This article was first published on BusinessGreen.com.
A recent report by the Future Cities Catapult reviewed the smart city strategies produced by major global cities over recent years. One of the trends that is noticeable in its analysis is that among the first wave of smart city strategies sustainability and environmental issues were rarely a major concern. This fits with EIC’s own analysis. When we began looking at the impact pf smart city thinking on environmental problems a few years ago, we found that only 20% of smart city initiatives had an environmental benefit and of those barely any were projecting improvements (eg carbon or pollution reductions) of more than 10-15%.
There are various reasons for this. Many city administrations operate in silos. The environmental services department wrestling with the intricacies of a new waste management contract may not have much day to day contact with the shiny new ‘Smart Vision’ (or whatever it is called) team in their offices. Equally, many global cities are struggling with managing the pressures of growth, and while over time many of these pressures will be environmental, the most urgent have often been things like transport congestion. There was a reason why the Oyster card system was one of the first smart technologies to be introduced in London – TfL had worked out it meant it could get passengers in congested tube stations through turnstiles quicker (‘tapping in’ takes an average 1.5 seconds compared for 3 seconds to push a card ticket through a machine).
While the FCC report does show that the situation has improved, with more major cities now including sustainability as a core theme in their smart strategies, it is still true that many environmental challenges are still the responsibility of hard-pressed environmental services or facilities departments. And while much of the smart city agenda consists of exciting analyses of how we should completely rethink the way we conceive of cities and their systems, this may not be of much practical use to a hard-up County Council trying to reduce its energy costs or tackle a fly-tipping epidemic.
With this in mind we recently help a workshop with the local government body ADEPT, the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport to look at practical ways in which local authorities, both urban and rural, could harness the undoubted promise of smart approaches to tackle some of their day-to-day problems. The EIC has a broad church membership, and we were able to field member companies working across fields as diverse as flood risk analysis, air quality monitoring, waste management and energy management. The focus was very much on the practical.
One of the core messages of the day was the need to identify the problems a local authority is aiming to solve before spending large amounts of money on smart tech which may or may not be relevant. One local authority representative talked about their city’s focus on delivering 5G coverage, without having clarity over how this would actually help address the areas challenges.
Another message was the need to manage and analyse data effectively. In some cases such as energy management in local government estates, the amounts of data needed to make significant cost and carbon savings are not that large, the need is more to standardise internal reporting systems and metrics. In other fields such as waste management and recycling for commercial customers, the amounts of data that can be collected relatively easily are huge and collating and manipulating the data for analysis is key. For air pollution, the quality, location and calibration of the sensors is key – without this the data will be too inaccurate to base decisions on.
Procurement was also discussed, especially in terms of how to enable local smart tech start up firms that can offer cost-saving approaches to pass through procurement systems designed to reduce public sector risks by favouring stable, well-established businesses.
Of course none of these issues is new, or especially surprising. But there is a constant need for this sort of practical learning and sharing of best practice focused on small scale examples of using smart tech for environmental ends (Our website www.sustainablesmartcities.org provides a repository for resources and case studies). Otherwise the promise of a smart, sustainable future will be restricted to a few well-resourced urban areas.