Authorities face investment and technology barriers in harnessing the internet of things, but there is also a case for them to get on with relevant initiatives
Everyone likes the idea of smart cities, but so far there are few signs of them becoming a feature of the urban landscape in the UK. Despite the credible potential there is an apparent lack of urgency in authorities doing much to harness the data from the proliferation of sensors and devices.
It was a prime talking point at last week’s techUK even on smart cities, with contributors from the public and private sectors highlighting the promise but pointing out that it is still a long way from being fulfilled.
Government is taking the issue seriously, as was made clear by Ben Hawes, smart cities policy lead at the Department for Business, Innnovation and Skills. He said the potential for smart cities aligns closely with regional devolution – one of the new government’s flagship policies – and that giving authorities more powers could encourage them to begin making more use of data from the internet of things.
But as yet the government has not outlined a policy and there are few signs of any national movement emerging. Event chair Stephen Pattison, vice president of public affairs at semiconductor IP company ARM, said this was largely no-one has yet developed a compelling argument as to why smart cities are important.
Dialogue of the deaf
“There’s been a slight dialogue of the deaf and people’s interests are not cohering behind a credible agenda,” he said, arguing that you have to look at what the technology can do and find a compelling reason why councils should collect the data from IoT-type sensors and how it can help it to reduce costs and create better services.
“I don’t think they’re insoluble. If you run through the list of broad issues for councils it hits all the sweet spots,” he said, mentioning transport, environment and public health.
“The problem is matching the technological vision with what drives the councils and forming an agenda around which business and councils can cohere.”
Part of the problem is the lack of an established forum for local authorities to share experiences on using smart city data, especially to make clear where they run into problems – which central departments need to know if they are going to provide support. Also, although authorities are talking to each other about their efforts, there is no common language – notably around taxonomies and classification – which makes it more difficult to establish best practice.
Added to this is a need to ensure that people would be confident in how an authority uses any data that affects them – a point clearly made by Pattison.
“Unless people feel confident that their data is not going to be mishandled, all these developments are at risk of being slow off the mark and missing an opportunity. We need to get data confidence right quite early and the way to do it is through an industry-led effort. Some is being made under the Digital Economy Council but it needs more companies to get involved.
“It boils down to having much more simplified terms and conditions that explain to people how their data is going to be used. The controversial element is that you shift the focus from data collection to data use, and that I think has got to be key for liberating data to do all this stuff.”
Some groups are grappling with these issues and aiming to provide the compelling arguments. Justin Anderson, chief executive officer of smart systems specialist Flexeye, highlighted the work of HyperCat, an initiative supported by Innovate UK and involving more than 500 organisations. It is working on some demonstrator projects with a focus on five key areas –resilience, waste, water, transport and energy – with the aim of proving their value and taking them to market.
“One of the opportunities on our doorstep is to play a part in the development of London,” he said. “It has been suggested that for us to be able to cope with the growth of London an investment of about £1.3 trillion is required by 2020 to support the infrastructure. It’s only a little less than our annual GDP and we can’t really afford it.
“So technology has an important role in ensuring London can operate as a smart city.”
A big issue in this is the need for interoperability of different components, especially if it involves adding modular technology to an interdependent architecture. Also, any investment plans need to feature not just on current needs but on projections on what the city will need over the next 20 years.
Milton Keynes push
On a smaller scale, Milton Keynes City Council has pushed ahead with a number of relevant projects. Its director of strategy, Geoff Snelson, described its internet of things project, in which a low power wireless network is being deployed across the city to enable sensors to feed a City Data Hub.
It has been testing the use of sensors in trials for more efficient car parking, to get its recycling vans to go to bins only when they are almost full, and to establish traffic movements through apps on volunteers’ mobile phones. But Snelson acknowledged that it could be hard to create a business case.
“Most of these propositions are difficult to invest in for a city,” he said. “Most are not yet being deployed, you can’t yet demonstrate a use where they are saving money or generating efficiencies, and how do you know their value? A lot of this is about co-production and developing solutions, demonstrating the value through collaborations with industry and academia.”
He also acknowledged the dangers around the use of data, but said that cities need to show some bravery in just getting on with projects.
“We have done some work on data sharing and confidentiality to work through some of those things, but one of my fears is that if you ask the question too hard you’ll just stop and not do anything. There’s a balance to be struck, and maybe just getting on and waiting until you hit the barriers is not a bad thing.”
It all amounts to a bunch of identifiable problems and a few unknowns that create risks that many councils are reluctant to take. But Snelson made clear that more have to overcome that reluctance if smart cities are going to become much more than a nice idea: “One of the things that will be critical to the UK’s success is having cities that are ready to take risks.”
Similar issues are on the agenda for the Local Digital Futures: The Internet of Things and Local Public Services event in London on 8 June 2015. Full details here.