A resource to promote smart city technology

Sam Ibbott, head of smart cities at the Environmental Industries Commission, on a new initiative to bring together all those using smart technologies and big data to create cleaner, greener cities.

Cities around the globe exist in a state of perpetual flux, constantly evolving and growing exponentially. It’s a well-worn fact that more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities (75% within the EU), with the newer category of “megacity” being created for the world’s largest urban metropolises.

Such is their magnetism and political and economic influence, that leading strategists now propose that future geopolitics will be conducted between these megacities directly, with traditional nation states being relegated to support acts.

But despite this constant change, the basic needs of a city, and the underlying environmental challenges faced by city governments, remain constant: the need to efficiently move goods and people; tackle air pollution; manage energy demand; abate carbon emissions; collect and recycle waste; provide clean, accessible water.

Cities may well be magnets for the “new”, but these are old issues – and ones which become more acute as populations and densities increase.

Dealing with these concerns requires sound underlying infrastructure, and hope lies in technological innovation – unlocking new approaches and new solutions, ultimately improving our quality of life in ways not previously possible.

At the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), a UK trade association for the environmental technologies and services sector, we have been looking at this very issue.

Can the latest smart technologies, the use of real-time remote sensoring, the analysis of newly-available big data and the rollout of the Internet of Things open up new, more effective and more (cost) efficient infrastructure solutions to deal with entrenched environmental and sustainability challenges?

Our research suggests so, but despite the potential of the nascent market which supports this innovation it is not growing without challenge. One of the more significant barriers our work in this space has highlighted is the lack of hard evidence that these smart solutions can work at a major scale – we hear lots of “coulds” and “should”, but fewer “hads” and “wills”.

Just because an innovative technology works in laboratory conditions, does not mean automatically that it will work across an entire city with a vastly increased number of variables. And this is a problem.

Cities, particularly in the UK, remain in a period of austerity. Money is scarce, and it is a gamble to invest potentially significant sums in untested technologies which may or may not work. This leads to a chicken and egg situation: with city authorities hesitant to unlock investment without hard evidence, but with hard evidence not being created until a technology has been tested at scale.

EIC established a taskforce to look at how this problem could be solved in pragmatic way, drawing on the full spectrum of stakeholders that are required to make this market work, including representatives from city and central governments, technology manufacturers, engineering consultants, universities, NGOs and others.

The taskforce agreed that a central industry repository to promote case studies, share currently disparate best practice, and help better match the cities facing these environmental challenges with cost-effective smart solutions would be beneficial – and so this is what we have done.

In May we launched This free-to-access website is an industry-led resource to bring together, and provide a central focal point for, all stakeholders involved in the use of smart technologies and big data to create cleaner, greener, and more sustainable city environments.

The site will be used as a foundation from which to promote the accelerated growth of this industry through a series of targeted activities, including:

  • The provision of a platform for sharing international case studies and best practice – helping both industry and city leaders learn more quickly what works (and what doesn’t) to underpin investment decision making.
  • Connecting people and encouraging collaboration by acting as a neutral broker between parties – through networking events, roundtables and seminars; and operating as the nexus between technology, cities, policy makers and academia.  
  • Providing thought leadership, market intelligence and investment insight – including in-depth policy reports, briefings and blogposts by leading industry practitioners.
  • Pro-actively lobbying governments and policymakers at both city and national levels for a regulatory framework which supports and encourages innovation and its implementation.

In this way, we can learn how to better capture and use data about city infrastructure. By understanding newly-available data from these technologies, infrastructure can be maintained more effectively.

It can allow for real-time monitoring of wear and tear and the ability to know about problems before they happen, ultimately unlocking preventative action before a problem occurs, rather than retrospective action after the damage is done.

To ensure our outputs continue to meet a self-defined industry need, we would welcome your engagement in this work – whether through the contribution of a case study or blog to the website, or as a participant on the taskforce. If this is of interest I would be delighted to hear from you at [email protected] to discuss further how we can help.

Image: Monicaodo/Dreamstime

City authorities are hesitant to unlock investment without hard evidence, but hard evidence is not being created until a technology has been tested at scale. – Sam Ibbott, Environmental Industries Commission

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