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Internet of things and smart cities need UK-wide consensus

At a TechUK event, delegates call for cross-body collaboration on IoT to ensure local authority CIOs get the best from the emerging technology

Smart city technology's time has come, but for local authorities to buy in there needs to be a wider consensus to establish how the internet of things (IoT) can be best employed to transform urban life in the next 30 years.

This was the verdict of a panel of delegates at a smart cities event hosted by industry association TechUK, who spoke of the need for joined-up, top-down thinking on the IoT.

Stephen Pattison, vice-president of public affairs at chip design firm ARM, said the industry has not yet developed compelling arguments for why smart cities are important. According to Pattison, there is a potentially serious disconnect between councils unable to figure out exactly what they want and suppliers touting trivial examples.

“Some proposed projects, such as who will use it or how we will make money off it, are questions that councils cannot answer for their electorate,” said Pattison.

“Unless people feel confident in the security of their data, all these projects risk being slow off the mark. We must get it right through an industry-led effort,” he said.

Ben Hawes, smart cities policy lead at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), steered well clear of announcing any major policy changes so soon after the general election, but voiced concern that there is no real model for establishing IoT best practices or standards between local authorities.

According to Hawes, this was an opportunity for bodies such as the Future Cities Catapult to drive a national-level discussion about the IoT.

Milton Keynes goes smart

Milton Keynes is one city that has commited to the IoT, establishing a city-wide network alongside the Future Cities Catapult and Connected Digital Economy Catapult, as well as the Open University.

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The city has set in motion a number of IoT trials, including waste management, car parking services, and even pothole reporting using smartphone gyroscopes.

Geoff Snelson, Milton Keynes Council director of strategy, said smart cities in the future would address barriers to sustainable housing and jobs growth, create new service models for councils, reduce carbon emissions, and improve the lives of citizens through responsive and bespoke services, increased engagement and easier access to education and training.

“We need to improve the business case for many of these applications. Local authorities across the nation need to pull together this information because there will be mutual interest,” said Snelson.

“We need champions and intermediaries to translate the IoT to UK PLC and understand what capabilities we have, rather than pushing forward individually,” he said. “All of this is too precarious to just sit back and assume it will happen.”

Snelson told Computer Weekly he had already worked with peers elsewhere in the country – Milton Keynes and Coventry are currently collaborating on an innovate UK-funded project to test driverless cars – but up to now, he said, such projects have “been a little bit ad hoc”.

Suppliers take the strain

Justin Anderson, CEO at Surrey-based IoT systems supplier Flexeye, speaking on behalf of IoT consortium Hypercat, said the supplier community also needs to play its part.

“Tech companies need to find ways to work together to allow cross-pollination so we get the best of the best,” said Anderson. “If we have interoperability it allows us efficiencies of integration. There is no point in having billions of sensors, costing pennies each, if each one costs a hundred pounds to install.”

Anderson pointed out that with the anticipated growth in London’s population up to 2050 requiring over a million new homes, 600 more schools, a 20% increase in demand for energy and 21% for water, as well as 50% more public transport capacity, the capital will require over a trillion pounds worth of infrastructure investment over the next 35 years.

“Clearly we can’t afford that, so technology has a role to ensure London can operate as a smart city going forward,” said Anderson.

In an indication of the scale of the opportunity for the IT industry, Hypercat’s figures propose that smart city technologies could be worth £4bn by 2020 in London alone.

Read more on Internet of Things (IoT)