Smart(er) Cities

Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director

Last week’s publication of a new report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Smart Cities illustrates perfectly the importance of defining smart technology in urban metropolitan settings as a multi and inter-disciplinary venture requiring co-investment and co-ordination between science, technology, governance and civic engagement. Here, universities are uniquely-equipped to make major contributions within and across these areas.

The APPG report calls for national and local government to work closer together, and with the private sector and local communities, to boost the scale-up and absorption of smart technologies to address complex economic, social and environment challenges, and to underpin new forms of citizen empowerment. Failure to innovate, especially in times of acute financial stress and political uncertainty, is not seen as a viable option.

The APPG report reminded me of the excellent ProgCity presentation I witnessed recently by Professor Rob Kitchen, of Maynooth University, which drew upon analysis and findings from a major study he and colleagues have been conducting into smart cities and big data. Kitchen has observed that experimental and test-bed urbanism has been the norm rather than the full roll-out of smart technologies. He offers an institutional perspective to explain the current state of affairs, citing: complex systems/places; loss of momentum at times; risk aversion; low levels of trust; concerns about value for money; limited skills and capacity; and fragmented governance arrangements. Other problems, relating directly to individual stakeholders, including universities and local authorities, focus on the prevalence of different goals, uneven resources, divergence priorities and varying funding models and institutional structures.

In the UK, genuine efforts have been made to negate some of the concerns outlined in the Maynooth study. For example, Urban Living Partnerships, such as ‘Newcastle City Futures’ (NCF), have been working to address complex urban challenges that go beyond individual disciplinary and policy sectoral perspectives. In tackling questions relating to ageing, sustainability and social renewal, through the lens of digital creativity and innovation, NCF, led operationally by colleagues at Newcastle University, but acting in strategic partnership with city leaders, businesses, civic organisations and community groups, public, third sector and other urban innovators, have used hard and soft infrastructure assets of the city-region as an ‘urban laboratory’, infused with research expertise drawn from physical sciences, social sciences and arts and humanities. Such initiatives demonstrate that building smart(er) cities requires smart technology, as well as smart institutions and governance, and smart forms of research, underpinned by the kind of long-term collaborative frameworks and investment found in successful place-based industrial policy and strategy.

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