It’s fair to say that 2016 produced a few surprises. What wasn’t unexpected was the pace of technological advancement: an intelligent computer system beating the most eminent minds in Go, the strategy game more complex than chess[1], the incredible fall in energy storage costs or researchers transmitting 100 Gbit/s over airwaves.

Our drive to harness these advances and deploy them in real world settings cannot come quickly enough. Local authorities in the UK are facing an incredible squeeze. They are frequently faced with growing populations – London alone is growing by two tube trains every week – and that population is also ageing. This places additional demands on services alongside the fact that citizens now have increased expectation of how they can interact with local authorities. All of this is happening in an age of resource scarcity of falling budgets and the need to drive down our carbon emissions.

The Smart City can help us tackle many of these problems. However, Smart Cities cannot just be about bits of new technologies. Rather it is about technology facilitating the reinvention of how services are delivered so they are designed in a user-centric way.

 

Where are the UK Smart Cities?

 

The question remains: if they can provide so many solutions, where are our Smart Cities? It’s a question frequently asked and we need to understand that at the moment in the UK we are just in the foothills of our journey to smarter cities. The good news is that not many are ahead of us on that path and that we have particular strengths, such as in design, research, finance, and engineering services, which can allow us to catch up.

To do so in the UK we need to tackle two big challenges in local authorities. That is leadership and capacity. Leaders, in the mould of a Chief of Digital Officer who has cross-cutting responsibility for technology as well as capacity building throughout the organisation. This could take the form of a central body to coordinate skills training and support capability-building for local Government as a smart community is developed. SmarterUK, the champion for smart infrastructure, will be pushing for both of these in 2017.

If we get the domestic market moving then it will be an incredible demonstration of British expertise as well as energising our supply chain. That has real benefits given that the global smart city market is already estimated to be £280bn and is estimated to be worth a £1tn by 2020[2].

The recent Autumn Statement from the Government, with its focus on technology and innovation, helps set us up for the year ahead and recommits to devolution which can also help ensure that we have the right leaders and market scale. With continued and increased collaboration, 2017 will be the year where we really start to see the benefits of Smart Cities – bringing about better quality lives in more informed and inclusive communities.