New wave of smart cities has arrived – and they’re nothing like science fiction

Smart cities are more likely to be defined by quieter upgrades to existing infrastructure and new partnerships that better represent residents.

This post originally appeared on The Conversation

An abandoned mine shaft beneath the town of Mansfield, England is an unlikely place to shape the future of cities. But here, researchers from the nearby University of Nottingham are planning to launch a “deep farm” that could produce ten times as much food as farms above ground. Deep farms are an example of what the latest wave of smart cities look like: putting people first by focusing on solving urban problems and improving existing infrastructure, rather than opening shiny new buildings.

These smart cities look nothing like science fiction. In fact, the sleek, futuristic visions often used to promote smart cities tend to alienate residents. Isolated high-tech buildings, streets or cities can foster social inequality, and even free WiFi and bike-sharing schemes mainly benefit the affluent.

So instead of chasing ribbon-cutting opportunities in city centres, planners, community leaders and researchers are coming together to tackle mundane but serious issues, such as improving poor quality housing, safeguarding local food supplies and transitioning to renewable energy.

In my own research, commissioned by the British Council, I looked at how new projects and partnerships with universities in eight European cities are making life better for residents, through the clever use of technology. You may already be living in a smart city – here’s what to look out for.

More voices

Students bridging the divide.
Andrés Gerlotti/Unsplash. FAL.

These new smart cities are getting communities and universities involved, alongside big companies and city authorities. This has helped shift the focus of smart city projects onto the needs of residents. During my interviews in cities across Europe – from Bucharest, Romania to Warsaw, Poland and Zaragoza, Spain – I found that university students and researchers have played an active role in this, consulting with residents and working with city hall to promote cooperation between citizens and local institutions.

Universities produce a wealth of knowledge about the kinds of problems facing cities, and there is often a need to make more people aware of new research, so they can shape it, use it and build on it. In Milan, the City School initiative brings together the Municipality of Milan and six local universities to discuss issues facing the city. Universities take turns to showcase research and activities, and city officials test urban policy ideas with experts.

But above all, communities are now part of the conversation. The EU-funded Sharing Cities programme, led by city halls and universities in London, Lisbon and Milan, has the audacious goal of proving that at least half of the 15,000 locals affected by improvements have actively participated in the process. As such, city authorities have worked with residents to design and implement smart city technologies including smart lampposts, energy management and e-mobility (smart parking, car sharing, electric charging points and so on) – but also to ensure these changes actually improve their lives.

More complexity

Successful smart city projects blend disciplines, bringing together experts in behavioural change alongside specialists in artificial intelligence and information technologies. Interdisciplinary work can be messy and difficult, it can take longer and may not always work – but when it does, it can bring real benefits to cities.

For instance, Nottingham City Council and Nottingham Trent University have been part of the Remourban regeneration programme, working across sectors with cities around Europe. Homes in the Nottingham suburb of Sneinton have been upgraded with new outside walls and windows, a solar roof and a state of the art heating system – a process that takes just a few days.

The result is improved insulation and reduced energy bills for residents, but also better public health: calculations suggest that bad housing costs the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) £1.4 billion a year, and improving the quality of homes can cut visits to local doctors almost by half.

Darmstadt, Germany. Shutterstock.

The German city of Darmstadt has worked with citizens, universities, museums and businesses to plan for the future. For smart city projects to be embraced by residents, the benefits of new technologies need to be balanced against the need to manage privacy and security concerns. Darmstadt has set up an ethics advisory committee and has a strong focus on cyber security.

The city was recently crowned winner of the German Digital City competition, and the municipal government is now working with other German cities to share what has worked.

More places

The new wave of smart cities spreads improvements beyond the city centre, with universities from France to Ireland running initiatives to bring residents from surrounding areas onto campus, and take their expertise into local communities.

For instance, when Technological University Dublin and Dublin City Council came together to develop a new campus in the deprived district of Grangegorman, they opened it up to the rest of the city. The community eat with the students in the canteen, new buildings reuse material from the old site, renewable energy is stored locally, with excess power released onto the grid, and signage throughout the campus is the same as the rest of the city, blurring the edges between the university and the city.

