Interview: Deborah Colville, smart cities portfolio manager for Belfast City Council, talks about priorities in innovation, data and developing a coherent approach
As far as Belfast is concerned, smart initiatives have no point if they don’t tie in with a wider vision. Its Smart Belfast framework is secondary to the Belfast Agenda, a vision for the type of city it should be by 2035.
Deborah Colville, Belfast City Council’s smart cities portfolio manager, made the point a few days ago in a presentation at the Future Cities Catapult headquarters in London.
“We did not want a smart strategy or a tech strategy,” she said. “We wanted an enabling mechanism to take us forward to the vision we had for the city.”
The vision is focused on five priorities present in the long term plans of many organisations: a thriving economy; a place that is welcoming and safe; an attractive and environmentally friendly environment; high levels of health and wellbeing; and where everyone fulfils their potential.
It needs the mechanism to pave the way, to which end the council published Smart Belfast in September.
With a leading role in the effort, Colville has an eye on the priorities within the framework. Speaking with UKAuthority, she emphasises factors that are dominating the future thinking for many cities.
“The key thing about our framework is trying to get the conditions right for innovation,” she says. “It’s also about realising that innovation comes from different sources, and we need to have the mechanisms in place to identify what are going to be the most impactful projects, and those that are going to take the city forward.
“So there’s a whole piece in the framework about the criteria for choosing smart city projects.”
This revolves around three priorities: whether a project contributes to the Belfast Agenda; does it build a smart place that addresses city challenges and enhances the innovator ecosystem; and is there a valid business case?
“Another key thing is that the new projects need to build the ecosystem and data infrastructure, building the foundations as you go,” Colville adds. “It’s less about standalone projects than a coherent approach, like taking a jigsaw and seeing how it fits together.”
Elements of the framework are aimed at supporting this. It includes the creation of a distributed data platform to bring together datasets and sources from across the city, in the form of protocols and existing data portals such as Open Data NI. This will come with formal and informal processes for the management of data, and an infrastructure for the deployment of internet of things (IoT) devices and sensors.
Funding, insights and design
Measures to support innovation comprise the creation of a fund – which will be accompanied by efforts to attract third party investment – and an insights and design function to assess which innovations would have an impact.
Underpinning these would be an appropriate entity – possibly an arm’s length company or voluntary association – along with capacities for procurement and project management. These would work alongside existing resources such as the city council’s Smart Belfast team and Invest NI’s Collaborative Growth programme.
There are also a bunch of demonstrator projects in areas including identifying rates income (with input from the Future Cities Catapult), a tool to identify the capacity of major infrastructure systems, and ‘iPedal’ for the gathering of big data to promote cycling in the city. Colville says these are important in shaping the thinking around the framework, and that a bidding process is underway for funding to support more.
“We came up with the framework through the delivery of four demonstrator projects. We probably have 13 or 14 major projects underway at the moment.
“There are a lot of bids – including for 5G and fibre – that we hope to put in over the next couple of weeks which we hope will provide use cases as well.
“Over and above that our smart approach is not just about the projects, but putting innovation hubs in place, connecting up the universities with the city and small businesses. We’re trying to be the glue that pulls it all together.”
The demonstrators have also been valuable in winning political support for the framework.
“You can’t do anything without the budget and decision-makers behind you, and need to get political buy-in early on,” Colville says. “The demonstrator projects helped us to show the impact of some of these technologies. “
She sees this as one of a handful of significant challenges for any programme of its type, saying there are also issues around data, procurement and organisational culture.
“As we go through projects we are opening up the data and making sure it’s available for the next project. But the question is how do you incentivise partners such as the utility providers and private sector companies to open up their data.
“Another is procurement, which is a long process for local government. We’re trying to change that through the use of the Small Business Research Initiative competition and R&D agreements.
“We also have to win hearts and minds. How do you get a change in culture in organisations and get the public, private and academic sectors working together towards a common goal? We’re trying to build it into our projects. You need to get the relationships right.”
She also sees other relationships as important – in collaborating with other cities in the UK and Ireland to get the best from the efforts and possibly share in any funding opportunities.
“We’re talking with many cities, collaborating with partners in the south of Ireland – Dublin, Limerick and Cork – with Derry in the north,” she says. “We’re also talking to other cities across the UK.
“There are interesting things going on in Greenwich, Liverpool, Newcastle, and we’re looking at how we might be able to collaborate in any of the bids that are coming up.”
Given that the Belfast Agenda looks 18 years ahead, it will be a long wait to fully assess the effectiveness of Smart Belfast. It will be quantifiable as the document provides a series of indicators on which the effort will be judged. But if it does begin to come off, the benefits will be showing up in everyday life in the city well before 2035.