Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part two)
September 4, 2012 9 Comments
As I wrote recently, cities across the world are pursuing Smarter City strategies for common reasons including demographics, economics and the environment; but they start in very different social, financial and organisational positions. So there is a need to consider a variety of mechanisms when looking for the financial means to support those strategies.
Last week I discussed five ways in which cities can finance Smarter initiatives; they included tried-and-tested sources such as research grants, and more exploratory ideas such as sponsorship. In this post I’ll consider five more.
Whilst the current state of the global economy has focused attention on the monetary aspects of our financial systems, in the context of Smarter Cities it is important to note that amongst the great variety of investment instruments are some which have social and environmental objectives.
I was honoured last week to attend the official opening of Sunderland’s new business support facility for social enterprises, Container City, operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies (SES). The centre, fabricated from 37 re-conditioned and adapted shipping containers, provides a new basis from which SES can support the hundreds of social enterprises and traditional businesses that they help to start and operate each year; and who provide services and employment in some of the city’s most disadvantaged areas.
Several of these organisations use emerging technologies in innovative ways to promote social outcomes in the city – such as Play Fitness whose “Race Fitness” product uses gamification to encourage children from deprived communities to engage in fitness and wellbeing; or See Detail who provide employment opportunities in software testing for people on the Autistic spectrum. I’ve argued before that this sort of innovation in communities can be a powerful force for making cities Smarter.
SES are supported by a variety of means, including financial institutions with mutual status, and funding programmes aimed specifically at encouraging social enterprise. The UK’s National Lottery provides one such programme, the “Big Lottery Fund“, which aims to support community groups and projects that improve health, education and the environment.
These sort of schemes operate in many countries, in addition to the ethical investment funds available in international markets. Community Interest Companies are another example of the new forms of organisation that are emerging to take advantage of them. Credit Unions and other forms of mutually owned or locally focussed financial institutions exist across the world; and the Global Alliance for Banking on Values recently issued a report stating that what it calls “sustainable banks” are outperforming their mainstream counterparts.
Such organisations will often demand a financial return in addition to social and environmental outcomes; but well-formed investment proposals for Smarter initiatives should be capable of meeting those objectives.
Cities already spend hundreds of millions to billions of Pounds, Euros and Dollars each year operating city systems; and buying products, materials and services to support them. The scoring criteria in those procurements can be a powerful tool to create smarter cities.
Systems such as utilities, transport and maintenance of the environment are often contracted out to the private sector. If procurement criteria for those contracts are specified using traditional measures for the provision and cost of capability, then suppliers will likely offer traditional solutions and services. However, if procurements specify requirements for outcomes and innovation in line with a Smarter City strategy, then suppliers may offer more creative approaches.
Cities could specifically procure Smarter systems such as smart meters for water and power; or they could specify outcome-based procurement criteria such as lowering congestion or carbon impact in traffic systems; or they could formulate more open criteria to incent innovation and creativity. Jackie Homan of Birmingham Science City recently wrote a great article describing how some of those ideas are being explored in Birmingham and Europe.
A significant component of many Smarter City strategies is to stimulate economic and social growth in the less economically active areas of cities. Such initiatives often run into a “chicken-and-egg” or “bootstrapping” problem: new businesses need infrastructures such as broadband connectivity to start and succeed; but until an area has significant business demand, network providers won’t invest in deploying them.
Birmingham and Sunderland have both addressed this problem recently, winning exemptions from or avoiding conflict with European Union “State Aid” legislation to secure city-wide broadband deployments.
It’s important to make sure that such infrastructures are accessible. In the same way that a new city highway can divide the communities it passes through rather than linking them, it is important that new technology infrastructures are designed in consultation with local businesses and communities in order to provide capabilities they really need, through commercial models that they can afford to use.
Tax increment financing, which allows government bodies to use projected future increases in tax and business rates returns to justify investment in redevelopment, infrastructure, and other community-improvement projects, is another mechanism that can be used in this way. In the UK, the national government is undertaking an important extension of this thinking by agreeing a set of individual “City Deals” with cities such as Leeds and Birmingham, giving them new autonomous powers over local taxation and investment.
Communities can bring great passion and resources to bear in finding new ways for their cities to work. In the domain of technology, this is exemplified in the phenomenon of “Hacktivism” in which volunteers lend their time and expertise to create new urban applications.
As I’ve discussed before, when this willingness to contribute is combined with the movement to Open Data and the transformation underway to regional shared services in public sector, powerful forces can be unleashed.
There are limits to what can be achieved for free. But in my view great potential exists, particularly if City authorities can work in partnership with these movements to provide secure, scalable, open technology infrastructures that they can exploit.
For a long time I’ve considered that we should conceive of the platforms that support Smarter Cities not just as technology infrastructures, but as marketplaces - i.e. systems of transactions that take place on those new infrastructures. Marketplaces create money-flows; and marketplace operators can extract revenues from those flows which in return create the case for investing in the marketplace infrastructure in the first place. Further; by opening up the marketplace infrastructure to innovative local service providers, unforeseen new Smarter systems can be created.
There are many examples of new markets that use technologies such as social media and analytics to identify parties between which new transactions can be performed; and that then provide the infrastructure and governance to carry out those transactions. Craig’s List and E-Bay are well-known general marketplaces; whilst Freecycle specialises in the free distribution of unwanted items for re-use in communities. Zopa and Prosper apply these ideas to peer-to-peer lending and investment.
Similar markets with specific relevance to city systems are emerging. Streetline offer a Smarter Parking solution which could be viewed as a marketplace in parking spaces; and Carbon Voyage‘s system for sharing taxis can be seen as a marketplace for journeys. I’ve explored other examples of local, marketplace-based business models in food and energy in previous articles on this blog; and discussed some of the local currency and trading systems emerging to support them.
What these examples have in common is that they are independent businesses or social enterprises who are winning backing from investors because they have the potential to generate revenue. As I argued in the case of Open Data and Hacktivism above, if cities can find ways to support such innovative businesses, they’ll find another community that is able to help them achieve a Smarter City transformation.
The buck doesn’t stop here
The ideas for funding Smarter Cities that I’ve discussed over the last two weeks are certainly not exhaustive; and as a technologist rather than an economist or financier I certainly don’t consider them definitive.
But hopefully I’ve provided enough examples in support of them to demonstrate that they are realistic approaches with the potential to be re-used. I certainly expect to see them all play a role in financing the transition to the cities of the future.