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Blog - Belfast: A Year In Review

Strategy, Markets and Standards Team Lead, Rushi Rama blogs about the progress of our smart city strategies.

On 26th October Future Cities Catapult had the pleasure of hosting Belfast City Council’s Smart Cities Portfolio Manager, Deborah Colville, at our monthly Thursday networking event. I’ve been looking forward to this event because it gives us the opportunity to talk about one of our most exciting projects to date.

We’ve been working with Belfast to kick-start a series of demonstrator projects and create a framework for their smart city strategy. One year later, the city is progressing with projects on multiple fronts: from installing sensors in its fantastically popular shared bikes, to creating a new immersive technology hub. It’s been immensely gratifying to see how far the city has gone in such a short space of time. As is the way with innovation, It hasn’t all been plain sailing, but we’ve learned a lot along the way. From the event at our Urban Innovation Centre, Deborah gave us her lessons learned from her experience so far leading on smart cities for Belfast City Council:

  1. Buy-in from senior leaders is critical. With it, resources can flow, doors open, partners come forward. It needs to be sought and nurtured. Belfast has enjoyed buy-in at the highest level and it has pushed forward progress at breakneck speed.
  2. Unlocking data is crucial but hard. Getting people to share data from other parts of government is a challenge, and even more so for the private sector and for utilities. We need to think about how to incentivise organisations to share data and that means looking at ideas like a data marketplace.
  3. Procurement can slow innovation. Different approaches to procurement are needed to get innovation off the ground and into core services. Belfast has taken advantage of pre-commercial procurement through the Small Business Rates Initiative (SBRI) process to turn procurement into an accelerator for innovation instead.
  4. Innovation needs culture change in councils and public organisations. It’s a hard nut to crack, but Belfast City Council is trying to tackle it head on.

I agree 100% with all her learnings, and I’ll add a few more for good measure:

  1. Cities are still finding their way in this space and it’s important to explore different directions to find what priorities will get the most traction and impact. Early flexibility pays off down the line.
  2. Sometimes having an external broker can make sharing data and building collaboration easier. Of course, creating long term relationships built on trust is the end game.
  3. Explaining an idea doesn’t compare to prototyping. When we showed people what could be done with digital planning tools, the ‘aha’ moment was literal, not metaphorical.
  4. Things don’t always work out, and you need to realise that as early as possible. If an idea is not working, it may be time to move on before you lose momentum. After all, there are lots of ideas out there to pursue.

Belfast’s smart city team is looking to the future, and so are we (naturally!). Future Cities Catapult is pressing ahead with research into smart city strategies, which we’ll be talking about at the Smart Cities Expo in Barcelona. We want to get best practice knowledge out to city leaders, so they can be more confident in pursuing innovation. If they have half the confidence that Deborah displayed tonight, then UK cities will make leaps and bounds in the years ahead.

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