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A tale of two smart cities: Manchester and Australia’s Casey

How local government needs to focus on immediate returns, not pie in the sky, for a smart city agenda

Speaking in the UK parliament during a debate on smart city development in June 2019, Lisa Cameron, a shadow spokesperson on mental health for the SNP, painted a rosy picture of 5G’s potential impact on local government services.

Following a cross-party UK-US parliamentary group fact-finding mission in May, Cameron said that “with 5G, people will be able to control their home and car – everything – from a single device.” She was clearly sold a utopian vision by the “technology leaders in the mid-west” and, to a large extent, this is the problem with the smart cities idea. It’s too vast an area, too complex, too hyped.

Back in 2013, a UK government paper on smart cities cited an Arup estimate that “the global market for smart urban systems for transport, energy, healthcare, water and waste will amount to around $400bn per annum by 2020”. The UK, said the paper, should aim to secure 10% of the market, worth an estimated $40bn a year. That’s some economic incentive.

Interestingly, during the smart city debate in the House of Commons, Chris Skidmore, minister of state at the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, conceded that the UK is behind the US, China, South Korea and Germany in terms of smart city R&D investment. While the government aims to increase R&D allocations to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 (the OECD baseline), Skidmore claimed that to reach the £60bn R&D target, “we must convince SMEs to change their business models and recognise the value of research and development”.

Good luck with that. The challenges facing local governments are not fixed. That, in itself, is the problem. Cities need to develop technology solutions that can cope with change, that are scalable and can deliver both savings and improved service provision on an ongoing basis. That requires serious infrastructure changes, a shift in internal culture, strong private-sector support and innovative solutions that can be implemented on limited budgets.

Black hole

Central government austerity measures have done little to advance the UK’s potential as a smart city leader. Local government is facing an £8bn black hole by 2025, according to Local Government Association figures, and this puts all the political rhetoric into perspective.

Council CIOs are tasked with developing strategies first and foremost that can drive efficiencies in council services. The pressure is on to save money and if somehow this throws up clever innovation, then all well and good. It’s hardly the bedrock on which a nation can build world-leading smart city development.

There are some exceptions. Glasgow was awarded £24m to become a future cities demonstrator site in 2013, while London has seen numerous investments, including, in 2017, £13.4m of the government’s £51m Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) testbed budget.

While London topped a recent survey of the world’s most advanced smart city governments, most cities have to plough ahead with a fraction of the investment. They have to be more creative and, of course, more selective. The focus has to be on making services more efficient to run, while also meeting the needs of an increasingly digital-savvy population.

Two cities on opposite sides of the world are good examples of this – Manchester in the UK and the City of Casey in Victoria, Australia.

In Manchester, the Smarter City programme is the umbrella for a number of initiatives covering transport, waste, health and energy. Last year it ran CityVerve, a three-project scheme to trial innovation from local businesses. and in June this year, Vodafone launched a digital innovation hub in Manchester’s Media City UK complex in Salford.

Partnerships and startups

Like a lot of cities, Manchester is trying to forge innovation through partnerships and startups. There is, it seems, no shortage of willing participants.

However, also like many cities, Manchester struggles to marry the drive for innovation with the need to provide ongoing, affordable services.

“It’s really difficult,” says Bob Brown, Manchester City Council’s former CIO (he is now chief solutions officer at Emis Health), referring to the dual challenge of keeping council leaders and residents happy, while at the same time providing a foundation for change.

And the problem is not just budget. While Brown admits his former IT department is quite fortunate in that it is reasonably well-funded (£55m over five years since 2015), the real issue is infrastructure. When Brown took over in 2015, the backbone of the authority was complex and out of date, he says.

“It was not really an enabler,” he says. “If anyone wanted anything new, they went out and procured it themselves and then asked IT to implement it. It was a very mixed stack as a result, with a lot of duplication of services and lack of recognition that the core foundation of services was really quite mixed.

“The organisation was experiencing system failure on a regular basis, which of course represented a broad financial and reputational risk to the council.”

While the IT team stabilised the problems through a traditional IT infrastructure with separate servers and storage, last year it struck a deal to install Nutanix’s AHV Hypervisor. The aim was to create a more dynamic, scalable infrastructure on which the council could dare to dream about being a smart authority.

“We’ve developed a strategy and managed to secure funding to underpin it,” says Brown. “We’ve had to address some risk factors, address and change the way services are provided, so they are available 24/7 – we’re in a 98% plus percentile of services being available now. This is crucial as some of the people transacting on our services are some of the most vulnerable in the city and we now have 600,000 people using these services.”

