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The Future and Growth of Smart Cities in the UKBy: Mark Eltringham

Bristol aims to be one of the top twenty cities in Europe by 2020At the end of October, the Royal Society of Arts became the latest organisation to announce an initiative to look at the role of cities in the modern world. The City Growth Commission will talk to local authorities and businesses as it seeks to establish ideas about how the UK’s cities can support local people and organisations and drive economic growth.

This followed hot on the heels of a Government initiative launched earlier in the month to promote the opportunities for the UK as a driver of the global Smart Cities movement. The industry involved in this is expected to be worth some $400 billion worldwide by 2020 and it has, of course, piqued the interest of politicians. At the national level in the UK, where global market share of this industry is expected to be as much as 10 per cent, the government has announced it is to set up a new Smart Cities Forum, chaired by Universities and Science Minister David Willetts and Cities Minister Greg Clark, with representatives from cities, business, and scientists.

As a result a new report called Global Market Opportunities and UK Capabilities for future smart cities was published to highlight how the technology could transform lives and provide an economic boost. Volker Buscher, Arup Director and Smart Cities Forum member, who wrote the report, said: “Smart technologies can help address some of the challenges of rapid urbanisation by improving services and managing their efficiency. We already have incredible academics and professionals in the UK so we are well equipped to capitalise on this growing market and help create a better environment for us all.”

Smaller cities such as Bristol could point the way ahead for Smart CitiesThe government has already invested around £95 million of research into smart cities funded by Research Councils UK, another £50 million over five years earmarked for the new Future Cities Catapult centre being established by the Technology Strategy Board in London, and £33 million invested in future city demonstrations earlier this year.

The touchstone for all of this has been the urbanisation of the world’s population. The main focus of this is usually the growing number and influence of the world’s megacities, the story of which is often told not in words but in numbers. This is true for the established megacities of London, New York and Tokyo as well as the emerging global metropolises in Sao Paolo, Beijing, Mumbai, Shanghai, Cairo and Istanbul. It is also increasingly true for cities many people have never heard of. A 2011 report from McKinsey claimed that the world’s fastest growing cities are Beihai in China, Ghaziabad and Surat in India, Sana’a in Yemen and – surprisingly given the turbulent times it has endured - Kabul.

And yet it may be some of the smaller cities that point the way ahead in terms of what we mean by Smart Cities. At Masdar City in Abu Dhabi there is a clear focus on the environment based on a masterplan by Foster and Partners and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The vision of an eco-city in the desert embraces every aspect of the city’s infrastructure in a way impossible to imagine in an established city. Meanwhile a $40 billion investment in Songdo by the government of South Korea is based on the development of a technological infrastructure aimed at creating a high tech hub near to Seoul.

The changing nature of cities is also apparent in the UK where it is having an effect not only on the country’s only megacity but in regional centres too. For cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow the opportunities presented by a new generation of initiatives focussed on global urbanisation can be profound and mark an opportunity to shift at least some of the UK’s economic focus away from London.

The development of a Smart City is not dependent on scale, as Bristol intends to demonstrateThe important point to consider is that the development of a Smart City is not dependent on its scale. So those cities that have a strong technological infrastructure, a focus on sustainability and use intelligent technology to monitor their urban infrastructure and improve the quality of life for the people who live and work in them can make their mark on the global stage. These include places such as Bristol, Dublin, Barcelona and Boston. It is particularly pertinent in the UK where around 80 percent of the population live in cities.

Championed by mayor George Ferguson, Bristol is aiming to be one of the top 20 cities in Europe by 2020. It sees two of the main drivers for this as the development of a digital economy and the setting of world class environmental standards. It’s already got a head start on some other places. In 2015, Bristol will be Europe’s Green Capital. And it has already established an organisation called Connecting Bristol which has been working since 2006 to improve the technological infrastructure of the city, including its broadband network. In doing so, it will set the benchmark not only for the UK’s cities but also its large towns. This might especially be the case along the thriving M4 corridor in places like Reading, Swindon, Oxford and the home counties, which already boast some of the most successful technology based organisations in the UK.

The implications of these kinds of initiatives will be profound for the people and organisations of the world’s cities and towns. It’s essential that the UK and its great cities like Bristol remain world leaders in the development of the ideas and infrastructure that help us to work in new and more rewarding ways.  

About the author

Mark Eltringham, publisher of InsightMark Eltringham has worked in the workplace design and management sector for over 20 years. He is now the publisher of Insight, which was launched in January 2013. @InsightOnWork

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