By Peter Madden
Urban innovators are increasingly thinking of the city not just in terms of place, but as a platform. Throughout history, cities have been crucibles of innovation because of physical concentration of people, the independence of spirit, and the creative collision of different backgrounds.
Today, the connectivity revolution through which we are living offers new possibilities. Digital platforms are already changing the way we use our urban spaces: AirBnB for staying; Tinder for dating; Uber for moving.
The next wave of transformative change may come from seeing the whole city as an innovation platform. Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, on a recent visit to the UK asked: “What would a city look like if you started from scratch in the internet era - if you built a city from the internet up?”
In the UK, we have largely built our towns and cities, so a better question might be: ‘How could we enhance our cities by overlaying a digital layer?’ This layer, spread over the physical, helps us to understand our cities better and create services that allow citizens to interact with the city – and each other – differently. It also gives the various organisations involved in making and running our cities the chance to integrate, to break down the silos, to design services in new ways that make sense for the 21st Century. And, as the UK Government embarks on the major upgrade of urban infrastructure presaged in the Industrial Strategy, using digital in design, integration and maintenance, is a huge opportunity.
Given how complex and messy cities are, it is often easier to trial this kind of approach at the scale of a single development. Our own work on the Olympic Park (with Intel, UCL and Imperial College) is showcasing how the Internet of Things (IoT) can solve urban problems. Together with the London Legacy Development Corporation, we chose four SMEs to trial their solutions to residents and visitors within the park and surrounding areas. Technologies tackling social isolation, increasing health and eco-friendly activities, plus navigating the park with real-time data, are being deployed, helping these businesses to develop and grow.
To harness this opportunity across whole cities, certain things need to be in place.
First, digital innovators need city-wide connectivity. This can come from existing telecoms, from wifi or Low Power Wide Area Radio Networks (LORAWAN). And 5G mobile connectivity – when it comes – will enable further big steps forward, which we are preparing for now. Along with Digital Catapult and BT, we are helping SMEs make the best of city-wide LORAWAN technology. We have just awarded six SME’s from across the UK funding to test and improve technologies that will tackle issues ranging from noise pollution and making cycling safer to helping the NHS utilise under-used space. If the Government can get 5G type-connectivity in place across a whole city soon, this will allow our businesses the opportunity to trial applications, cultivate world-leading sectors and be ready for when the global roll-out of this technology comes.
The second thing needed is to sort out the data challenges. Data transparency is a prerequisite, and cities are increasingly realising this, with London Data Store, Open Glasgow and Leeds Data Mill blazing a trail. But data is just noise without interoperable standards. There are big potential efficiencies and savings across the public sector from standardisation – as we are proving in our Future of Planning work to change the town and country planning system. And for businesses developing products and services, they really need to know their offerings will work in multiple cities. Initiatives like Hypercat, the City Standards Institute, and the Open and Agile Smart Cities consortium are taking a lead in cracking the standards challenges. And of course, sorting out privacy concerns and security issues will be an integral part of this.
The third requirement is that city administrators – or large-scale developers – are awake to the changes and opportunities. Integration can be difficult for organisations that have been in their siloes for decades. Thinking in terms of partnerships rather than procurement can be hard. And choosing to build tech capability at all levels is challenging when administrations face tough budget decisions. Internationally, when I visit Amsterdam, New York and Singapore I really get the sense that they have understood and are grasping the opportunity. Here in the UK, I’ve spent time in the last few weeks in Cambridge, Manchester and Newcastle and have been struck by how they, too, are seizing the future city opportunities and bringing together sectors and places. Cambridge is using data and modelling to address housing growth challenges; Manchester is doing cutting edge deployment of urban IoT; and Newcastle is working on how digital can transform urban mobility.
Ubiquitous connectivity is coming. It will change how our cities function. Rather than being disrupted and dislocated by this, city administrations should be harnessing the opportunity. By thinking of the city as a platform, providing connectivity, sharing data, and building capability they can leverage their physical assets, engage citizens as co-creators and be in better shape to face the challenges ahead. And for the UK Government who are seeking to boost innovation, infrastructure, growth and exports, further developing the advanced urban services sector – in which the UK is strong – will be key to delivering the new Industrial Strategy.
*) This article was brought to you by Peter Madden, Chief Executive of the Future Cities Catapult, an international centre of expertise on urban innovation.