Smarter Cities: Doing More for Much Less

Most of my time this week was spent in two very interesting meetings. The first, on Monday, was with a team from the UK Technology Strategy Board shaping a proposal for a Technology Innovation Centre (TIC) focussing on “Future Cities” (the transcript of David Cameron’s announcement of the £200m TIC investment programme is here). The second, on Wednesday and Thursday, was the annual general meeting of SOCITM – the society of IT Managers in local government. I’ll come to the themes that meeting addressed shortly.

Before I do that: just over 2 years ago, I wrote a blog post inspired by the October 2008 issue of New Scientist magazine titled “The Folly of Growth”. That magazine – written in response to the 2008 financial crisis – challenged the assumption that the world’s economy could continue to grow at the rates it has historically. It’s basic point was that such growth simply could not continue based on the current level of environmental resource usage per dollar of GDP created, because there simply aren’t enough resources on the planet.

In Monday’s TSB meeting, representatives from Academia, City authorities, construction companies and technology companies all agreed that City leaders – both Council CEOs and elected Council leaders – had a single overriding priority: maintaining and growing their Cities’ economies, whilst using less resources to do so. Three years down the line from the New Scientist’s seminal magazine, that’s a real vindication of their thesis.

At the SOCITM AGM on Wednesday, Martin Reeves, CEO of Coventry City Council and the incoming president of SOLACE, the society of local government CEOs, gave a visionary plenary speech echoing similar themes.

Martin referred to the very, very challenging financial pressures facing local government (and all of public sector) that were magnified by George Osbourne’s Autumn Statement this week which predicted 100,000s more job losses in public sector.

But Martin said that the real priority was not dealing with cost pressure. He said that the real priority is to carry out a radical transformation of local public service delivery in support of the most challenging policy agenda we have ever seen.

I couldn’t have agreed more.

As well as the unprecedented financial pressures created by the realisation that we have long been underestimating and mis-managing risk on an international scale, we also face global competition between city economies to a previously unforeseen degree. More locally to the UK, GP commissioning, personal care budgets, open public services, “Big Society” and several other central government policy initiatives are forcing enormous changes into local public sector organisations.

The changing role of local government of Cities and Regions is, in my view, the most critical challenge we face today. City and Regional councils are not only the organisations concerned most urgently with the local business development and economic growth strategies that create employment; they are also challenged to deliver increasingly complex services to vulnerable, hard to reach communities at lower and lower cost, whilst working with an increasingly diverse base of suppliers and service providers to do so.

I personally believe that – properly and sensitively applied – technology can be a tremendous enabler of successful change in this context. But we are still in the very, very early days of understanding how to make that work, from the technology challenges of assuring identity in a world of open digital services to the financial and governance challenges associated with defining successful models for shared service delivery.

Trial and error is the only model for moving forwards with this agenda. Doing nothing is not an option – it will result in dying cities, following the unfortunate path taken byDetroit.

And no amount of analysis will reveal the “ideal” or “right” approach. We have never faced these challenges before, so there is no proven “blueprint” for success. We will only learn how to face them successfully by trying the best solutions that we can imagine; and constantly changing and adapting them according to the results that they deliver.

About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Smart Places for Jacobs, the global engineering company. Previously, I was the UK, Middle East and Africa leader of the Digital Cities and Property business for Arup, Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK’s largest engineering and infrastructure services companies and part of the international Ferrovial Group, and before that IBM UK’s Executive Architect for Smarter Cities.

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