Which cities will get Smarter fastest?

Birmingham is a diverse city currently undergoing the latest of many periods of regeneration

Last week the Centre for Cities published a report that IBM sponsored giving its 2012 Outlook for Cities in the UK. The report assesses economic and demographic statistics with the intention of identifying the cities most likely to succeed in improving their economic activity and prosperity. You can download a copy here.

The report is an interesting read, and offers challenging findings for cities such as Birmingham, where I live – whilst it is the second largest city in the UK, Birmingham has significant challenges and appears near the bottom of rankings for employment and the level of skills in the workforce.

However, in focussing on statistical information, the report takes insufficient account of two crucial factors. Because the report is seeking to influence the investment of government funds in the cities it identifies as best placed to succeed, I think these important omissions should be recognised.

Firstly, it does not take into account the specific initiatives currently taking place in many cities. You only have to look at the effect on Birmingham’s retail economy of the Council-led regeneration of the Bullring shopping centre to understand how fundamentally cities can be changed. The Bullring is now one of the most visited destinations in Europe and has transformed a city centre that used to attract relatively few visitors from outside.

Steps are also being taken to address the skills of the city’s workforce. The University of Birmingham recently announced that it will open a secondary school teaching a curriculum designed to develop successful University students. And last year, Birmingham City University and Maverick Television were two of the sponsors for Birmingham Ormiston Academy, an institution that will provide vocational education in creative media and performing arts. You could see both of these as vertical integrations in the supply chain of skills for the city’s economy. Centre for Cities’ report does not take account of the effect that these initiatives will have.

Looking to the future, the Royal Academy of Engineering recently published a paper assessing the potential and challenges for Smarter City Infrastructures to transform our cities. Several case studies have shown the benefit of applying sophisticated instrumentation and analytics to physical and information systems in areas such as transportation, water and social care. We can expect cities to continue to exploit such advances to transform themselves in new and unexpected ways.

The Centre for Cities report also fails to consider the willingness and ability of the ecosystem of political, economic and social organisations and their leaders to take effective action. Sunderland, for example, a city where I frequently work (see many previous posts in this blog, starting here) also scores poorly in many of the statistics in the report. However, a well developed “Economic Masterplan” has been agreed across organisations in the City, and the City Council has already made investments in citywide Broadband and Cloud Computing intended to move it forward. The strength and cohesion of leadership and vision across the city will be a tremendous asset in its transformation; by contrast, cities with more fragmented leadership or less crisp visions may make progress more slowly.

The 2012 Outlook for Cities does contain a wealth of important information that can help our cities understand their challenges and opportunities; and Center for Cities’ previous detailed research on the structure of city economies is also worth reading; particularly in light of one of their conclusions that I do agree strongly with – “cities with less dynamic private sectors … will find it more challenging to offset the combination of a weak national economy and the ongoing shrinkage of the public sector”.

But anyone who looked at the statistics of the technology industry prior to Steve Jobs return to Apple Computers in 1997 would have probably predicted nothing more than a continued decline for that company into a niche market for the graphic design community. So I hope the UK Government keeps an open mind and makes holistic assessments of Cities’ plans for transformation and their ability to execute them when deciding where to make investments, rather than relying on indicators of past performance.

One thing is for sure, though: we should all expect to see some surprises. History’s most reliable lesson is that it’s an imperfect guide to the future.

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.

5 Responses to Which cities will get Smarter fastest?

  1. Pingback: Who will be the next generation of technology millionaires? « meme-too

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