Technology can play an important and often decisive role in tackling urban problems. But the smart city of the future is more likely to be defined by quieter upgrades to existing infrastructure and new partnerships that better represent residents, than flashy new developments that resemble visions from science fiction.The Conversation

James Ransom, PhD candidate, international higher education, UCL. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. (Main image: Grangegorman campus, Technological University Dublin. Technological University Dublin, Author provided)

Avoiding blunders, splintering and exclusion in smart cities

Any social or cultural disconnect can have serious consequences for city planning

The Future Cities Catapult are hosting an interesting breakfast briefing next week on ‘inadvertent exclusion’ in smart cities. Here’s the pitch:

As more and more smart technologies are incorporated into the fabric of our cities, it has become increasingly pressing to ensure that those technologies reach the audiences they are intended to reach.

This presentation introduces the concept of ‘inadvertent exclusion’, where potential users or consumers of smart city technologies are found not to engage with the possibilities that those smart initiatives can offer. It is argued that this may be the result of a misunderstanding of the importance of social difference in the way that cities work.

The research is based on the ESRC-funded project Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes. The project asks how people in a smart city engage with smart technologies, and what difference the smart city makes.

These are important questions. They also remind me of two related pieces of work. The first is the notion of ‘splintering urbanism’, whereby urban infrastructure can drive social and spatial inequality. The book is full of examples of both deliberate and inadvertent boundaries:

In Baltimore… [urban geographer] David Harvey notes the paradox that, whilst African American women cross these boundaries daily to clean some of the world’s most famous hospitals (for example Johns Hopkins), they are unable to access health services when they are ill because of a lack of health insurance. Meanwhile “life expectancy in the immediate environs of these internationally renowned hospital facilities is among the lowest in the nation and comparable to many of the poorer countries of the world”.

The second is the 2013 book, The Blunders of our Governments. If you don’t have time to read the book, this review in the Guardian is helpful. It’s worth quoting in full this explanation of how many blunders arise from a disconnect born from ignorance or social and cultural divides:

The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it “cultural disconnect” – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day. The Tories had no inkling that, if sent a poll tax bill of several hundred pounds, some families, and particularly elderly couples, would not be able to pay. “Well, they could always sell a picture,” suggested Nicholas Ridley, the then environment secretary and the son of a viscount, apparently in all seriousness.

But Labour has become almost equally disconnected from real life, with its frontbenchers and advisers increasingly drawn from a cohort that went from school to university (usually Oxbridge) to Westminster thinktank without ever working in a retail store, a hamburger joint or a benefit office. Its tax credits scheme involved paying out weekly or monthly a sum that was determined annually.

Millions of people short of money, many of whom had never previously completed a tax return, had to fill out complex forms about their previous year’s earnings, estimate earnings for the following year and notify the authorities each time their circumstances changed. The scheme, as the head of the Inland Revenue admitted, went “spectacularly wrong”.

This month I begin a tour looking at the role of universities in smart cities in eight European countries, for an exciting research project commissioned by the British Council. One question I’ll be trying to answer is how universities may be able to help prevent blunders, exclusion and splintering in the development of smart cities. If you’re working on smart cities, please get in touch!

(Photo credit)

University campuses can be a testbed for smart cities

By seeing campuses as ‘cities in microcosm’ the development of smart infrastructure can lead to closer working between universities and local leaders

India wants 100 of them. China had 193 pilots of these running in 2013. At the moment they are largely conceptual, little known by the average person on the street, mostly ‘captured’ by commercial interests, and, as I’ve written about before, we are still some way from realising their transformative potential. But smart city initiatives will be an important part of future city development.

Universities can help shift smart cities from being merely a good idea to providing everyday benefit to citizens. They can do this through smart campuses – developing the principles of smart cities on a limited geographic area, testing new infrastructure and implementing lessons learned, drawing in students and researchers, and then working with city officials to roll these out more widely.

The University of Glasgow is expanding its campus by 25% over ten years. The university is working with the Future Cities Catapult on a project to ‘develop a strategy for a Smart Campus that will take into account changes in technology and learning whilst also protecting their heritage (both cultural and physical) and realising cost savings’. The Catapult has developed a definition of the smart campus that supports the university’s new strategy:

The Smart Campus actively learns from and adapts to the needs of its people and place, unlocking the potential of e technology and enabling world-changing learning and research.

