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The rise and fall of the smart city concept

Nicola Yates, CEO of Future Cities Catapult, advocates for a smarter public sphere that stays ahead of the technology curve rather than entirely reactive to market developments.

The ‘smart city’ rose to prominence as a marketing concept from global technology companies that saw an opportunity to sell digital transformation and new technology into big city systems such as water, energy and transport.

But while the market opportunity was clear to the technology companies, the proposition for cities was less clear-cut, and voices from government and academia quickly questioned the value of the solutions of these companies from the city and the citizen’s perspective. In the space of a few years, the concept of a smart city shifted from a focus on technologies and systems to a focus on citizens and services for them. The providers of these city services have recently become known as the advanced urban services sector.

For us, advanced urban services bring together a raft of established industries, like architecture and construction, with emerging areas like data science and mobility-as-a-service (think ZipCar or DriveNow). Their commonality is contributing to services that enhance the fabric of city life.

What we are witnessing now is a challenge to the vision of a citizen-centred smart city arising from the disruption brought by Silicon Valley. Digital transformation is allowing these companies to disrupt existing ecosystems, offering both challenges and opportunities to citizens and city stakeholders. New technologies ranging from AI and machine learning to facial recognition, drones and autonomous vehicles are on the brink of stimulating another wave of innovation. Government policymakers across all domains need to consider whether their strategies and regulations are fit for purpose in the context of this rapid disruption.

These firms connect us together and allow us to trade new services with each other, which is revolutionary. And the economics of it seems to push us all towards a small number of dominant platforms. Of course, this has many positive effects, such as new services and better utilisation of assets.

However, a recent Innovate UK and Forum for the Future study into smart city scenarios paints a stark picture of the choices ahead of us. Either we have a privately dominated world with the corporations determining what services we get, a ‘repair and share’ voluntary association-driven world, or a smart public sector fuelled by devolution, harnessing and controlling technologies and services for the greater good.

Uber is a brilliant illustration of the difficulties. It has swept the world with its ingenious taxi service, pushing time-weathered monopolies and vested interests aside. And the public sector has been almost entirely reactive, at best. If this model is applied across whole industries, yes, there will be many benefits, but there will also not be insignificant risks and downsides.

So I advocate for a smarter public sphere, one that stays up and ahead of the technology curve. And there are some good examples of this, such as the EU’s ruling that facial recognition technology cannot be used without consent. It’s OK for you and your new iPhone X, but it’s not for deploying on others. This is not the case in the USA, who are yet to regulate even though the consequences could be far-reaching. Imagine Facebook technologies replacing passports – how would the government react? Concerns from Google about what these technologies might lead to in the wrong hands has resulted in them deliberately choosing not to develop it.

The good news is that a smarter public sector will have a double benefit. The first is better-managed cities. The second is that in embracing the opportunities new technologies bring for cities, we will also create new market opportunities, aiding and stimulating innovative companies across the UK. And they, in turn, can sell to their new products and services around the world.

This blog first appeared in Public Sector Executive.

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