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Smart places need ecosystems more than plans



Opinion: Cities, towns and rural areas will carry on changing; and they will need new tech solutions to function smartly

A question that arose more than once at last week’s Smart Cities Summit in London was ‘What makes such a place?’ There are definitions around the use of the ICT and internet of things (IoT) technology in managing the environment, but there is a sense that it needs more to lay firm foundations for smart places.

Of course, a prime factor is the extension of internet enabled tech to ensure everything ticks over more efficiently, saving on energy, time and human effort. But it’s not enough by itself.

Presentations and discussions at the event reminded us that cities are living entities that evolve over decades, and while the environment is less intense in smaller towns and rural areas, they are also changing and can be managed better through smart technology. But there will not a set of long term fixes: the places will continue to change, so the solutions will have to change.

While it is always possible to devise tech solutions for specific problems, a few points came up around the broader, long term issues that influence the outlook.

Quality of life

One is to ensure that the effort and investment goes into the core raison d'être for smart places, to improve the quality of people’s lives. Of course it is predominant in the thinking behind almost every relevant project, but it has to go to the point of ensuring that solving one problem does not have knock-on effects that exaggerate another.

Ensuring that the right problems are addressed is also an issue. The real priorities for public authorities might not be those for which the technology already exists, or where the investment is being channelled.

There are plenty of initiatives in areas such as improving traffic management, reducing energy use and creating a cleaner environment – all of them deserving the effort – but there is also an argument in favour of using tech to cut down on food waste and improve the public sense of wellbeing. The biggest challenges are not always the most visible.

Then comes the issue, often raised in the tech world, of how to create the right climate for innovation. It’s not just a question of financial incentives for tech companies, but developing their sense of a social purpose and building the right relationships with public servants and politicians.

It needs a business model that gets innovators – in the private sector and academia – talking the same language as city planners and service chiefs. And it has to remain fluid, responding to the changes in cities making it possible to develop ideas from off the wall thinkers and mavericks without tying them down in bureaucracy.

How can all this be achieved? There aren’t any definitive answers, but there are approaches that most of the conference contributors agreed are important.

Standards and engagement

Open standards can provide the necessary flexibility for the tech development. A vibrant programme of citizen engagement can ensure that authorities focus their efforts on what really makes a difference to people’s lives.

Harnessing big data and moving on from analytics into the realm of data science can point towards the solutions that are not the obvious ones from down on the ground. And building the framework for collaboration and partnerships between authorities and business, both start-ups and giants, can ensure that the techies keep the real world problems at the front of their thinking.

At the core of all this is recognising the limitations of planning. Cities, towns and the countryside are evolving at an increasingly fast pace, and it just isn’t possible to lay down any smart tech master plan that stretches into decades. Then there’s the fact that digital tech and the potential of the internet is evolving so quickly.

This is why there was plenty of talk about ecosystems, ensuring that relationships all function efficiently between the state, innovators and the companies that can deliver solutions. They need plenty of space for new stakeholders to emerge and others to fall away, but ensuring that at any one time there is a strong dialogue and the energy to provide solutions to urgent and emerging problems.

It will amount to continuing change, but handled the right way it can achieve that ultimate goal of improving the quality of everyone’s lives.

Image by Maurizio Carta, CC 3.0 Unported

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