Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part one)

Birmingham’s striking new Library, which will open in 2013, is one example of the regeneration projects currently underway in cities despite the challenging economic climate.

I’ve been meeting frequently of late with academic, public sector and private sector partners in city systems to explore the ways in which Smarter City initiatives are funded. Whilst many such programmes are underway, it is still the case that individual cities starting on this path find that it can take considerable time to identify and secure funds.

The ultimate stakeholder in Smarter City initiatives is often a local authority – they alone have the responsibility to ensure the functioning and success of a city as a whole. But whilst some reports show that private sector sentiment is finally improving following the 2008 crash, public sector – and in particular, local government – is still in the grasp of an unprecedented squeeze in funding. So where can city authorities look for the – sometimes substantial – funds needed to support Smarter City initiatives?

Up to now, a great many Smarter City initiatives have been funded at least in part by research grants. By their nature, these will only fund the first projects to explore Smarter City concepts – they will not scale to support the mass adoption of proven ideas. So we need to consider how they are used alongside other sources of funding.

In this post I’ll describe the first five of ten ways that Smarter City initiatives can be funded, including but not limited to research grants. None of them are silver bullets; but they all represent realistic ways to start paying for cities to become Smarter. I’ll describe another five in a follow-up post next week.

The UK Technology Strategy Board’s “Creative Industries Knowledge Transfer Network” (who took this photo) brings innovators in cities together to create new ideas.

1. Apply for research grants to support new Smarter City ideas

Whilst research funding will not pay for widespread adoption of proven Smarter City ideas, it will still support the search for new ideas. And we have certainly not exhausted the supply of ideas – far from it. In the UK, the Technology Strategy Board’s award of thirty £50,000 grants to perform “Future City” feasibility studies has kick-started a frenzy of activity. Just one of the thirty cities awarded these grants will be chosen to receive £24 million to support a demonstrator project; but many of the others will use the results of their feasibility studies to seek independent funds to move ahead.

The European Union recently launched an Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities and Communities that is expected to provide €365 million to support projects demonstrating innovative urban technology systems; and many funding programmes that are not labelled “Smart” or “City” are nevertheless relevant to Smarter Cities – such as the Technology Strategy Board’s “Innovating in the Cloud” funding competition or the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s “Research in the Wild” programme.

From social science to sustainability to healthcare to transport and buildings, many research agendas are relevant to creating the cities of the future; and new, well-formed ideas can always seek support from the relevant funding organisations. In this context, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing ever-closer links being forged between cities and the Universities that are located in them.

2. Exploit the information-sharing potential of shared service platforms

City and regional authority finances are under unprecedented pressure from the acute financial situation and expected demographic changes. In the developed world, we are getting older, and more people who have retired from work need the support of less people who are still working and paying taxes; and in emerging economies, urban populations are growing at a staggering rate.

In order to save money whilst maintaining vital services, local governments are increasingly sharing the delivery of support services such as finance, HR and IT; saving money – and reducing staff – in those functions in order to preserve the delivery of frontline services such as education and social care. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these changes; in the UK, for example, it is expected that nearly 900,000 public sector workers – 3% of the entire national workforce – will lose their jobs over the next five years as a result. Whilst specific characteristics vary from place to place, similar trends are visible across the world.

One outcome of these changes is that shared IT platforms are increasingly in place in cities and regions to support shared services. Those platforms now host co-located, multi-agency data. Cities such as Plymouth, Dublin and Sunderland are starting to explore the benefits that might be realised from that data. In Sunderland, the CEO and CIO have both spoken extensively about the opportunities they see to transform the city and services within it using their City Cloud platform. The East Riding of Yorkshire has been sharing services between agencies for some time, and has reported their achievements in addressing Child Poverty through improving cross-agency information sharing as a result.

These examples all show that whilst the current acceleration of shared services in cities and regions has its origins in adversity, it nevertheless offers the potential to support some positive outcomes too.

