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Blog - Four ways to make standards more relevant to cities

The Future Cities Catapult is here to support the creation of a functioning market for digital solutions in cities. We already work with many great SMEs and companies developing tools and products that improve urban living. In the UK there’s a rich history of pilot projects and demonstrators using smart technologies, yet even the best products can struggle to reach scale.

Why is this? One reason is that when solutions are procured, they are designed to meet the requirements of individual customers.

Enter City Standards

Flashy smart city solutions may capture the attention when we think of smart cities but the realization that the market has not developed is being taken more and more seriously. With this comes the far less sexy realization that sharing best practice, agreeing common approaches and defining standards is essential for innovative urban services to inter-operate and reach scale.

However, it’s not just a case of ‘create the standards; create the market’. There are numerous challenges in the development and adoption of standards for smarter cities.

Here are four that I’ve seen and discussed with colleagues in the sector over the last year, in events and initiatives run by international standards groups (ISO, ITU and IEC), European standards groups (CEN-CENELEC and ETSI), and the open data and standards communities in the UK.

  1. We can’t just jump to a standard as the answer, without understanding the need

The standards community can be quick to point to a standard as the solution to a city’s problem – or the need to create one if it doesn’t already exist. This can frighten off decision-makers who often associate standards with prescriptive technical specifications like electric voltages. Each place is different, unlike the inner workings of an electrical appliance, right? After all, there is no set way to run a city. So let’s start by making sense of the real city needs before creating a standard.

  1. We need to tell better stories about the benefits of standards

City standards do already exist and can be incredibly useful tools for city and organisational planning but they are not widely used – and where they are being used, the impact is not widely shared. Case studies of how standards de-risk procurements, break down siloes and create shared understanding are lacking.

Standards bodies and transformation networks need to improve their communication and outreach by providing easy entry points to often intimidating standards documents and sharing the success stories.

  1. Navigating ‘smart city’ standards needs to be easier

It’s not easy to find the guidance and standards you might be looking for. The ‘smart city’ is not a well-defined concept and as such the array of potentially relevant standards is vast, be they cybersecurity, information architectures or defined data formats. On top of this, there are many international standards organisations and it’s not always clear where to go for what – even if you are convinced about the benefit of standards.

The European ESPRESSO project has done an excellent job of mapping the smart city standards landscape and a next step has to be improving discoverability to link the users up with the right information. In the UK a one-stop shop window for best practice guidance and standards for digital cities and local government would be hugely valuable.

  1. Cities and local government should be more involved in the creation of standards.

If people working in local administrations are involved in developing standards, they should better serve their needs. But a frequent comment in formal standards meetings is on the difficulty in getting cities engaged in the process. Council staff are delivery focused, time-stretched and working with restricted budgets. Taking time out to attend a standards meeting often isn’t feasible.

As a result, cities are generally passive recipients of standards, rather than active collaborators. When a range of city stakeholders have ownership of the process to identify common problems and co-create the responses, they are more likely to develop more usable outputs and to adopt and evangelise them internally and across the sector.

The Future Cities Catapult has an active programme of work on city standards. In a subsequent post I’ll be outlining how we’re approaching some of the key challenges around standards in the sector.

Matt Wood-Hill is the City Standards Lead at the Future Cities Catapult

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