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The problem of smart cities and connectivity in the UK

Only once leaders develop a framework for local economic and societal development can the “smart city” buzz can evolve into “intelligent communities”

No one should trash the efforts of innovators and determined community leaders working to make places easier to manage and more attractive for living and working. They are pioneers and, like all who dare to see things differently, they are battling against the odds.

The concept of smart cities is often described in terms of data collection and analytics. The extent to which “smartness” can be achieved is largely dependent on the enabling broadband qualities that link all manner of data feeds from across the city. 

The smart city industry is awash with sensors and expectations of open data feeds from myriad public and private sector systems. Smart concepts encompass analytic engines to detect fine digital needles in giant data haystacks and also embrace the need for data integration standards and an urban operating system – a term coined by Living PlanIT SA, which created the first such system.

As for connectivity, we may perhaps be able to get by for now with the new narrowband (FTTC) that pretends to be broad and fibred but its quality, alas, is hobbled by having one leg shorter than the other and will never be able to run fast.

To properly qualify as “smart” requires something more than all that technology and digital expertise. To be smart, the place, the community, must have a leadership with the courage, confidence and authority to act on the outcomes. All that data is useless unless it is going to be used. The technology alone – even where connectivity allows its deployment – is insufficient without determined, action-orientated leadership.

In the management of any place, some data may demand immediate responsiveness. At the other extreme, some outputs may contribute to very long-term developments. Some responses may be obvious and immediate – dealing with imminent environmental disasters like blocked sewers or fluctuating transport demands when accidents occur.

But these are local operational matters that will keep the show on road. Bigger questions, like whether the entire place is heading down the right road, need deeper insights.

Applied smartness

It is only when leaders develop a framework for local economic and societal development that the smart city buzz can evolve into “intelligent communities”. Which is why some would say the “city” tag is not helpful. True, cities are more complex, have bigger challenges and higher management overheads, but cities are collections of many (often overlapping) communities. What is needed in one quarter may be irrelevant for another. Similar challenges in economic and social wellbeing can be found in smaller towns and villages way beyond the city walls, but still a very strong part of the wider economy.

So, if the place has future-proofed broadband, sensors and open data feeds, the analytics engines and expertise, an urban operating system and a leadership with the capacity not only to respond but also to weld all the data sources and their owners into a co-operative team, how then can the community and its leaders focus on improving economic and social wellbeing?

That question has been studied for decades around the world – most notably by ICF, a foundation based in North America but with a global appreciation of community development. 

Enabling intelligent communities

Some 20 years on, ICF has distilled the development essence of any community. It identifies six basic themes that make a real difference to economic success – for example, jobs growth – and social wellbeing. Two of those themes have already been mentioned – ubiquitous broadband and open data. The other four themes are:

Knowledge workforce: The most successful communities demonstrate an ability to develop local digital expertise at all levels of employment and across all sectors.

Digital inclusion: Successful communities do not leave this to chance or trust in the survival of the fittest. They have determined local policies and programmes to ensure that people do not get left behind in the new economy. 

Innovation:  How does that happen? It happens because those places work at building the innovative capacity of all enterprises, but particularly new businesses. Almost all the jobs growth in modern economies is generated by businesses with fewer than 50 employees. And, administratively, they also focus hard on local open data and local government processes to reduce costs and improve citizen and employee services.

Marketing and advocacy: And finally, something that sounds too boastful to be British, but, just as businesses need to project their brands and reputation, so it is that really successful communities find the time and effort to explain to the wider world – and investors – how they are building truly great places to work and live. Many of the acclaimed happiest places are those where people can live and work in the same community, eliminating the inefficiencies of commuting.

All this, and more, is explained in ICF’s 2014 publication Brain Gain, and ICF now offers communities the opportunity of holding Community Accelerator master classes customised to meet their local needs and priorities.

But will it happen here?

Just like the underlying smart city technology ventures, the question hangs in the air: Has the management got the balls?