3. Find and support hidden local innovations

(Photograph by Meshed Media of Birmingham’s Social Media Cafe, where individuals from every part of the city who have connected online meet face-to-face to discuss their shared interest in social media.)

City populations are not passive observers to the Smarter City phenomenon. They may be crowd-sourcing mapping information for OpenStreetMap; running or participating in hacking events such as the forthcoming Government Open Hackday in Birmingham; or they may be creating new social enterprises or regional technology startups, such as the many city currencies and trading schemes that are appearing. Simply running social media surgeries as Podnosh do in Birmingham, can have a powerful effect on local communities by helping them exploit social technology to uncover hidden synergies and connections.

Individual officers in many councils work very positively with these community innovators. But substantial formal relationships can be impeded by the complexity of public sector procurement regimes which are simply too expensive and time-consuming for very small organizations to engage with. By simplifying procurement practices – or even by being transparent about the level of purchase below which competitive procurement does not apply – the level of engagement between city authorities and these communities could be increased. Bridging organisations can also play a positive role here, such as Sustainable Enterprise Strategies (SES) in Sunderland. SES provide support to the local social enterprise community and act as a link between that community and the City Council.

Local entrepreneurs and innovators often have limited resources. On their own, they are unlikely to implement such Smarter City infrastructures as energy grids or real-time transport information systems, for example. But collectively, their ideas could contribute significantly to the business case for a local authority to invest in such infrastructures. By engaging with this community extensively, a portfolio of potential innovations and outcomes can be created to demonstrate the value of such investments. By drawing on the collective creative energies of the city in this way, that portfolio is likely to contain many more ideas than could be obtained from central agencies alone.

4. Explore the cost-saving potential of Smarter technologies

At the heart of Smarter Cities is the idea that information integration and analytic technologies allow better, more forward looking decisions to be taken within cities; with the potential both to improve outcomes and to reduce costs. Whereas the desired outcomes may be citywide and social or environmental in nature rather than directly financial, many case studies show that short-term cost reductions can also be achieved within a single investing organisation. These cost reductions, of course, can then be the basis of an investment case – as they were for Sunderland’s City Cloud.

The London Borough of Brent in the UK, for example, realised significant cost savings by reducing error and fraud using such technologies, as did Alameda County in the US, who also identified new revenue opportunities (see this case study and this video).

As I dicussed in an earlier blog post exploring this topic, if these technologies are deployed on the shared IT platforms described above, then once in place they can be re-used for other purposes. This might lower the cost of deploying subsequent solutions elsewhere in city systems, such as traffic prediction for commuters in order to reduce the congestion that lowers economic productivity and job creation in cities; or predictive analytics to enable preventative approaches to social care, as demonstrated by Medway Youth Trust.

5. Could Smarter Cities be sponsored?

The Miami Dolphin’s Sun Life Stadium photographed by Bob Brown

In recent times we have become used to the idea that sports stadiums take their names from sponsors who fund the teams that own them, such as Arsenal Football Club’s Emirates Stadium. Such facilities are cities in microcosm in many respects, operating their own power, transport, safety and other systems analogous to those found in cities. Some, such as the Miami Dolphin’s Sun Life Stadium are already transforming those systems to become Smarter Stadiums.

Other facilities such as ports, airports, industrial plants, shopping malls and University campuses can be considered “micro-cities” in a similar way; and as I have commented before some of these are large enough that transforming their systems can make a significant contribution to transforming the cities in which they are based.

Could the concept of sponsorship be extended beyond sports stadiums? It has certainly been applied to entertainment facilities such as the O² Arena; and many airports have changed their names for marketing and branding purposes. 

I don’t expect we’ll see a city renamed by a corporate sponsor anytime soon, and novels such as Max Barry’s “Jennifer Government” and Rupert Thomson’s “Soft” have cautioned against such ideas. As past controversies around privatisation and commercialisation in areas of education and the justice system suggest, there are certainly city systems for which this idea could be challenging or simply inappropriate. But with cities increasingly conscious of the value of their brands in attracting investment and business, and with local employers conscious of the need for cities to seem attractive to the skilled people they need to employ, the possibilities for sponsorship to support some form of investment in appropriate Smarter City systems or facilities – especially those that are already private sector components of the city ecosystem – could be worth considering.

