To accelerate existing regeneration projects with smart technologies and data, Birmingham is implementing a new citizen-centric approach developed by Future Cities Catapult.
Birmingham like other cities in the UK faces acute challenges brought about by the sheer scale, density, diversity and growing expectations of citizens. And despite numerous interventions over the past decade, East Birmingham continues to have higher unemployment, lower skills and poorer health than other parts of the city. To accelerate the role of smart city technologies and data in improving the conditions for citizens, Birmingham City Council, through its Digital Birmingham programme which aims to accelerate digital enterprise and innovation, established a collaboration with Future Cities Catapult.
All too often smart city developments have centred too much on a technology push approach, according to research by Future Cities Catapult, the Government-backed global centre of excellence in urban innovation funded by Innovate UK. City Council Officers tend to look for uses for new technologies and creating city apps, rather than working closely with the beneficiaries to collaboratively combine the best that technology has to offer to solve the problems that matter the most.
Drawing on its extensive network, Future Cities Catapult organised a range of sessions and workshops with organisations and businesses in Birmingham, ranging from Aston University and British Gas to the University of Birmingham and the West Midlands Police. The resulting approach called for a bottom-up approach to improving health, mobility and ‘quality of space’ – ranging from leisure spaces to a perceived fear of crime – across East Birmingham.
“With Future Cities Catapult’s help, we are bringing together city leaders, businesses and citizens to co-create and test new ideas that can be repeated and scaled in other parts of the city,” says Cllr Tristan Chatfield, Cabinet Member for Transparency, Openness and Equality, Birmingham City Council. “By wanting to connect the existing incubator facilities of for example Innovation Birmingham and the neighbouring universities, new collaborations with start-ups, social innovators, entrepreneurs and the public sector can help fast-track the regeneration of East Birmingham,” he said.
To ensure the collaborations encourage the creation of marketable products and community led innovations, Future Cities Catapult worked with the stakeholders to put forward a new framework and methodology for Birmingham’s city planners. In an approach more akin to how start-ups are run, the plan calls for a focus on first validating key themes and issues by talking to citizens, and testing solutions with smaller groups of citizens before rolling them out on a larger scale.
Calls for action
Birmingham scoped out the requirements for the first phase of implementation in 2016, announcing Future Cities Catapult-recommended projects to make better use of East Birmingham’s canal and river networks, and to create an environment where business initiatives in East Birmingham help promote greater engagement with citizens and enable them to identify the actions that matter to them, for example ‘healthy eating’ and ‘pop-up parklets’.
Future projects include an initiative to make better use of data analytics to understand the relationship between the intensity of street lighting and other factors on the perception of crime and safety. Says Stefan Webb, Head of Projects at Future Cities Catapult: “Intentionally the project ideas were not fully developed as at this stage, local authorities and public agencies need greater involvement and collaboration with local people to avoid setting out over-designed projects. That approach makes citizens and civic agencies less likely to engage in the further development and delivery of these initiatives. Instead, the project ideas should be considered calls for action.”