More than half of the UK population don’t know what a smart city is. When asked if they understand what is meant by “smart city”, a fifth of people said they had never heard the term before, a quarter said they weren’t sure, and 10 per cent either found the concept confusing or had heard the term but didn’t know what it meant.
This might feel more surprising when you consider that thematic research on smart cities forecasts the market to grow to $231bn by 2024. So, if smart city technologies are set to pop up all around us in the near future, why are we so seemingly unaware of the progress?
It’s true that, first and foremost, there are many new-fangled “smart” terms with no clear definition of what a smart city is. According to the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, there is no absolute definition of a smart city. Rather, it is “a process, a series of steps, by which cities become more ‘liveable’ and resilient and, hence, able to respond quickly to new challenges”.
This aligns with a view growing in popularity; that ‘smart’ is where digital and physical worlds meet for the benefit of people and society. It’s not technology-led – but it is technology-enabled. This people-focused view recognises that better decisions based on better insights from better data lead to better outcomes for people and the planet. Decisions influence every area of a city – how we use it, plan to change it, and operate and maintain the space.
Everything in a city, such as transport networks, energy, water, telecommunications and more, are connected and rely on one another to operate successfully – it’s a ’system of systems’. However, for simplicity, we tend to take a reductionist approach. We see the built environment as a series of construction projects, and then we break each project down into its component parts so that we can manage the outputs. But we often fail to look the other way and see how all the pieces fit together in the system, which is the actual route to the outcomes we desire.
In fact, many cities face challenges in their attempts to deliver digital transformation programmes because they begin by focusing on improving a small number of individual services and eventually flounder because ubiquitous connectivity is not sufficiently in place.
The concept of Smart Cities represents a utopian urban development that integrates both information and communication technologies to enable citizens, governments, and organisations to generate and exchange real-time data. The volume of data transfer between these new technologies to give a horizontal view of citizens’ services requires high-capacity fixed line infrastructure – a robust full fiber network.
In other words, infrastructure has to come first. Services will follow.
Take Stoke-on-Trent for example, an ambitious Smart City in the making. With a vision to make Stoke-on-Trent the most digitally advanced city in the UK. This includes the completion of a 113km full fiber network that has been laid right across Stoke-on-Trent with the opportunity for 5G connectivity citywide, supported through £8.53M of government funding, a gaming hub, a full fiber academy at Stoke-on-Trent College, as well as a new Digital Academy. With the foundations in place, Stoke-on-Trent launched a prospectus titled ‘Silicon Stoke’, laying out how the city is already starting to build on the network and opportunities available to attract the funding, investment and partnerships that will enable their digital ambitions.
UK-wide, the case is more complex. Despite intensive efforts from the Government and telecoms/tech industry over the past several years to boost connectivity, only 24% (6.9 million) of UK homes have access to full fiber broadband. The government is on a mission to connect Britain, with digital infrastructure at the centre of the recent Levelling Up White Paper, which aims to spread opportunity and prosperity across the nation. The paper commits to achieving nationwide gigabit-capable coverage by 2030. However, the UK’s fixed line infrastructure is still heavily reliant on an archaic ‘copper network’, and with what is currently on offer in terms of funding it’s unlikely the target will be hit.
There are lessons to be learned from Sweden, a particularly active nation in the implementation and discussion of smart cities. Currently, Stockholm is one of the world’s most connected cities and a beacon for innovators and international talent. By 2040, the forward-looking city has the ambition to be both carbon neutral and the smartest city in the world. And in fact, Sweden’s goal is a realistic proposal primarily down to the fact that connectivity is no longer a barrier for them, attributable to the wide adoption of the Open Access Model.
Unlike the typical closed network model seen widely across the UK in which the operators control everything from network infrastructure, applications, speed, bandwidth, price, data limits, and the number of services available, in an Open Access Model, the local authority is put in the driving seat.
In the VX fiber ‘neutral operator’ Open Access Model, the network infrastructure and management of the network is separated from the supply of services meaning the fiber Owner – or the local authority in this case – is able to lease its network to multiple providers, enabling them to access the network to deliver their own digital services. In this cloud eco-system, the private sector can compete and innovate to deliver a wide range of broadband services, while local government can then deliver more of the vital services their communities rely on at reduced costs.
Sweden’s world-class fiber penetration has been made possible through cooperation between local authorities, key stakeholders and industry, who recognised full fiber’s economic value and social benefits, and worked together to remove barriers to deployment. The infrastructure provides the means to facilitate smart city applications, but the collaborative partnership drives true value by establishing what is needed for the different communities within the ecosystem. As such, some 81% of Sweden now has access to a full fiber network, and over 60% of homes and businesses have connected.
While in its early stages in comparison to Sweden, this dynamic approach – with collaboration at its heart – is how Silicon Stoke has made such progress in its digital future. The project jointly funded by central government and VX fiber, focuses on working with all stakeholders to create fiber infrastructure that is customised to suit Stoke-on-Trent’s unique requirements with initiatives designed to stimulate business innovation and growth, as well as enhancing the lives of citizens. It provides a fully proven and functioning framework for other forward-looking UK local authorities and regional governments to follow.
And with the infrastructure laid, innovative services follow. For example, Stockholm is fully taking advantage of its existing access to full fiber. Sensors were installed near the stadium to collect data aimed at helping the city implement a more efficient transport policy. A new type of waste management system uses high-pressure tubes underground to transport waste to a single collection site, requiring less space and fewer refuse trucks on the road. An optical sensor and weighing scales allow individual processing of waste, which is instantly fed back to residents via mobile to show them how much waste they’re creating.
Sweden proves that the smart city exists and that smart technologies and data analysis improve citizens’ quality of life, opening up new solutions that make everyday living and working easier. Projects like Silicon Stoke are making great headway in taking up the opportunities that connectivity affords, but they are currently in the minority in the UK’s race to get ‘smart’.
In reality, large parts of the UK may never know the benefits – or perhaps even what a smart city means – if we don’t move to upgrade our current infrastructure to full fiber, underpinning open access networks, reaching every desirable end-point. By providing the environment for any smart service application the future may hold, cities and communities will finally reap the benefits that technology-enabled services bring.