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  1. Politics
27 May 2014

Smart Cities in the UK – Innovation, Integration and Implementation

David Willetts talks to the New Statesman and tech experts about the practicalities of smart cities pointing out that while “technophiles” get very excited, their proliferation represents an increased risk from cyber attack.”

By Thomas Collinge and Eleanor Slinger

As digital and communications technology advances, the scope of applications to which it can be applied broadens. One important way this is happening is through strategic linking of infrastructure within cities. The joining up of transport, energy, waste management and all the other systems that make up a city potentially provides great efficiencies and environmental benefits.

Governments are beginning to see the advantages of these “smart cities” and key initiatives to make use of them have begun around the globe. The market is expected to be worth $408bn worldwide by 2020[1] and if the UK takes advantage of this, both domestically and through exports, it could have a powerfully positive impact on the wider national economy.

The question is, what are we doing in the UK to buy in to this global revolution and how can we benefit? On 9 April 2014, in partnership with Digital Realty, the New Statesman gathered leading experts from the world of technology, city infrastructure and academia together with the Minister for Universities and Science, the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, to discuss the future application of “smart” technology to the UK’s cities.

Running through their discussion was an overall awareness that smarter cities can benefit the UK both economically and socially. Our round-table panellists were also interested to gauge the level of excitement from the government to bring about these changes. New issues were thrown up as “health warnings”, sharing concerns around security, data storage, energy, environmental challenges and privacy.

Willetts began the discussion by talking about security, pointing out that while “technophiles” get very excited by the opportunities presented by digital connections between infrastructure and “things”, their proliferation represents an increased risk from cyber attack. However, he argued that this plays to the UK’s strengths. “Saying we can sell you a water system or a sewage system or a transport system which is also relatively secure from cyber attack gives us a distinctive selling point,” Willetts emphasised. He felt that as the global market expands “we have an opportunity to shape standards globally”. “When you go to China one of the things that’s high on the agenda is what kind of services and consultancy we can do. There are some fantastic export opportunities for us,” Willetts boasted.

A different perspective on the economic benefits came from Léan Doody, associate at Arup. She explained that smart systems generate a great deal of data and that “data is becoming a new raw material for products and services”. Doody also noted how “cities are using the title ‘smart city’ to attract inward investment and attract skilled workers”, illustrating unexpected knock-on benefits to the economy.

Alexandra Jones, chief executive of the Centre for Cities, shared examples of the different kinds of benefits cities in the UK could gain from smart technology. She described how, in Leeds, “It’s about an innovation health hub, an open platform for health-care data.” Further illustrating her point, Jones recalled how “Milton Keynes got a £16m grant from HEFCE [the Higher Education Funding Council for England] to do a smart city big data project which is all about using data from the infrastructure of other sources to manage our carbon footprint” and she emphasised smart technology’s different applications.