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Smart Cities and the Digital High Street

Written by Norman Driskell, Ex CDO at The Home Office

Last week I went to one of the regular Research Salon discussion events organised by the Digital Leaders group. The session was on the Digital High Street and Smart Cities and kindly sponsored by Teeside University who work on smart place projects across Europe. Speakers were from Teeside University and DCLG (the Department for Communities and Local Government).

These are the themes that stayed with me:

Infrastructure is essential. The smartness comes from interconnectedness; the way in which devices and services work together with sensors and networks to be more efficient and personalised in order to benefit the individual and the collective.

This only works with low-cost and reliable ubiquitous connectivity and a high degree of interoperability. The higher the degree of interconnectedness, the lower the friction and the greater the potential value.

Adoption will require carrots and sticks. Whilst government and industry can work on defining standards and a suitable legislative framework, that won’t be enough in itself to drive widespread adoption on the high street.

It’s clear to see benefits at scale for a large chain such as a national supermarket, but harder to see the return on investment for a small business.

Business owners will need help in understanding what being part of a connected city means for them. The high street will need a critical mass of adoption in order to drive behavioural change in traders and consumers.

Digital is being forgotten in the regeneration of our high-streets. Shops are often singular entities, islands, yet the high street is becoming experiential. Smartness gives the opportunity for the experience to reach beyond the shop door. 

For a high street store to be profitable, it needs a mix of retailers, independent shops, and other service providers. Big retailers are investing heavily in their transformation, SME high street residents are getting left behind.

Policy making and town planning functions need to consider the new opportunities available via a smart city (or town, or neighbourhood) – sharing of resources, flexible working, and new models for co-operation with shared risks and shared rewards.

Most current work is foundational. Despite almost 20 years of broadband availability the government are still trotting out promises of super fast connections for everyone. We need to ditch the copper pairs and build our smart cities and neighbourhoods on mobile data/5G.

We will be rapidly overtaken if we don’t move quickly beyond building foundations and into the delivery of services of value.

To be innovative we need to ask what smart cities allow us to do that we’ve simply never considered before – and understand that every answer will demand a robust foundation of capabilities.

There is a considerable non-smart legacy. Physical infrastructure, service grids, connectivity – all are lacking to various degrees.

How does an old building become smart, integrated into the neighbourhood, optimised, and a contributor and consumer of the sensor network? However, work to tackle legacy must not limit our ambition.

The inevitable skills gap. No conversation about digital is complete without a discussion of skills gaps. It’s convenient to envision fully digitally transformed cities, but the majority of citizens today do not understand the need or the benefits.

Until “smartness” is a genuine utility with no expert knowledge required (like turning on a tap or plugging in a lamp), we will live in a multi-tier culture differentiated by digital capability.

To address skills and empower all citizens we require smart services designed around well understood user needs. These means picking examples and early services carefully. Automatically turning the kettle on when you pull into the driveway may be a nice gimmick, but a better way to alert carers when a vulnerable individual is in distress has a much more immediate and understandable social impact.

What is a Digital Leaders Research Salon?

The format sees a Chair joined by two speakers and 15-20 attendees. Each speaker is followed by structured Q&A and an open discussion. The Chair is firm and effective in ensuring the discussions run to time and all who wish to have a chance to speak. As is typical, discussions are under Chatham House rules with no live tweeting.

Attendees at this event ranged across local and central government policy making, current and ex-town planners, academia, and various relevant businesses. The range of experiences and perspectives led to an informed and lively conversation. Last week’s group was approximately 80% male and overwhelmingly white, which is a little less well balanced than Salons I’ve been to before.

Topics vary from event to event, as do the sponsors. Events are held around the country in a variety of locations. If you haven’t been to a Digital Leaders Salon event, and there’s one upcoming on a topic that interests you, then I’d recommend it.

This post first appeared on Norm’s LinkedIn page here. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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