Scottish cities in push to become ‘smart’ – but will budgets allow it?

Written by Alan Robertson on 3 December 2015 in Feature

Final proposals for share of European funding to be submitted next month

"There is a really strong reputation being built up with Glasgow,” says Gary Walker, Future City Glasgow programme director. Almost three years ago, Scotland’s largest city saw off competition from 29 others to land a £24m UK Government grant. The cash, offered by the then Technology Strategy Board, was earmarked to demonstrate what a city of the future would look like. Finding the money to turn that vision into a reality across the country could be trickier, though.

Glasgow, at least, now has an infrastructure. An operations centre that brings together public space CCTV, security for the city council’s museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence has been established. A city data hub that combines over 370 datasets – information freely available and non-sensitive – allows deeper analysis into the likes of traffic flow patterns throughout the city.

A series of ‘demonstrators’, including a focus on energy, were also tested. LED street lights were fitted with sensors so as to adjust the level of light being emitted depending upon the number of passers-by. A tool mapping renewable energy opportunities on vacant and derelict sites around the city was developed, which officials have since used to identify sites for ground-mounted solar arrays. And sensors were installed in 60 homes across Glasgow to gauge the effectiveness of retrofit insulation.

Though not part of Future City Glasgow, officials are also keen to explore the likes of smart waste bins that send alerts when bins are full. A small-scale demonstration project using sensors to inform parking is currently being tested in the Merchant City too. “We are under tight budgets over the next few years,” admits Walker (four days earlier, newly-installed council leader Frank McAveety had warned the city faced “impossible budget cuts”). “But there are other opportunities out there building on what we’ve done... It’s not all doom and gloom about budget cuts.”

That said, certain items will be more challenging to keep going – Walker cites some of the mobile phone apps developed – given the ongoing costs of doing so. As such, council officials are working on a strategy over the next few months setting out priorities for potential future funding bids, while an external evaluation of the entire Future City Glasgow programme is expected early next year.

“The key will be developing new initiatives that build on these programmes (Glasgow was also one of four cities to participate in STEP UP, a European energy and sustainable city planning project that concluded this summer) – we’ll need those new initiatives to build the momentum,” says Richard Bellingham, director of the Institute for Future Cities at Strathclyde University. Larger “quick wins” that draw in partners will also be beneficial, he points out.

District heating is a case in point. Several systems are in development across the city. The trouble, says Billingham, is they’re not linked together. A new recycling and renewable energy centre in Polmadie, which is due to start receiving waste next spring, will produce waste heat that could heat tens of thousands of buildings.

“However, the infrastructure isn’t in place to allow that to go forward, neither is the business model,” he says. Glasgow City Council is looking to develop an energy services company (ESCo) that would, among other things, develop a district heating network across the city. Council officials classed the project as an “emerging risk” in September, though, after timescales slipped.

An ESCo internal to the council has been set up with a final business case on extending it to the rest of the city expected by the end of next summer. “Those discussions [on the development of an ESCo] have been going on for a long time,” Billingham adds. “There is an opportunity for Glasgow to take a lead. It could create the largest district heating system certainly in the UK and there is a window of opportunity to make that a reality.” There are, however, significant costs involved in doing so, he readily admits.

Glasgow, of course, is not alone. Analysis conducted by consultancy firm Jacobs on behalf of the Scottish Cities Alliance (SCA) earlier this year suggested Scotland’s seven cities are “on the right path” in terms of actions being prioritised to deliver a low carbon economy – such as LED street lighting, public building retrofitting and district heating – “albeit the scale and pace of application needs to be raised substantially”.

In that spirit, the SCA announced in October that European Regional Development Funding to the tune of £10m had been approved to develop ‘smart city’ infrastructure over a six-year period. Cross-city match funding will take the total value of the programme to £24.1m. Each of the seven cities, which must work with at least one other in order to gain project funding, has been told to submit final proposals in January with decisions on funding allocations expected a month later.

“It’s a helpful contribution but it’s not going to transform our cityscapes or service delivery,” says Billingham on the ERDF pot. An investment of £340m over a period of five to ten years is needed to implement actions prioritised by each of the cities, according to the SCA analysis – equivalent to 15 per cent of what was spent on capital expenditure in 2010-11 by the seven local authorities combined. Even so, the bottom line could provide enough motivation. “The savings to be made are much, much higher than the amounts of money being offered,” Billingham adds.

There are of course more than financial considerations. Targets for cutting Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions have been missed for four years running. If the gap between the current trend in emissions and targets persists, a shortfall of up to six million tCO2e per year will emerge in Scotland throughout the 2020s, according to analysts.

“If we do not change the way we live, invest and work in cities, we certainly will not hit those targets – that is an absolute certainty,” says Billingham.


WHAT GLASGOW DID

A few of the projects that were undertaken by the Future City Glasgow team.

Intelligent street lights

Three sites across the city were selected. Three types of sensors – one to measure air quality, another noise and the third footfall – allow lights to be brightened and dimmed accordingly. Alerts can also be relayed to the central management system in real time should a fault start to develop. “In terms of legacy, this is one that we’ve a fairly strong business case to move forward with,” says Walker, citing the possibility that they could be used to provide wi-fi too.

Demand side management

Technology was installed in ten council-owned buildings that lets the network reduce their consumption – typically by adjusting heating or lighting – to free up capacity for use elsewhere. Council officials are alerted when this happens and can therefore identify potential permanent changes, explains Gavin Slater, energy lead for the Future Cities project. “This should be of a lot of interest to major cities across the world where infrastructure costs and infrastructure space is limited because by using this you can effectively manage the demand profile when you’re dealing with huge demands,” he tells Holyrood.

3D city model

The model seeks to map in 3D the energy consumption of residents and businesses across Glasgow. A web portal and app were used to encourage citizens to enter information about their property to compare actual energy consumption with that which is anticipated and feed back to them what impact retrofit measures might have. Take-up hasn’t been as good as initially hoped, though, admits Slater, with his team now working on simplifying the process for users. “I don’t think people are reluctant to share that information but it’s how much effort do they have to put in before they get something back,” he says.

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