Sharing notes at the Westminster eForum Smart Cities seminar


Is the public sector trying to innovate comparable to ‘dad dancing?’  That’s what Gary Barnett, head of enterprise advisory at Current Analysis, suggested at the Westminster eForum Keynote Seminar on UK Smart Cities in London earlier this month.

It was a controversial assertion to an audience of policy makers, innovators, city authorities and service providers – particularly since most of us present were of the demographic who could indulge in just that sort of dancing.

The eForum is aimed at providing an environment in which policymakers in Parliament, Whitehall and regulatory agencies can engage with key stakeholders to discuss public policy relating to technology. Whenever this broad spectrum of players and actors gather there is almost a guarantee of thought provoking debate and discussion.

The Smart Cities eForum meeting covered themes of reducing the costs of public services, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of urban processes and unifying citizens, businesses and visitors around the common needs of the place they are united by and interacting with.

Covering old ground

The sheer scale of the Xerox back office operation supporting global transport systems was exposed by solution director of international transportation and government, Richard Harris.  (The firm processes over 200m transactions every month).  I often think that we hear too much about transport and precious little about anything else. However, the monitoring, management and informing of people about transport can only become more important when you consider that 51% of 12-24 year olds think that they will decide where to live in the future based on the transport links available.

Another old chestnut – procurement as a barrier to change – was chewed over by a number of speakers too.

Roger Hunt of Veolia brought along a box of tricks demonstrating what enlightened recycling can produce in its contribution to a circular economy and maximising the shared value in a place.  He noted that changing people’s behaviour is hard, especially when they already have day jobs and (procurement) systems often don’t give the flexibility to try something new.

Looking to the future

Can you really future-proof a solution?  Thankfully nobody claimed that they could, especially in such a fast changing space, but there were rich debates about how we should try to specify such activity.

In the end there was consensus that giving people the freedom to decide how to make solutions ‘future ready’ was the best possible outcome.

Our Mancunian friend, Steve Turner of Arup, called for the audience to embrace the “new punk rockers” of smart cities. These disruptors, he said, would deliver better services and places: more jobs and more engagement.

And that is what I, on behalf of Ordnance Survey, said that could be delivered and was being trialled in Manchester with CityVerve.  I stressed the need for experimentation (and learning from failure) and the real application of effort to finding the correct business models, not just technology, for smart cities.

There is an uncomfortable truth that public sector money needs to be carefully spent and private sector firms need to make money, and that is just as true in a smart city as anywhere else. It’s with this realisation in mind that CityVerve strives to develop solutions that are both scalable and can be commercialised.

CityVerve is giving us the freedom to experiment and design the smartest of smart cities and that is great fun – just like dancing is, I suppose.

But the project will only be a success if we work out how to improve outcomes for people, and some of that will be challenging and not all of the work involved will be shiny or sexy.  Still infinitely better than watching your dad dancing, though.

September 09, 2016 by in Events

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