Other universities have been working on smart campus projects. The University of Nottingham plans to develop a smart campus that is ‘efficient, safe, sustainable, responsive and enjoyable place to live and work, underpinned and enhanced by digital / internet based technologies’. They see the campus as ‘an ideal vehicle’ for researching, developing and evaluating a ‘diversity’ of smart city concepts, especially as the university is multi-site and encircles a major hospital. The project has attracted the interest of Nottingham City Council.

A case study of the University of Lille presented to the World Bank in 2014 applies elements of smart cities – smart sensors, smart data analysis – to a university campus based in a city. The angle of this presentation seems to suggest the campus could act as a city in microcosm and thus be a good test case for wider implementation, for example managing water, energy and transport on campus. There would also be other benefits to embedding ‘smart’ on a campus: immediate access to expertise and researchers, reinforcing partnerships with local government and with the private sector, and capturing learning in new education programmes that could be delivered to students alongside implementation on campus. Developing a smart campus is arguably easier than developing smart city, with most of the campus falling under the ownership of one institution. In essence, the presentation concludes, the smart campus could ‘promote the concept of smart city to the city’.

Vegas

Lessons

It’s important to prepare students and staff (the campus equivalent of a city’s residents) for smart campuses. After analysing the experiences of smart cities around the world, Nesta have found that many ‘top down’ smart city ideas have failed to deliver on their promise, and that smart city planners need to take human behaviour as seriously as technology, and to invest in smart people, as well as smart technology.

By blurring the public realm and the university estate, city residents can become involved in the development of smart cities

Local government and city leaders may be keen to test the concept of a smart city by supporting the development of a smart campus. By seeing campuses as ‘cities in microcosm’ the development of smart infrastructure can lead to closer working between universities and local leaders. And by softening the edges between a campus and a city, by opening up campuses as public spaces, providing community services and cultural events, by blurring the public realm and the university estate, other city residents can become involved in the development of smart cities.

At the same time, universities can learn from the experience of smart cities. For example, whilst technology is an important component that underpins smart cities and campuses, they need to be developed with people at their core.

Universities are ideally placed to both apply the lessons from smart cities in the development of smart campuses, and to ‘test’ smart infrastructure that can be rolled out to smart cities.

The Paradise Group and other unrelated musings

Welcome to Paradise City

A new “Russell Group type” alliance of the top universities in Africa will bring together 15 universities from 8 countries. Notwithstanding the difficulties of coordinating activity from Lagos to Pretoria and from Dakar to Kampala – and research collaboration is one of the main aims – such a group is overdue.

One of the strengths of the UK system is the diversity of institutions. It would be good to also see a University Alliance for Africa, although a regional network may be more effective – for example a West or East African grouping.

Of course, such groups need a good name. The Russell Group is named after the hotel in Bloomsbury where the group was formed. I remember staying at Paradise City Hotel in Nigeria – the Paradise Group does have a good ring to it…

City leadership ‘missing a trick’

The Government Office for Science recently published a report on ‘the future of city leadership in the United Kingdom’. It’s good to see a recommendation to integrate local universities into city leadership, and to use universities as part of a wide knowledge base for informing leadership (page 37):

City networks can enhance learning as cities work together, as can partnerships with universities and think tanks. Some workshop participants citied a growing involvement and contribution from universities in their work, while others felt that cities were often “missing a trick” where universities were concerned. This “trick” might be a critical way for city leaders to leverage local resources to increase their knowledge and hence their capacity. Universities can serve as independent and neutral partners, providing academic rigour to the evidence used to inform policy and programme development. Long-term collaborations (as opposed to individual projects) that involve joint working and co-production of knowledge in particular can bring substantial benefits to cities.

We’re doing work on this at Universities UK in light of devolution, and feeding into House of Commons inquires such as this one looking at the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. Leadership is important both within and across cities, especially in new geographies that aim to create ‘systems of cities’.

Learning Circle: peer-to-peer education

GNU_Emacs_ELIZA_example Image: A bad example of Eliza the chatbot

A Pearson/UCL Institute of Education paper makes the case for taking artificial intelligence in education more seriously.

We’ve had realistic psychotherapists since the 1960s, today chatbots are about to take off, and in the near future automation and machine learning offer huge potential rewards to those who can capitalise on them.

