As digital and communications technology advances, the scope of applications to which it can be applied broadens. One important way this is happening is through strategic linking of infrastructure within cities. The joining up of transport, energy, waste management and all the other systems that make up a city potentially provides great efficiencies and environmental benefits.
Governments are beginning to see the advantages of these smart cities and key initiatives to make use of them have begun around the globe. The market is expected to be worth $408bn worldwide by 2020 and if the UK takes advantage of this, both domestically and through exports, it could have a powerfully positive impact on the wider national economy.
The question is, what are we doing in the UK to buy in to this global revolution and how can we benefit? On April 9, 2014, in partnership with Digital Realty, the New Statesman gathered leading experts from the world of technology, city infrastructure and academia together with the Minister for Universities and Science, the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, to discuss the future application of smart technology to the UKs cities.
Running through their discussion was an overall awareness that smarter cities can benefit the UK both economically and socially. Our round-table panellists were also interested to gauge the level of excitement from the government to bring about these changes. New issues were thrown up as health warnings, sharing concerns around security, data storage, energy, environmental challenges and privacy.
Willetts began the discussion by talking about security, pointing out that while technophiles get very excited by the opportunities presented by digital connections between infrastructure and things, their proliferation represents an increased risk from cyber attack. However, he argued that this plays to the UKs strengths. Saying we can sell you a water system or a sewage system or a transport system which is also relatively secure from cyber attack gives us a distinctive selling point, Willetts emphasised. He felt that as the global market expands we have an opportunity to shape standards globally. When you go to China one of the things thats high on the agenda is what kind of services and consultancy we can do. There are some fantastic export opportunities for us, Willetts boasted.
A different perspective on the economic benefits came from Lan Doody, associate at Arup. She explained that smart systems generate a great deal of data and that data is becoming a new raw material for products and services. Doody also noted how cities are using the title smart city to attract inward investment and attract skilled workers, illustrating unexpected knock-on benefits to the economy.
Alexandra Jones, chief executive of the Centre for Cities, shared examples of the different kinds of benefits cities in the UK could gain from smart technology. She described how, in Leeds, Its about an innovation health hub, an open platform for health-care data. Further illustrating her point, Jones recalled how Milton Keynes got a 16m grant from HEFCE [the Higher Education Funding Council for England] to do a smart city big data project which is all about using data from the infrastructure of other sources to manage our carbon footprint and she emphasised smart technologys different applications.
On the carbon footprint issue, the group identified both opportunities and areas of concern. Dr Rick Robinson, executive architect on the Smarter Cities team at IBM UK and Ireland, described how when people were presented with their energy usage recorded by smart meters, They were twice as likely to make changes. However, he also explained that, in a subsequent scheme, People who were told they were better than their neighbours at recycling said: If theyre not bothering Im not going to, either, and actually got worse!
Professor Robin Leatherbarrow, pro-vice-chancellor at Liverpool John Moores University, pointed out: You can monitor energy use and achieve savings for individuals, but its also interesting to see why companies think its a good thing to do. He continued, The data is much richer than you think it is. If companies reach into that [level of] data they will find a very valuable marketing tool, and most participants agreed that this would be a positive step forward for universities and businesses looking to capitalise on the data boom.
Bernard Geoghegan, senior vice-president and managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Digital Realty, linked the environmental benefits of having smarter cities to making profit. As someone who would know, Geoghegan argued that being green is green referring to US dollars. He further explained how being more efficient means you actually save money.
Data centres are the factories of growth for most smart cities. If they are provided with incentives to reduce their overall power consumption and thereby their energy bills, they can contribute actively to the smart-city revolution. Nevertheless, Geoghegan reminded panellists that, across the field of smart cities, The innovation is there but its ultimately how you use it.
Becky Foreman, head of UK government affairs at Microsoft, reassured the panel that her company was aware that privacy is a really key issue at the moment for consumers and for citizens right across the board. In practice, she added, Individual companies can do a lot by making sure privacy is built in to the RnD [research and development] of their products, as we try to do right from the beginning. She advocated helping citizens to protect themselves when theyre online right across the board, with individual privacy issues but also small businesses. Helping them protect their intellectual property when theyre supplying to government or working with smart cities is very important.
Foreman emphasised that this security agenda had to stretch from local up to the national government, but the panel felt this was not the only area where governments could do more. Professor Dennis F Kehoe, CEO at AIMES Grid Services, pointed out some current weaknesses at local authority level. Local authorities who are opening their data are being made accountable for the open data, he said, and argued that they are not really paid to develop this new world and new economics. He identified a disconnect between suppliers and buyers, the key question being: Who ultimately pays for the infrastructure? Kehoe warned that at the moment the infrastructure is run by people whose goal is simply to keep the lights on and who accord far less importance to the environmental impact of their decisions.
Nicholas Jeffery, vice-president for sales in Europe, Middle East and Africa at Digital Realty, gave a warning from his own experience of working with governments on large-scale infrastructure projects. Having helped Kecskemt, one of the largest cities in Hungary, attract investment from Mercedes-Benz, he found that the Hungarian government fell down by not delivering on its promises. The firm did not go back to [the Hungarian] government, he noted. He observed how for the UK government pressure for foreign direct investment is a global race, and emphasised that, in order to be competitive, We have to get our act together as we are competing with people from all kinds of places.
For Julian David, chief executive of techUK, The government is doing quite a lot in the cyber area. He described how it is asking industry through the Information Economy Council to come up with the benefits. Firstly, why is it good to have this data available? Secondly, [outline] the principle of what it is and who owns what. Thirdly, help with putting forward some positive regulations. Though broadly pleased with this, David did have concerns about how governments react to negative and scary cases where, immediately there isnt a positive end in sight, the whole project collapses.
How this government and future governments assume such a large undertaking as smart civil planning is yet to be decided. It appeared that although many experts sat around the table sharing ideas, what Britain needs is a cohesive, joined-up approach that is truly representative of the people for whom we build these cities. Most of whom have not yet been born.
What kind of world do we want to build for future generations? Will it fundamentally improve our lives? How will it help me as a business, or as an individual? Or are those two things the same? Ultimately, will smarter cities help us understand those around us better?
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12 December 2017