Event report: smart cities

Written by Nicholas Mairs on 21 October 2016 in Feature

Smart cities would bring diverse benefits and achieving such status is about being fit for the future

Smart city - Image credit: Fotolia

Fewer than one in five people in the UK are aware of “smart cities”, according to Dr Lorraine Hudson of the Open University.

But while getting the public actively involved with the concept is a work in progress, there was consensus among delegates at Holyrood’s Smart Cities conference that the fusion of ICT with city infrastructure is a fast moving, irreversible shift in how businesses, government and other institutions operate, and that a “bottom-up” structure is crucial to its advancement.

Dr Hudson is involved in introducing the concept of smart cities through an online MOOC course, which strives to look at the implications for society rather than technology alone.

“It draws on many different subjects – so it uses things from technology, the arts, social sciences; and the audience is global. But we also see the course as a platform for research as well. By their nature MOOC courses attract thousands of learners, so actually, we can learn a lot about people’s views on smart cities, through the comments they post on the course.”


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Edinburgh, meanwhile, has engaged its citizenry in the city’s spending priorities through an online budget consultation. Ritchie Somerville, the city council’s Innovation and Futures Manager, said it was a means of allowing citizens to get their views directly to elected members.

“It allowed you to decide if you wanted to build two extra schools, but then that meant you would have one less social care centre, because it was a forced decision. There’s a finite amount of resource, so how are you going to do it?

“It’s not about government, but about how we get the conversation going across the whole city.”

Glasgow has utilised the £24m investment in the Future Cities Glasgow scheme to invest in transport, energy, health and public safety, with the use of data analytics bringing together organisations including Police Scotland, Community Safety Glasgow and the Emergency Planning and Resilience Committee.

Gary Walker, Divisional Manager Scientific and Regulatory Services at Glasgow City Council, explained where data analytics works to alert the city’s new operation centre, which can subsequently link up to CCTV cameras.

This includes the monitoring of traffic lights; using invisible perimeters around the Doulton Fountain to detect intruders; identifying high levels of activity in a public area; and how complex software can piece together camera footage of missing persons.

“It’s really about trying to improve business processes, because in the operation centre at any one time there may be a dozen staff, but we’ve got 500 or 600 cameras which can’t all be looked at at the same time. So it’s about getting the analytics to work on our behalf.”

Councillor Mark  Macmillan, leader of Renfrewshire Council and part of the Glasgow city deal team which opened The Tontine innovation centre, said the spirit of collaboration is at the core of how the smart city project develops.

“We’re trying to collaborate with cities across the globe, with other metropolitan areas, and internally within the metropolitan areas here.

The councils want to facilitate that through things like The Tontine or the city deal, with the collaboration to allow private sector, universities and the public sector to work together to create a society that can cope and compete for the future.”

The theme of looking beyond Scotland for inspiration was addressed by Dr Michael Smyth of Edinburgh Napier University, who works on the pan-European Mazi project. By creating local community wireless networks suited to the needs of that particular community, the programme allows for a more tailored approach.

“I think one of the ideas we struggle with, particularly as academics, is how do you address and understand something as large as cities. Our perspective is to look at the local and community, which Mazi is rooted in.”

Scott Moore, a business analyst at the Improvement Service, has been studying how Seoul, where 90 per cent of its citizens own a smartphone and 95 per cent have broadband connectivity, has developed its reputation as one of most renowned digital societies. He suggested that Scotland faced constraints, despite being similarly highly regarded in the field of smart cities internationally.

“South Korea maybe hasn’t been hit as hard with budget cuts as local governments here. In that sense there has maybe been less risk in taking these technologies forward and in affording to experiment and test pilots without the public scrutiny that we are subject to. But there is absolutely an appetite across Scotland for it.”

Oonagh Gil, the Scottish Government’s Deputy Director for Enterprise, Cities and Tourism, said that while the seven cities across Scotland are working to develop a coherent programme through the Smart Cities Alliance, the launch of the Government’s blueprint, alongside delegations to conferences in the coming months, will be defining in how Scotland progresses.

Gil added: “I don’t think we can pretend that innovation on this scale is easy; the scale and pace of technological change is a huge challenge; the traditional roles and responsibilities of governments are increasingly difficult to define and maintain.”

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