Chatbots in education are highly unlikely to replace lecturers any time soon. But a bot you could add on WhatsApp that you can ask to reserve a book in the library, or book a room for group study, or advise on research resources, or provide basic pastoral support, or request transcripts is certainly possible today.

I also wonder what the education equivalent of a Funding Circle or a Ratesetter might look like. These FinTech services bypass banks and allow individuals to lend money at a higher interest rate and others to borrow money at a lower rate than at banks, by mediating between the two and taking a small cut in the middle. A higher education equivalent would bypass the institution and allow lecturers to teach small groups directly – the opposite end of the scale to MOOCs. Ultimately, however, you’d still face the same issues as MOOCs in terms of accreditation, and lose the many benefits of studying at university.

Images: Paradise City Hotel, Calabar, Nigeria / Example of ELIZA in Emacs by Ysangkok at English Wikipedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2236326)

How universities can help ‘smart cities’ become transformative (and why leapfrogging is difficult)

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences

We are some way from realising the transformative effects of smart cities,1 and further still from these effects benefiting the poorest in society. I have a couple of thoughts on their potential:

  1. Can smart cities be to cities what smartphones are to ‘dumb’ phones? A button (non-smart) phone today seems closed and antiquated compared to the limitless panoply of apps and the functionality of touchscreen phones. Or will the ‘wide experiential gulf’ between the top-end smartphones and generic low-end smartphone handsets be replicated in tomorrow’s smart cities? I suspect there will be wide variations in effective implementation, and I suspect the impact will be far less dramatic and sudden than the shift from ‘dumb’ to smart phones. Cities have been developing for thousands of years and smart infrastructure needs to be embedded and layered upon existing foundations. But a transformative, positive wave of impact is possible.
  2. Can this wave of possible impact enable some cities to ‘leapfrog’ their development? Comparing cities again to phones, think of a country with limited phone networks skipping the installation of telegraph poles and landlines and instead building a fast mobile network. Kenya, for example, has excellent mobile phone reception in remote areas but limited landlines. So could a smart city allow urban areas with poor healthcare, high crime, limited access to, for example, banks and bus routes, and areas of general deprivation to leapfrog some of the traditional, slower means of development? Unfortunately, smart cities are no shortcut, and mobile phones are an unusually effective leapfrogger. Instead, you usually need to have gone ‘medium tech’ before you can go ‘high tech’.

So what is needed? Cities will need to be both adaptable and smart. Underpinning both is social capital. The World Economic Forum has developed a four part taxonomy of city competitiveness, with ‘soft connectivity’, a city’s social capital, a critical factor. Education is the ‘ultimate soft connectivity’, and cities can specialise in knowledge intensive niches by capitalising on education. Education and soft connectivity make investments in hard infrastructure and new technology more productive.

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences. A city with a highly skilled workforce, with access to continuous education and training opportunities, is also a highly adaptive one.

An adaptive city is a resilient city. Work by Nesta has shown that 87 percent of highly creative workers are at low or no risk of automation compared with 40 percent of jobs in the UK as a whole. You can complete an online survey to determine whether your job is at risk of being taken by a robot. Whilst automation is likely to solve many more problems than it creates, a successful city in future years will adapt to these changes, attracting creative industries and highly skilled jobs.

The objectives of ‘smart’ and ‘adaptable’ cities are mutually reinforcing, with a smart city a more responsive one, and an adaptable city more likely to benefit from the insights delivered through data and technology. Universities play an important role in developing and testing new technologies, curating and understanding data (and the infrastructure behind it), and conceptualising and operationalising the ‘Internet of Things’ – a network of physical objects that collect and exchange information.

City leaders and universities will need to work together to harness the benefits of smart cities. The UK Future Cities Catapult is a good example of this, bringing together businesses, universities and city leaders to turn ideas into prototypes, including developing sensor networks and unlocking urban data. There is particular focus on smart cities in emerging economies. The Catapult has just signed an MOU with the China Center for Urban Development, building on smart city collaboration two years ago between Bristol and Guangzhou, and last year between Manchester and Wuhan. And in 2015 India set a target of 100 smart cities, focussing on satellite towns of larger cities and modernising existing mid-sized cities. It will be interesting to see whether any ‘leapfrogging’ takes place within these cities, and how inclusive the benefits are.


  1. There are many definitions of smart cities, but I like the European Commission one: ‘a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses’.