Smarter Regional Priorities in Mature European Economies

(Photo of Sunderland Civic Centre at night by Paul Boxley)

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks thinking about “Smarter Regions”. Smarter Regions are similar to the “Smarter Cities” concept shared by IBM and many other organisations; but they’re different in one obvious way and one not-so-obvious way – particularly in mature economies such as those of Western Europe.

A lot of the focus in Smarter Cities is concerned with instrumenting and interconnecting physical systems – such as utilities, transport and buildings – with the intelligence represented by IT systems, especially operational control and decision support tools. Solutions based on those ideas can deliver tremendous benefits, such as the congestion charging system that IBM and our partners have implemented for Stockholm.

However, in European cities, the business cases for investing in such systems are complicated, to put it mildly. Transportation, utilities and buildings are often operated by private sector organisations subject to a plethora of contractual and franchise obligations and oversight regimes; whereas the benefits of such systems – for example, reduced environental impact of city systems, and reducing the barriers to economic and productivity growth – often relate to medium to long term goals of local government organisations. Those cities – such as Stockholm and London – that have made such investments tend to be driven by what could be called “survival” concerns. They have identified a clear and pressing threat to their city systems and economies – in these cases, severe traffic congestion limiting economic growth – that must be addressed.

Smarter Regions are similar to Smarter Cities in that they seek to exploit advances in our ability to integrate and analyse information from a rich variety of systems and sources. But they are different in two ways:

  • Firstly, and obviously, whilst all cities are regions, not all regions are cities. Regions are broader, more diverse economic, geographical, political and social systems.
  • Secondly, in mature economies at least, regional priorities are concerned with a different set of systems. Their priorities are often economic growth; supporting ageing populations; and reducing the cost of their administrative, financial and public service operations whilst improving the outcomes that they deliver

Examples of initiatives addressing these priorities include IBM’s work in Bolzano, Italy, providing remote home monitoring and healthcare services in sheltered accommodation; our work with Medway Youth Trust in the UK, helping them to transform youth services to a predictive, preventative model; our “Smarter Cities Challenge” project in the city of Glasgow investigating fuel poverty; the Municipal Services Cloud that IBM Research developed for the State of New York to help small councils across the State reduce costs and implement “joined-up working”; and, of course, the Cloud Computing platform that IBM and Sunderland City Council announced last week, that will be used to deliver services and capabilities to stimulate growth and innovation in the City’s economy and public services, and that I blogged about recently.

In recent years, we’ve seen terrific pressure on regional administrations in the UK driven by the overall cuts in public sector budgets. Financial pressures in the Eurozone  area create similar drivers on the continent; and in the US the rising costs to public organisations of healthcare and pension liabilities to past and current employees created by ageing populations cause huge cost pressure too.

Despite all this, global competition for private sector investment and job creation are causing regions to seek ways to invest in addressing these challenges. Slowly but surely we are learning how to build business cases to justify those investments – often based on technologies that can both reduce internal operational costs and enable improved external outcomes (see this set of examples from IBM’s customers, for example).

There’s no panacea or silver bullet here; every region is different in its economic, social, political, financial, geographic and environmental characteristics (not to mention others that I’ve forgotten). All of those have to be taken into account when constructing business cases for Smarter Regional solutions.

But I have a sense that we’ve passed a tipping point in the build-up of momentum in this area; and I think we’re going to see a lot more exciting projects and initiatives announced by Cities and Regions in Europe over the next year.

It’s a great time to be a technologist working in local government.

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About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK's largest engineering and infrastructure services companies, and part of the Ferrovial Group. Previously, I was IBM UK's Executive Architect for Smarter Cities. You can connect with me on Linked-In and as @dr_rick on Twitter. The views expressed here are my own.

2 Responses to Smarter Regional Priorities in Mature European Economies

  1. Pingback: Smarter Cities need Smarter Social Enterprises « meme-too

  2. Pingback: Extreme urbanism: live here at your peril « The Urban Technologist

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