This article was first published on OpenAccessGovernment.org.
Cities around the globe exist in a state of perpetual flux, constantly evolving and growing exponentially. It’s a well-worn fact that over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities (75% within the EU), with the newer category of ‘megacity’ being created for the world’s largest urban metropolises.
But despite this constant change, the basic needs of a city and the underlying environmental challenges faced by city governments, remain constant: the need to efficiently move goods and people; tackle air pollution; manage energy demand; abate carbon emissions; collect and recycle waste; and to provide clean, accessible water. These are stubborn issues – and ones which only become more acute as populations and densities increase.
Hope, however, lies in technological innovation – that is unlocking new approaches and new solutions; ultimately improving our quality of life in ways not previously thought possible. At the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) – a trade association for the environmental technologies and services sector – we have been looking at this very issue. Can the latest smart technologies, the use of real-time remote sensoring, the analysis of newly-available big data and the rollout of the ‘Internet of Things’ open up new, more efficient and more (cost) effective solutions?
Our research suggests so, but despite the potential of the nascent market which supports this innovation to unlock transformative change, it is not a market that is growing without challenge. One of the more major barriers our work has highlighted – is the lack of hard evidence that these smart solutions can work at a major scale – we hear lots of ‘coulds’ and ‘shoulds’, but fewer ‘hads’ and ‘wills’. Just because an innovative technology works in laboratory conditions, it does not mean automatically that it will work across an entire city with a vastly increased number of variables – and this is a problem.
Cities, particularly in the UK, remain in a period of relative austerity. Money is scarce, and it is a gamble to invest potentially significant sums in untested technologies which may or may not work. This leads to a chicken and egg situation: with city authorities hesitant to unlock investment without any hard evidence, but with hard evidence not being created until a technology has been tested at scale.
EIC has established a taskforce to look at how this problem could be solved in a pragmatic way, drawing on the full spectrum of required stakeholders, including senior representatives from city and central governments, technology manufacturers, engineering consultants, universities, NGOs and others. The taskforce agreed that a central industry repository to promote case studies, share currently disparate best practice and help better match the cities facing these environmental challenges with cost-effective smart solutions would be beneficial for both local authorities and industry – and so this is what we have done.
Last year, we launched www.SustainableSmartCities.org. This free-to-access website is an industry-led resource to bring together and provide a central focal point for, all stakeholders involved in the use of smart technologies to create cleaner, greener and more sustainable city environments.
The site is used as a foundation from which to promote the accelerated growth of this industry through a series of targeted activities, including: The provision of a platform for sharing international case studies and best practice – helping both industry and city leaders learn more quickly what works (and what doesn’t) to underpin investment decision making. Connecting people and encouraging collaboration, by acting as a neutral broker between parties – through networking events, roundtables and seminars; and operating as the nexus between technology, cities, policymakers and academia.
Providing thought leadership, market intelligence and investment insight – including in-depth policy reports, briefings and blog posts by leading industry practitioners.
Pro-actively lobbying governments and policymakers – at both city and national levels – for a regulatory framework which supports and encourages innovation and its implementation.
In this way, we can learn how to better capture and use data about cities to improve the quality of life of their citizens – which should always be the purpose, after all.
To ensure our outputs continue to meet a self-defined industry need, we would welcome your engagement in this work. We have a series of outputs already planned for this year, including a seminar being organised in conjunction with the Association for Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT) on how smart tech can be used to save money; some thought leadership work on smart procurement; an innovation summit co-organised with InnovateUK; and a conference aimed at connecting CIO across from across the infrastructure sector.
If you would like to be more involved I would be delighted to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss further how we can help.
Sam Ibbott is Head of Smart Cities at the Environmental Industries Commission, a UK-based trade association representing the environmental technologies and services sector.