Smart city

by Sep 19, 2011 No Comments

Scotland’s capital has big plans for a connected future

Imagine a city where the nine-to-five culture has disappeared. Instead of the early morning commuter stampede to blocks of expensive real estate in the centre of town, the city buzzes with the round-the-clock energy of a workforce which can log on and do business whenever, wherever. Real-time travel information is at your fingertips so you know exactly how long it’ll take you to get from A to B, whether you choose to go by car or via a seamless and reliable system of public transport.

For most urban dwellers, that still sounds like science fiction. But, in cities around the world, the integration of technology with the physical, social and environmental infrastructure is underpinning a transformation in the quality of life of residents and visitors.

In Scotland, Edinburgh is emerging as a pioneer of the smart city revolution. Ten years ago, the council set out a vision of how technology could make the city better. Behind the scenes, ICT could promote efficiency and collaboration between the bodies providing the public services on which the city depends. Those using the services would benefit from an improved customer experience. And everyone in the city would have the chance to become active citizens, involved in the decisions that shape their community and able to exploit the opportunities of the information age.

A decade on, those principles have stood the test of time, finding particular resonance in John McClelland’s recent review of ICT infrastructure in the public sector. And Edinburgh, with its explosion in broadband take-up, high levels of postgraduate education, and diversity of creative industries, is well positioned to be a hotbed of innovation.

According to Andrew Unsworth, head of e-government at City of Edinburgh Council, the concept of a smart city has grown to encompass every aspect of urban living. “Looking globally at the development of smart cities, the vision has widened to look at wider societal issues, and issues such as sustainability, transport, and the use of resources across cities are all things that are emerging,” he says. “We’re seeing smart metering being rolled out, and microgeneration of energy – use of that in buildings across city centres is going to be hugely important.”

The open data movement is an important piece in the jigsaw. Edinburgh, for example, had invested in a real-time bus information system for passengers across the network. “About three years ago a local university student contacted us to see if we could open up the data from that system to allow him to develop an iPhone application to track Lothian Buses online,” says Unsworth. “He has now developed that and it’s widely used across the city.”

Likewise, smarter use of travel data has the potential make journeys across the city by car far more predictable. “Another thing we can do is provide more real-time information to people to allow them to make more intelligent choices about transport,” he says. “At the moment you may head off towards Edinburgh Business Park, and you’re not sure how long it’s going to take you to get there – it really depends on the traffic. Surely we can find a way to provide real-time route planning within the city.”

Significant investment has already gone into smart ticketing systems for buses across Scotland. “But more needs to be done to develop services that allow multimodal travel seamlessly between trains, buses and other forms of public transport,” says Unsworth.  An electronic smartcard along the lines of the Oyster in London, which can be used to travel on the Tube, buses, trams and overland rail services in the city, will be critical to Edinburgh’s economic success, as well as the quality of life of residents. “I think it will be a must have for the future if we’re to retain competitiveness with places like London,” he says. “Edinburgh as a city doesn’t finish at the city boundaries – the number of people who work in and use the city spans a much wider region of Scotland. So a number of these types of services will need to be developed on a regional, if not national, basis.”

Such a scheme could be up and running within the next ten years, he says, but to succeed it would need to overcome cultural as well as technical obstacles. “There has to be political buy-in, and we also have to break down barriers between organisations,” he says. “Most of the issues with these projects are not with the technology, it’s…getting the organisations working together, so that will be the key challenge.”

In the meantime, the council is playing its role in the transformation of how the city lives and works. A planned reduction in its office portfolio from 34 to 14 over the next four years, saving more than £20m, will see 5,000 staff move to flexible working. “I would expect many other businesses to be working in that way, and that will affect how transport systems are used,” says Unsworth.

Cities in the rest of Scotland and beyond are sure to be watching with interest.

Kerry Lorimer is Holyrood magazine’s Local Government Correspondent

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