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A Vodafone study, conducted by pollsters ComRes, has suggested that local government still remains unaware, by and large, of the opportunity presented by smart city technology, and how it can be used to deliver better and more cost-efficient public services.
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The survey, which questioned 1,624 UK adults and 629 councillors, and was carried out between December 2014 and March 2015, revealed that smart in-building energy management systems and street lighting alone could save local councils across the country £402.3m.
It said 67% of urban councillors were not aware of machine-to-machine (M2M) technology and how best to take advantage of it, even though 77% of people living in urban areas said they would support their council’s decision to invest in the internet of things (IoT) to improve public services.
The gap in understanding, said Vodafone, would explain why smart city technology has not yet been widely deployed – beyond a few test beds in tech-heavy locales such as Bristol and Milton Keynes – to improve lighting, rubbish collection, traffic, public transport management and so on.
Councillors did agree, however, that technology investment was important in delivering better public services, which may augur well for the future. Further, with the provisional local government finance settlement meaning that councils in England will have to take out £8bn in 2015, the pressure to address savings will continue to grow.
The £400m worth of savings predicted from energy-efficient smart buildings and street lighting would account for 5% of that £8bn, without taking into account other services.
Vodafone’s findings echo those of a Gartner report from March 2015, which said that shorter and more competitive buying cycles, as well as a lack of red tape, would help to ensure that the private sector was able to do more with the IoT in the short-term future, with most smart city investment coming around smart home and commercial building technology.
The operator’s own experience backs up Gartner’s earlier findings. When Vodafone deployed smart monitoring systems at 200 of its sites, it reported an average saving of 29% in energy costs at each location.
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Among residents, transport and traffic emerged as higher priorities than street lighting, with 88% of adults living in urban areas saying they support the introduction of smart traffic lights that automatically respond to the flow of people and vehicles in a given situation. A high proportion also said they would be in support of their local council investing in applications to help them find parking spaces, something Milton Keynes’ smart city project is currently exploring.
Vodafone M2M sales and commercial director Matt Key said: “While the importance of technology seems to be widely appreciated by local councillors and residents in urban areas, the lack of awareness of the massive benefits to be gained from M2M and the internet of things means that urban councils are missing out on opportunities to deliver better, smarter and more cost-effective services in the areas which matter to their local communities.
“Among the small amount of councillors who are familiar with M2M, almost all of them (83%) feel the technology will be important in delivering better services and improved value to the community,” he added.
"If we can help more councillors understand the possible savings and the benefits, then we have a real opportunity to help local councils improve the services for their communities, as well as free up more budget to be reinvested in front line services."
Local and national politics
In May 2015 a panel of IoT experts discussed smart city technology at an event hosted by TechUK, and reported that local government could benefit from top-down guidance on the IoT from Westminster, as well as some sort of means to share experience and best practice.
This call was echoed at a recent event hosted by Hypercat, a consortium set up specifically to address secure and interoperable IoT technology.
Speaking at a debate on smart cities held at Hypercat’s event, Mark Prisk MP, former minister for housing and local government, and now chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Smart Cities Group, said it was important for smart city advocates to consider what citizens wanted and needed the most, rather than rushing in headlong with the latest technology.
“It is about changing minds and focusing on practical outcomes to help people see the benefits,” Prisk told an audience at London’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.
“We must work with businesses and residents from the start to create real partnerships that genuinely reflect the views of the community,” he said.
Prisk said national politicians needed to turn the language of localism – much in vogue as the new government expands on plans for limited devolution to some city governments – into a “practical framework” that empowered local people to effect change and reshape their communities with IoT technology.
He added that it was vital all members of urban communities were brought in on smart city projects from the very start to avoid letting what he termed a “connected elite” dominate the discussion. This will be extremely important when it comes to applications around health and social care, particularly with regard to the rapidly ageing UK population.