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Smart Isn’t Just About the City


Written by:

Graeme Scott, Director | UK Sector Lead, Intelligence at IBI Group

Graeme is a Director of IBI and leads the firm’s Intelligence Sector in UK & Ireland, with responsibility for the strategy, growth and development of IBI’s business in the region.

He has more than 25 years’ experience in the intelligent transport systems and smart cities areas, providing strategic advice and management to public and private sector organisations in the use of technology to support transport network and city operations.  Project experience ranges from research and feasibility, planning and design through to implementation and operation.

Graeme also plays a lead role in industry bodies, being a Director of ITS (UK), the Chair of MaaS Scotland and a Board Member of Technology Scotland.

Smart and the smart city are terms that have become commonplace in recent years.  Understanding what they mean exactly, however, is something that needs more consideration.

Effective delivery of smart means becoming smarter in general.  Being ‘smart about smart’ underlines that it’s a concept and not just a product or bunch of technologies.  Taking stock of that now is useful, in that we’re about to face an information deluge.

Consider, for example, the areas of communications and data – the ongoing rollout of new networks such as 5G, the relentless increase in connected devices, and growth in the Internet of Things ecosystem will give us connectivity and sensory capabilities as never before, to the extent that, where only a few years ago engineers would chase and somehow look to capture every scrap of data that they could, we can soon almost afford to be wasteful. We’ll certainly have to become much more discerning. The danger then is of wasted opportunity.  Putting in place the right framework to harness and utilise data can be transformational to the user experience, to service delivery and the creation of new opportunities.

This emphasises that it’s not simply about introducing technology for the sake of it, but recognising where it can and will make a difference, coupled with the adoption of smart thinking and principles to support the delivery of a wide range of objectives and targets.

This summer has seen the publication of high profile reports which highlight the scale of the task ahead, such as the IPCC report and its “code red for humanity” and the UK Government’s Climate Change Committee’s Third UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Report, and in particular the lack of progress being made on adaptation.  This increasing awareness of the need for urgent and immediate change will be a focal point at the United Nations’ COP26 Climate Change conference to be held in Glasgow later this year.  In my view, adopting a smart mindset can play a significant part in achieving the necessary changes.

None of this is linear or simple: at the same time as decarbonising and adapting infrastructure, there is pressure to maintain and improve standards of living.

In some respects, we already have a template. Pandemic lockdown has dramatically upped the pace of societal change.

At the beginning of 2020, we at IBI Group wrote about what the proposed Garden Towns and Villages would deliver in terms of connectivity, and their ability to remove over-reliance on moving people and goods to maintain quality of life. Following lockdown in March, those same years-into-the-future changes were delivered in just days and weeks. By some estimates, the pandemic has caused societal change that would have otherwise taken up to three decades.

The take-away point is that pandemic and lockdown happened at a time when technology was capable of being an enabler. This is both unique in our history and incredibly fortunate, but we can’t exist forever as we have over the last 18 months. Nor should we; what lockdown has proven is people’s susceptibility to, and acceptance of, necessary change.

Mention of Garden Towns and Villages is no accident. Smart — properly conceived and implemented smart — must permeate and benefit all of society, not just those in large cities. An interesting dynamic, as we emerge from lockdown, is urban flight.  We’re a post-industrial economy and many people are realising that work and home need not be geographically tied. We run a risk of reversing decarbonisation as populations become more spread.

And to that, this reinforces that smart isn’t just about the city.  The smart concept applies just as much in the rural context as it does the urban.  Considering Wales, the rural population is already above the UK average, and the potential for smart in that environment is equally significant.  This mirrors our approach in IBI Group – that the smart concept and the integration of technology and design permeates everything we do, whatever the context.