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Blog - Transforming City Services: UK cities’ Key Challenges in 2018

Over the last few months we’ve run several events to bring together different people who work in and run local public services. This is to better understand where they share common challenges and have been, or are interested in, collaborating.

Here are a few areas where we’ve seen the same issues come up again and again. Get in touch with us if you’d like to find out more and to take part in some of the different initiatives around these challenges.


Regular readers of Future Cities Catapult communications will know we’re big on bringing planning into the digital age. But we’re far from the only ones. Many local authorities are looking at redesigning their planning services, which are seen as confusing, jargon-heavy and too strongly influenced by legacy providers.

Following conversations at LocalGovCamp in September, we worked with a group of councils who are part of the LocalGovDigital group. In a week-long design sprint, the group prototyped new service journeys and tools for planning consultations and pre-application guidance.

Other areas where people are doing work and finding common ground are:

  • Making better use of the information in local plans
  • Using 3-D building modelling data standards in planning applications
  • Reducing the number of invalid applications that reach planning officers
  • Making planning decisions more transparent.


Traffic congestion is a huge issue. If the future involves Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, then it still doesn’t help us to get around a basic problem: there are too many cars on our roads.

Discussions have tended to centre on different ways to reduce car-dependency, which range from alternative ‘last mile’ solutions, like using bikes, to demand-driven home-to-school bus services. Better parking – that old ‘smart city’ favourite – can reduce the time drivers spend looking for parking spaces but our discussions acknowledged that driving into town is central to a car-centric culture of mobility and that parking is often a reliable earner for councils.

Mobility-as-a-Service – the promise of more integrated transport services – leads us into interesting territory around multi-operator ticketing and smart cards. These will need to be underpinned by interoperability standards – the Bus Services Act has given metro mayors new regulatory powers that can support transport systems integration, so expect these conversations to gather pace over the year.

Digital Inclusion

When we think about the cities of the future, shouldn’t we be designing them to be the places we want to grow old in? Future cities need to be for everyone. Conversations on inclusive cities have tended to revolve around three things: health and social care, digital skills and digital accessibility.

It’s not news to anyone that adult social care dominates council budgets. So how can digital technologies drive better quality care and efficiency savings? This is a huge question that many people are deeply engaged with. People we’ve spoken to have been considering how to overcome loneliness among older people and how assisted living in ‘smart homes’ could help to keep older people active, engaged with others and able to live well in their own homes for longer.

Forget automation for a moment. When we’ve spoken to people about the future of the workforce they are worried about a lack of people with the right digital skills in their regions and the difficulty in attracting and retaining those who do have them. Secondly, there are concerns about the level of digital literacy across society and what this means as more local services ‘go digital’. Is digital becoming a barrier to those who aren’t able to effectively engage?

Traditionally digital accessibility has been about web usability and accessibility in cities has been about effective and inclusive urban design. Sitting between the two is the space where the digital and physical worlds meet and where new tools, such as wayfinding technologies, for example, are enabling blind people to navigate busy streets, shopping centres and stations. How can we ensure consistency across cities, so that for a disabled person, moving from one station or shop to another is a seamless experience?

Regional Strategies

The brave new world of devolved administrations is upon us. This is coupled with developments in digital technologies, and an appreciation of the need to collaborate and share services and data between organisations. Many people we’ve spoken to see the need for coherent regional strategies for the digital economy that bring together many of the elements mentioned above. Underpinning this digital service transformation needs to be financing for digital infrastructure and support for digital and innovation ecosystems to allow new businesses to flourish.

Other issues that have come up include:

  • Enabling good ideas to scale
  • Tackling procurement challenges
  • Collaboration across service areas within council’s and between local authorities
  • Moving away (if at all possible) from a ‘cost savings first’ mentality in local government and towards a ‘how can we design and deliver better quality of services?’ mentality.

Matt Wood-Hill leads the City Standards Programme at Future Cities Catapult. 

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