iot
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