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Towards smart places and connected communities


Industry voice: Grass roots innovation and collaboration between authorities are providing the momentum for smart places, writes Helena Zaum, CityNext lead at Microsoft UK

The ambition to build smart places in urban and rural environments, with communities connected by digital technology, is moving into the mainstream for the UK public sector, with an increasing number of authorities launching initiatives to meet local demands and contribute to the national effort.

But progress will come largely from an evolution of small scale projects rather than a grand plan.

This was the dominant theme to emerge from the Smart Places and Connected Communities conference staged in April by Microsoft and UKAuthority. It highlighted factors that confirm the immense promise in the new technologies but also the difficulties to expect along the way, and the fact that the solutions are going to come from those small projects.

The discussions between speakers and delegates brought out the fact that the advance of the technologies that will make this possible – such as the internet of things (IoT), big data, artificial intelligence – is happening at an uneven pace. Some authorities have been slow to adopt cloud, there are hesitations around data sharing, and deployments of IoT technology have been scattered rather than the norm.

Optimistic outlook

But overall the outlook is optimistic. The increasing take-up of Office 365 by local government is helping to build confidence in cloud through its support for productivity, and show that authorities are willing to take up the systems when they can see clear benefits. The continual financial pressure on the public sector is also contributing to the case for cloud adoption, as it will reduce the long term costs compared with the maintenance of heavy legacy systems.

Similarly, while there are perceived barriers to data sharing, the discussions also made clear there is an eagerness to overcome them. Public officials can see the benefits of a more streamlined exchange of crucial data, and with the right governance in place organisations can begin to discover what they can do and put into practice.

The causes for optimism could be seen in some of the projects that were outlined at the event – all of which were built on the public cloud and provided examples of how it can be used as a foundation for innovation. They ranged from efforts to support drivers in parking in Westminster, to developing an app to help older people avoid falls in their homes in the East Midlands, to using the IoT and predictive analytics to support social care for elderly residents of housing associations around Liverpool.

These are examples of the efforts designed to find solutions for individual challenges that will add pieces to the overall picture. Through initiatives such as these smart places and connected communities can evolve within a broad vision but without a detailed master plan.

AI and identity

The discussions also revealed a sense that the advance of artificial intelligence (AI) provides a big step forward, providing organisations with capabilities that have previously seemed impossible; and a recognition of the importance of robust digital identities. Microsoft is making advances in both, with a range of collaborations in AI and developing its Citizen Identity platform to meet many of the challenges.

All of this is laying the ground for innovation and solutions that will provide better services and strengthen the fabric of smart places.

Hopefully, organisations will be ready to learn and quick to take up projects such as those that were demonstrated. There has been something of a trend in the public sector for pilots to prove the value of a concept using digital technology, but for them not to be taken any further, even when they deal with issues faced by many authorities. It needs a cultural change to boost the momentum.

There are a couple of good signs. The Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport is providing £200 million to support projects exploring the potential of 5G, which will be a crucial element in the future of smart places. In March it awarded money to Worcestershire County Council and the West of England Combined Authority to work on 5G testbeds, and recently followed it up with an award to the West Midlands Combined Authority.

The projects should make authorities more aware of what can be achieved and create a stronger momentum for the scaling up of successful pilots.

A similar boost should come from the grand challenges with the Government’s Industrial Strategy. These deal with some of the issues central to connected communities – AI and the data economy, clean growth, mobility and meeting the needs of an ageing society – with a level of support and profile beyond the norm for such initiatives.

These campaigns provide further reasons for optimism and add fuel to the belief that smart places and connected communities are emerging as a reality.


For more details on the lessons to emerge from the event you can read the full briefing paper, available from here:


Meanwhile you can visit the event hub here to watch the presentation videos or watch the overview video below: 

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