Cities need to prepare for more demanding customers

Alcune sfumature di rosso

A recent report published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, makes some familiar points and some new ones, many of which are pertinent to cities across the world. For example, the size of the global market for smart systems for transport, energy, healthcare, waste and water has been estimated by Arup, the global consultancy company, to have the potential to reach $400 billion per annum by 2020. That’s a lot of money, by anyone’s standards, and enough to make both cities and potential providers sit up and take notice.

Authors emphasise the role of cities themselves in driving change. The phrase used in the report is ‘an innovative and demanding customer’ for new technology: one that will drive change by identifying their key challenges and demanding innovative solutions to address them. Across the world, cities face a dilemma: in an age of austerity and increasingly tight budgets, whether to retrench and just do what they really have to, saving money wherever possible in the hope of better times to come, or accept that austerity is the new reality and that they have to innovate to survive. Those cities which have already successfully engaged with the concept of smartness are taking the latter course.

In addition, there is a role for cities, government and providers, as well as citizens themselves, in developing capability and capacity. Governments can and, we might argue, should, put in place the ideal conditions for development of smart cities, but others also have a role. Providers of services need to go out on a limb to develop new services, but perhaps if they listen to citizens, and allow them a role in developing their own apps, it’s not such a risk anyway. And cities also need to listen to their citizens. We’ve written about the tension between organic and planned growth, and it will be crucial here to create creative, rather than destructive tension.

The report identifies five key aspects to smarter approaches, all of which are very much driven by information:

    1. Citizens have to be able to access the information they need, when they need it. This means reliable, modern infrastructure, combined with secure but open access to data.
    2. Services need to be focused around people’s needs, not around what is convenient to the services. This includes, for example, better sharing of data to make services more coherent, and providing services over the internet wherever possible.
    3. Service providers need to be able to use data to manage service delivery and also to plan strategically. This means linking up systems and infrastructure, as well as people, including the Internet of things (IoT).
    4. People, providers and cities need to be prepared to learn from each other, and from leaders in the field, and be open to experimenting with new approaches. This may involve taking risks from time to time.
    5. Cities need to be open about their performance, and enable challenge to poorer performance by both others and their own citizens.

The UK government has taken huge steps recently to improve transparency in government. In particular, the Cabinet Office is working with one or two cities to experiment with open data: for example, engaging with citizens to develop services and products. After all, as we have discussed before, many of the greatest data innovations have been made by providing access to data and seeing who uses it for what.

And this brings us neatly back to what is perhaps the key in smart cities: the role of consumer or citizen. After all, as consumers of goods and services provided by private companies, we have happily allowed ourselves to be empowered by the internet. We have now come to expect the same thing from our public services. But there is a ‘payback’ to greater empowerment. Smart Cities essentially help us to move beyond the transactional relationships that have been the norm between citizen and city, into a realm where the city is driven by its citizens. More active participation in communities is the norm. Yes, citizen-designed apps are one part of that, but there are many other aspects too, the basis of which is taking responsibility. We need to challenge our cities, not just rely on councils elected by ever-smaller turnouts of voters, and take back control.

Image credit: Margherita, Alcune sfumature di rosso

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