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Local innovation is the key to connected communities


Industry voice: Ellen Wilson, CityNext lead for Microsoft UK, highlights key points in the effort build smart places that go beyond urban areas

The creation of connected communities is becoming an aspiration for many local authorities, with the early focus on ‘smart cities’ now extending to the potential for ‘smart places’ that take in towns and rural communities.

But for most local authorities it is still something for the long term, and there is no consensus on the best approach. As with all aspirations it stirs ideas of grand strategies, but there is a strong case for just getting on with realistic projects that can deliver benefits in the short to medium term.

This formed the basis for a recent UKA Live discussion in which I took part with Stephen Baker, chief executive of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney District Councils, and Euan Mills, urban futures lead at the Future Cities Catapult.

A couple of points emerged to support the argument that too much detail and uniformity in a strategy is likely to be counter-productive. One is that the experience of the planning industry suggests that a prescriptive master plan often does not work, lacking the flexibility needed to meet all local needs and deal with unforeseen issues.

The other is that smart places depend heavily on internet connectivity, and there are wide variations between city, town and country in the quality of internet provision. A recent analysis by the County Councils Network pointed to cases where rural residents receive speeds that are a fraction of those in nearby cities, and spoke of the “competitive disadvantage” it creates.

Baker expressed concerns that with the approach of 5G networks some areas will always be behind the curve. “That’s a worry because the services I want to deliver digitally need everyone to be up to speed with each other,” he said.

Varying priorities

There is a consensus on the need for a vision of what authorities want to achieve – at least a sense of priorities. But this can vary between communities and has to provide the flexibility for innovation and dealing with local challenges.

A handful of priorities were identified to make this happen, often reflecting public sector best practice in the application of digital technology. One is in getting the data right, with the creation of standards to support the easy flow of data between people and devices, and for sharing between authorities, along with the appropriate safeguards to preserve public trust.

This can also feed into the interoperability of systems, a key demand in making the different elements of a smart place function effectively.

Another is to follow a business model that emphasises relatively small and achievable initiatives, then to build on these with further solutions. With the right data and interoperability standards these can provide for a modular approach to building a more ambitious structure of interlocking services.

The approach is to make sure you begin with what you have in place, then build on it with modular,  interoperable solutions based on agreed standards. And don’t be too precise about the ultimate outcome when starting the job, but be prepared to build it up over time, take an agile approach, assess what is possible and what meets the public need. In other words, keep the focus on what is achievable.

Human engagement

This has to be accompanied by understanding the requirements of communities and how people want to engage with the systems. You can never accommodate every individual requirement, but you can help to build a broad understanding that the technology and the way it uses data are working for the public good.

The public sector’s gradual move away from big, long term IT contracts, couple with the increasing take-up of cloud services, is also likely to help. This adds to the flexibility and modular approach, and comes with a lower risk that enables technology teams to trial a solution. If it works they can look towards scaling it up and fitting it within the larger framework; if not they can move on without having made a long term commitment.

A question also arose around how far central government should go in providing a lead, whether it is in the development of standards or the broader vision. This is open to debate, but a view is emerging that local government is highly capable of making progress under its own steam.

“Local authorities are getting smarter about this and learning they can deliver their own products and services,” said Mills. “They can programme and build on use cases. There is a business model around keeping things small rather than buying one size fits all IT solution.”

Tapping into creativity

The overall message to emerge reflects that in Microsoft’s recently published CityNext Smart Places and Connected Communities vision paper: that the innovation that really matters is people on the ground just creating solutions. An overarching vision can provide a great framework in which to work, but local authorities do not need to wait until one is in place: they can tap into their own creativity and that of public and private sector partners to innovate, developing digital solutions to bring communities together.

From that local, small scale innovation they can learn from each other, repeat the successes and build something that works for cities, towns, rural areas and regions. This is going to take us towards smart places.

Microsoft’s CityNext Smart Places and Connected Communities paper can be downloaded from here.

If you would like to discuss Smart Places & Connected Communities and how Microsoft can help, please contact Helena Zaum, CityNext Lead, Microsoft UK here.

Meanwhile, you can watch the full discussion below:

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