Funding the Smarter City roadmap

It’s very unlikely that any of the ideas I’ve discussed here will fund an entire Smarter City transformation, of course. But they are all realistic possibilities to fund elements of such a transformation. The challenge for cities is for their stakeholders to come together and agree how they will collectively exploit all of these ideas – and more – in funding the elements of a programme that they agree to undertake together.

Next week I’ll continue this discussion by exploring five more ways for cities to fund and support Smarter initiatives.

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Five roads to a Smarter City

(Photo of Daikoku junction by Ykanazawa1999

Recently, I discussed the ways in which cities are formulating  “Smarter City” visions and the programmes to deliver them. Such cross-city approaches are clearly what’s required in order to have a transformative effect across an entire city.

However, whilst some cities have undergone dramatic changes in this way – or have been built as “Smarter” cities in the first place as in the case of the famous Masdar project in Abu Dhabi – most cities are making progress one step at a time.

Four patterns have emerged in how they are doing so. Each pattern is potentially replicable by other cities; and each represents a proven approach that can be used as part of a wider cross-city plan.

I’ll start at the beginning, though, and describe why cross-city transformations can be hard to envision and deliver. Understanding why that can be the case will give us insight into which simpler, smaller-scale approaches can succeed more easily.

What’s so hard about a Smarter City?

Cities are complex ecosystems of people and organisations which need to work together to create and deliver Smarter City visions. Bringing them together to act in that way is difficult and time-consuming.

(Photo of Beijing by Trey Ratcliff)

Even where a city community has the time and willingness to do that, the fragmented nature of city systems makes it hard to agree a joint approach. Particularly in Europe and the UK, budgets and responsibilities are split between agenices; and services such as utilities and transport are contracted out and subject to performance measures that cannot easily be changed. Agreeing the objectives and priorities for a Smarter City vision in this context is hard enough; agreeing the financing mechanisms to fund programmes to deliver them is even more difficult.

Some of the cities that have made the most progress so far in Smarter City transformations have done so in part because they do not face these challenges – either because they are new-build cities like Masdar, or because they have more hierarchical systems of governance, such as Guangzhou in China. In other cases, critical challenges or unusual opportunities provide the impetus to act – for example in Rio, where an incredible cross-city operations centre has been implemented in preparation for the 2014 World cup and 2016 Olympics.

Elsewhere, cities must spend time and effort building a consensus. San Francisco, Dublin and Sunderland are amongst those who began that process some time ago; and many others are on the way.

But city-wide transformations are not the only approach to changing the way that cities work – they are just one of the five roads to a Smarter City. Four other approaches have been shown to work; and in many cases they are more straightforward as they are contained within individual domains of a city; or exploit changes that are taking place anyway.

Smarter infrastructure

Many cities in the UK and Europe are supported by transport and utility systems whose physical infrastructure is decades old. As urban populations rise and the pace of living increases, these systems are under increasing pressure. “Smarter” concepts and technologies can improve their efficiency and resilience whilst minimising the need to upgrade and expand them physically.

(Photo of a leaking tap by Vinoth Chandar. A project in Dubuque, Iowa showed that a community scheme involving smart meters and shared finances had a significant effect improving the repair of water leaks.)

In South Bend, Indiana, for example, an analytic system helps to predict and prevent wastewater overflows by more intelligently managing the existing infrastructure. The city estimates that they have avoided the need to invest in hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades to the physical capacity of the infrastructure as a result. In Stockholm, a road-use charging system has significantly reduced congestion and improved environmental quality. In both cases, the systems have direct financial benefits that can be used to justify their cost.

These are just two examples of initiatives that offer a simplified approach to Smarter Cities; they deliver city-wide benefits but their implementation is within the sphere of a single organisation’s responsibility and finances.