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For Brown, this is fundamental. Only with these basic capabilities in place and proven in terms of availability and cost reduction (he claims the new ICT function has delivered annual cost savings over the last three years) can the council start to think about more intelligent use of the technology. For Brown, this means assisted living.

“A modernisation programme to provide differentiating healthcare services,” he says when asked what Manchester can do to be smart. “To consider how assisted living technology can enable people to transition from a clinical environment to a residential one with respect and care, by allowing people to leave hospital and live safely, preferably in their own home. This is a big game-changer.”

Brown agrees that most councils recognise they can’t run before they can walk, despite the hype around smart cities and the potential for widespread automation. He talks about AI and machine learning and although he says this is a future strategy, the council, like many others, is not getting too carried away.

This is not unusual. As a recently published Transformation Network league table shows, council adoption of robotic and AI technology is low, with less than 5% of councils having any kind of automation or AI project under way. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 – most councils would benefit, but it represents a significant investment.

“It has to be part of the armoury, a future strategy, but crucially not to replace people,” says Brown. “We just want people to be doing more significant roles with the time they have available.”

There is some automation. Currently, Manchester residents can self-serve for a whole range of services, all without a human touch behind them, and Brown expects to see more of this soon, although he is mindful that 50% of residents still choose manual over digital processes.

This will, of course, change, as will the fundamental nature of the city. Today, Manchester is considered a thriving metropolis. It is, according to The Economist, the UK’s most liveable city (13 places above London). According to EY, it is forecast to remain one of the UK’s strongest-performing cities to 2021, with strong employment growth at 1.2% a year. Tech Nation claims it is strong in software development, and of course digital media.

Manchester seems to have the necessary parts and with a strong infrastructure and now 5G, it is better placed than most UK authorities to define what a UK smart city should actually be.

The case for Casey

For Clint Allsop, senior leader of business, digital and city transformation at the City of Casey, a major suburb of Melbourne, Australia, there are some challenges similar to those facing Manchester and yet the council has already taken a leap into the AI space.

Allsop has been instrumental in driving Casey’s smart city strategy, and sees it as absolutely essential to maintaining, let alone improving, local services for this rapidly growing region.

“We have a unique challenge being an outer urban council,” says Allsop. “We are a densely populated region and we are forecast to see 60%-plus growth in 20 years. This is being driven by affordable housing and, as a result, we’ve got a culturally diverse community and a wide range of socio-economic circumstances.”

The challenge for Casey is how to deliver its 66 local services – “not just roads, rates and rubbish”, says Allsop – to this diverse community.

“The council is very cash-strapped, but we have to improve the customer experience, improve operational efficiencies and best utilise a single view of customers, to better understand their needs and expectations,” says Allsop.

Casey is trialling internet of things (IoT) networks as part of the smart city strategy, with the aim of using the data to inform decision-making on everything from energy management to clean air strategies and transport services.

“We have a vision to create Australia’s most liveable city,” says Allsop, but that will be a challenge. Its big neighbour, Melbourne, vies for that accolade (although it lost its crown in The Economist list to Vienna last year). However, eyes are now on Casey, given its decision to trial IPsoft’s cognitive agent Amelia.

“We have a cognitive assistant that will enable us to streamline some of our services to our customers and improve data collection,” says Allsop. “We are focusing on waste collection – missed bins and waste processes – but also pet registration. It will test our ability from an integration perspective and use case complexities.

“When you hear some customers talk about the colour of their pet and how passionate they are about their pets, it will be an interesting challenge for Amelia.”

Diverse community

Amelia will also have to cope with the diversity of the community – many residents have English as a second language and speak with a range of accents. This, says Allsop, will give Casey a clear indication of how a cognitive agent can not just reduce costs, but ensure that questions are answered and applications are processed efficiently and accurately. If it works well, Casey plans to extend Amelia’s responsibilities.

“How do we enable services to be sustainable?” says Allsop. “We have to automate and reallocate staff, augment tasks to improve interaction and service provision. It has to stack up, too. We have to build a business case, because we are spending community money.”

Progress will also be monitored closely by other councils. Casey already works with a number of other authorities, sharing the load in terms of technology trials to see what does and doesn’t work. He expects Amelia to work well and is optimistic about the future, although wary of smart city hype.

“I find the key challenge with smart cities is that you can create some real goodness, but it’s also an opportunity for new industries to start up and sell something to the public sector,” he says. “At the moment, it still seems a bit like tech looking for a problem to solve.”

That is the problem with overarching, futuristic terminology. It leads to macro ideas, fanciful dreams and misses the point that for most authorities, a smart city is just about using technology to reduce costs without hurting services and, where possible, even improve them a little.

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