That’s an uncomfortable question in the UK because over the past three decades local leadership has been constrained by Whitehall’s central oversight – a lack of trust that is only now being tentatively treated with limited devolution of fiscal controls. It’s a trend set to continue, but one that is hampered by the lack of local leaderships with the expertise and confidence to take on the responsibilities – the unforeseen legacy of the past three decades.

The prospect for the UK in this localised push for growth is also hampered by a lack of the basics. A new Infrastructure Commission with a long-term remit is reportedly going to focus on big-ticket issues like airport expansion and rail transport. There is, however, scarcely a mention of the relatively inexpensive basic building blocks for smarter places – fully-fibred broadband and local open data. 

Whitehall may claim world-leading status in the latter, but local governments and agencies are perceived to be lagging. And on broadband, successive governments and the regulator have (no doubt with the best of intentions) merely muddled through. 

The connectivity chasm

If something is a natural monopoly, no amount of faux competition (AKA unbundling) will turn an inefficient monopoly into an efficient and innovative one. Economic theories alone – like pleading for “competition at the lowest possible level of infrastructure” – do not deliver the giant steps that are needed. To quote Boston Consulting Group’s recently published book Rocket, “No one has ever dramatically changed a market by offering timid, incremental improvements.”

In this monopoly muddle it is not difficult to understand why both BT and Virgin Media have opted for leveraging their copper assets – making as much use of their legacy as possible (with some technological ingenuity) and not risking investment in the UK’s economic future.

Setting that merry circus aside, all is not entirely lost for leaders of aspiring places. It may be an uphill battle and solutions may be fragmented, but the leaderships in Peterborough, York, Aberdeen and Edinburgh are finding ways to encourage fibre investment. In the City of London, of course, there’s a giant exception with Colt’s Metropolitan Area Network that feeds the world’s leading financial sector. But even Colt scratches its head at the UK’s broadband policy. Across Europe it has created 42 Metro Area Networks, but only one in the UK. Colt finds investment conditions more favourable in, say, Genoa, Lisbon, Basel, Dortmund and Eindhoven, than in Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol and Glasgow.

However, in those UK cities that are making progress, the deployment of fibre to the premises is still far from ubiquitous. Investors must cherry-pick locations that promise faster returns. Hyperoptic connects entire buildings. MS3 in Hull seeks out business customers. CityFibre in Edinburgh has provided the underlying connectivity for the city’s administrative network – a fine example of an “anchor tenant” but still many fibres short of a complete (future-proofed) network for all businesses and citizens.

To find an example of the most complete wide-area gigabit network you must venture into the countryside. By completely ignoring public sector subsidies and the inclinations of local government, B4RN has achieved in Lancashire what others regard as impossible. Other examples are in development but all must battle against prevailing orthodoxy, the incumbents’ massive PR and advertising budgets and central policy designed to keep a lid on the issues.

Smart, not so smart, or downright dim?

The NextGen 15 event on 5 November 2015 will ask: “Is the UK on track to meet our future digital needs?” This raises questions of what our needs will be and who has the better insights. It is hardly surprising that those in the smart city industry are finding it easier to direct their sales efforts towards overseas markets. 

And yet, the prospects for UK places may not be so bleak as painted here. Gradually, local governments are daring to speak of municipal enterprise. The new Municipal Bonds Agency, created by the Local Government Association, is enabling greater locally directed investment. Gradually, local leaders are prioritising local needs.

Nascent market confidence may just now be zapped by ill-informed ministerial statements that reveal yawning gaps between the reality, rhetoric and any real understanding of current provision and future needs. However, even upright and determinedly balanced establishment telecoms veterans have told the CMS Select Committee that they should not trust the numbers.

Which brings us back to the start of this over-extended story – congratulations on staying the distance. You may worry about the management of your football team, but go check out who’s in charge in the places where you work and live – you might even have voted for them. Intelligent communities can evolve in smart places providing their local leaderships have the balls to make it happen.

David Brunnen is editor of Groupe Intellex, director of the UK’s Foundation for Information Society Policy and an RSA fellow.

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