Are we undercooking the smart city?

London
51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E
26th Jun 2017
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Failing to prepare is preparing to fail — an idiom that can be applied to anything, from cooking a meal, to developing innovate technologies. Planning and preparation are, of course, vital parts of ensuring the smart city delivers on its rich promise. Yet, recent research found that UK smart city plans aren’t strategic enough to work.

Hopes are high for smart cities. The proliferation of IoT devices and smart initiatives has lead to a breathless enthusiasm over what our future may look like, with expectations set that smart cities will change our lives for the better, in a variety of different ways.

Yet, it’s not as easy as clicking our fingers or flicking a switch. Barriers exist to companies and governments hoping to use data to enable a bright, connected future. From security to compliance, many of these barriers are well documented.

A study undertaken by the RICS Research Trust, however, finds that a lack of preparation could have a more serious impact on the near future of smart cities, and tackles what can be done to overcome this.

Breaking the barriers

The study, which investigates two UK cities (Bristol and Milton Keynes), finds that a lack of proper planning and comprehension is so far derailing plans to reach the true potential of smart cities.

The key areas of concern include ‘a lack of consistency in the definitions and measurement of built environment big data’, ‘a low level of built environment sector business engagement’, and, most damningly, ‘the present lack of a ‘bottom-up’, demand-focused approach to the smart cities agenda.’

The final point is one which indicates a complete misunderstanding by UK cities as to how smart initiatives should work. A top-down approach implies, according to the study, one which is primarily driven by hardware and software vendors. If this sounds like building the roof of a house before its foundations, that’s because it is.

The foundation of smart cities is big data, and the fact that there is a lack of consistency surrounding how big data works and is measured rings alarm bells. Indeed, the study found that only 33 per cent of respondents stated their city had a data strategy, while closer to 20 per cent said that the strategy even mentioned big data.

Some of this is due to a lack of communication with real estate or construction sectors, whose data can be used to develop smart cities, but whose timescales and priorities differ from the digital sector, with those tasked with planning smart cities seemingly reluctant to engage and align the two.

Such a haphazard approach to planning may come as a surprise to those who are used to hearing smart cities touted as the logical next step in our increasingly smart lives, as though it’s realisation is just around the corner.

Such hopes may be dashed, however, by the fact that only 47 per cent of UK cities have even established a definition for a smart city, while less than half of this figure have frameworks in place for the development of this brave new world. How can something be built if nobody can define what that thing actually is?

This lack of clarity will need to be overcome before the full potential of the smart city is realised. This, according to the study, is how it can be done.

Realising the smart city

According to the research, there are two key requirements for overcoming the barriers to the realisation of the smart city. First, smart city strategists must have a better understanding of the use and supply of built environment big data.

Second, the same strategists must recognise the changing role of stakeholders. This also ties in with the former point — with strategists having to understand how stakeholders work with data, and how their gathering, sharing and analysis of said data can help develop the smart city.

The study suggests that stakeholders in the real estate and construction sectors already have big data and are using it for their own gain, so it’s vital for these industries to open their data and collaborate with one another, and with strategists, if the smart city is to come of age.

Indeed, collaboration and dataas HERE can attest — are the foundation upon which smart services, and our bright future, are built upon.