Smarter micro-cities 

Environments such as sports stadiums, University campuses, business parks, ports and airports, shopping malls or retirement communities are cities in microcosm. Within them, operational authority and budgetary control across systems such as safety, transportation and communication usually reside with a single organisation. This can make it more straightforward to invest in a technology platform to provide insight into how those systems are operating together – as the Miami Dolphins have done in their Sun Life Stadium.

Other examples of such Smarter “micro-Cities” include the iPark industrial estate in Wuxi, China where a Cloud computing platform provides shared support services to small businesses; and the Louvre museum in Paris where “Intelligent Building” technology controls the performance of the environmental systems that protect the museum’s visitors and exhibits.

(Photo of the Louvre exhibition “‘The Golden Antiquity. Innovations and resistance in the 18th century” from the IBM press release for the Louvre project)

Improving the operation of such “micro-cities” can have a significant impact on the  cities and regions in which they are located – they are often major contributors to the economy and environment.

Shared Public Services

Across the world demographic and financial pressures are causing transformative change in public sector. City and regional leaders have said that their organisations are facing unprecedented challenges. In the UK it is estimated that nearly 900,000 public sector jobs will be lost over 5 years – approximately 3% of national employment.

In order to reduce costs whilst minimising impact to frontline services, many public sector agencies are making arrangements to share the delivery of common administrative services with each other, such as human resources, procurement, finance and customer relationship management.

Often these arrangements are being made locally between organisations that know and trust each other because they have a long history of working together. Sharing services means sharing business applications, IT platforms, and data; as town and village councils did in the Municipal Shared Services Cloud project.

As a result shared IT platforms with co-located information and applications are now deployed in many cities and regions. Smarter City systems depend on access to such information. Sunderland City Council are very aware of this; their CEO and CIO have both spoken about the opportunity for the City Cloud they are deploying to provide information to support public and private-sector innovation. Such platforms are an important enabler for the last trend I’d like to discuss: open data.

Open Data

(A visualisation created by Daniel X O Neil of data from Chicago’s open data portal showing the activities of paid political lobbyists and their customers in the city)

The open data movement lobbies for information from public systems to be made openly available and transparent, in order that citizens and entrepreneurial businesses can find new ways to use it.

In cities such as Chicago (pictured on the left) and Dublin, open data platforms have resulted in the creation of “Apps” that provide useful information and services to citizens; and in the formation of startup companies with new, data-based business models.

There are many challenges and costs involved in providing good quality, usable open data to city communities; but the shared service platforms I’ve described can help to overcome them, and provide the infrastructure for the market-based innovations in city systems that can lead to sustainable economic growth.

Let’s build Smarter Cities … together

All of these approaches can succeed as independent Smarter City initiatives, or as contributions to an overall city-wide plan. The last two in particular seem to be widely applicable. Demographics and economics are driving an inevitable transformation to shared services in public sector; and the open data movement and the phenomenon of “civic hacking” demonstrate the willingness and capability of communities to use technology to create innovations in city systems.

As a result, technology vendors, local authorities and city communities have an exciting opportunity to collaborate. The former have the ability to deliver the robust, scalable, secure infrastructures required to provide and protect information about cities and individual citizens; the latter have the ability to use those platforms to create local innovations in business and service delivery.

At the 3rd EU Summit on Future Internet in Helsinki earlier this year, Juanjo Hierro, Chief Architect for the FI-WARE “future internet platform” project and Chief Technologist for Telefonica,  addressed this topic and identified the specific challenges that civic hackers face that could be addressed by such city information infrastructures; he included real-time access to information from physical city infrastructures; tools for analysing “big data“; and access to technologies to ensure privacy and trust.

Cities such as Sunderland, Birmingham, Dublin, Chicago and San Francisco are amongst those investing in such platforms, and in programmes to engage with communities to stimulate innovation in city systems. Working together, they are taking impressive steps towards making cities smarter.

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