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Government must challenge popular smart city misconceptions

A report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities says many people feel alienated by the concept, and calls on the government to challenge some popular misconceptions

Scepticism and worry about the potential applications of smart city technology abound among the general public. Many perceive it as a threat to their jobs and personal security, and are left feeling alienated by something that is meant to benefit them, according to MP Iain Stewart, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smart Cities.

In a new APPG report, Intelligent leadership: How government strategy can unlock the potential of smart cities in the UK, Stewart wrote that many of the UK’s greatest challenges could conceivably be solved by embracing smart city technology and called on the government to lead on a coherent smart city strategy for the UK.

“Central government has a leading role to play in challenging these misconceptions and misunderstandings,” said Stewart, who as an MP represents Milton Keynes South, home to one of the UK’s most advanced smart city projects.

“The role of smart cities is not to create a society of automation and alienation, but to bring communities together,” he said.

“The term smart cities refers not to a sector, but to a cross-government and cross-departmental approach that should underpin the way government works at all levels.

“A coherent strategy from central government is needed to ensure a joined-up approach between businesses and those who work most closely with and on behalf of their citizens – local government. By fully embracing the smart cities approach, central government can empower local authorities to show ordinary people how smart can positively impact on their everyday lives.”

Stewart said that such a plan need not be too expensive, and pointed out that the economic payoff for getting smart cities right could be immense, both in generating increased productivity and enabling new businesses and industries. It could also help to improve accessibility and support for vulnerable people, reduce the strain on the NHS, improve transport networks and address climate change challenges, he said.

The APPG proposed a number of simple steps for Westminster to take. These might include: emphasising the human benefits of smart city technologies and their potential to solve everyday problems; thinking horizontally across departmental silos while taking advantage of data sharing; promoting collaboration between local authorities; and doing more to promote funds and programmes, such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, that exist to further smart city technologies.

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The report also suggested that the government should strengthen ministerial responsibility for smart cities, possibly even introducing a dedicated minister, and establish a standards and governance framework to help local authorities get moving on smart city projects.

The report was compiled based on a number of evidence sessions and written submissions from industry bodies, academics, local councils and other smart city stakeholders, including sector pioneers in two of the world’s most advanced digital economies, Estonia and Singapore.

Responding to the APPG’s report, TechUK’s programme manager for transport and smart cities, Jessica Russell, said it was exciting to see that TechUK’s calls for stronger, coherent government leadership were being heard.

“We note that the APPG on Smart Cities has concluded that a ‘coherent strategy from central government is needed to ensure a joined-up approach’,” she said. “While we do not share the same emphasis on the role of an official strategy, as we feel that a genuinely more unified approach to leadership would suffice, we welcome it as step toward more structured and united leadership.”

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