This guide introduces the concept of ‘smart places’. Its starting point is ‘people in places’, rather than technology per se.
Technology can connect infrastructure, business, communities, public service and individual citizens in ways that were previously impossible, improving economic and social well-being and transforming public services. But this research is about how that technology can be used better and more effectively to achieve these connections, not about the technology itself.
For example, service plans can no longer be confined to single or even groupings of public services organisations with a ‘producer-led’ mentality; they need to start with people, locations and communities, with a strong focus on the outcomes deemed important by citizens, businesses and politicians.
This is digital at its best – helping to deliver regional economic, social and public sector ambitions at the same time. It needs more than a ‘smart city’ (or a ‘smart places’) label. It needs practical action and a change in approach. Socitm members can play a key strategic and leadership role in making this happen in the places where they work.
Transport and Mobility
Smart transport systems bring to mind driverless cars, intelligent journey-planning GPS apps, and systems that help with integrated public transport.
These are all valuable developments and they all exist today – although, as yet, driverless cars are limited to ‘driver assisted’ mode. There is huge untapped potential for new digital solutions to optimise and improve travel and transport locally and nationally, especially in terms of the links with other related services.
Future digital solutions will not only improve the flow and integration of transport services, but will make connections more strongly with the purpose of travel and preferences, linked better to how other services are developed – such as the challenge of coping with the morning rush hour for a range of public and private services.
‘Smart places’ is much more than a digital infrastructure and services. It is about people - digitally connected and able to play a full part in their city, town or village life. Digital citizens have the access they need to electronic services and the skills to use them. They also expect to have a strong voice in local and national politics, in how services are designed, delivered and in representing their interests and preferences in how they live their lives in their communities. This is digital democracy - much more than e-voting and electronic consultation.
Today, because of technology, the voice of ordinary people is stronger than it ever has been, and it is increasingly influential. Social media connects people together, shares and reinforces views, and strengthens their voice, individually and collectively.
Our connections are no longer to a small circle of family and friends, but to people we have never met, from different places and backgrounds, yet who share some common interests with us. We influence and encourage them and they do the same with us. Whilst this may reinforce our own prejudices and perceptions, it can also change us through the interaction.
Economy and Business
A strong local economy is not something that is created by the private sector alone. There is a complex mix of components necessary for an area to succeed economically. For example: infrastructure, such as road and broadband, good public services, such as schools and health, a supportive business climate facilitated by the local council’s planning activities, and a good base of skilled workers.
These rarely happen by chance. They require communities, public services and businesses to come together to share ambition and action. Building a skilled workforce locally, for instance, depends on both public and private sector activities in education and training, creating employment opportunities, and through incentives that promote an area, often heavily influenced by public services.
A strong local economy is good for business and for citizens looking for work. But it also helps public services, through reduced social demand on benefits, on local authority housing and on the wider cost of unemployment.
Environment and Energy
There has been much debate about whether technology is good for the planet. On the one hand, it has allowed greater efficiency in how we manage scarce resources: less paper, less travel, less wasteful food production, and more sustainable energy sources. On the other hand, it has also enabled more efficient exploitation of natural resources, often without fully understanding the environmental costs of our actions.
Smart places of the 21st century must deal with this dilemma and balance the need for food, energy, economic growth and the material advantages of technology with the impact on the environment.
In the past, this has been a challenge primarily for national government through regulation to reflect wider, longer-term public interest, implemented by local government. In countries that have abdicated that public responsibility to the interests of industry, such as India, there have been significant pollution problems as a result.
While national UK government has a continuing and important role, local government must now take a bigger responsibility in developing smart places that can have a positive impact on the environment.
Education, Skills and Jobs
Smart places inevitably require higher than average digital skills in their workforce – employers will require technology knowhow and digital leadership, whether they are public, private or third sector.
The potential of technology seems limitless. It is transforming our health and our wealth and also driving economic growth. It is emancipating people, creating greater equality of opportunity and spreading democratic participation. It enables social cohesion and better understanding of differing views. It can give security for communities and families. It offers new opportunities for universal education and better use of scarce resources and energy. It is giving us more leisure and freedom. And it is central to pretty much every area of research, development and business transformation.
It also brings new risks and threats, from either deliberate or unintended misuse of new technologies and our dependence on them. These affect individuals, communities, governments, businesses and even the environment around us.
Maximising this potential and controlling the risks, requires skills and digital awareness — from specialist technologists in the digital professions to the digital awareness and technical skills needed by every citizen.
People and Communities
In this last in our series of smart places guides, we focus on communities and people. Smart places embrace diverse individuals and communities of ‘people in places’ of all creeds, interests and backgrounds. These communities can be real-world or virtual, and local to global, in extent. Policy makers in smart places recognise that there is new complexity today in which individuals often have multiple identities and personae and the communities that are important to them may not be just of the city, town or village where they live.
And beyond just people and how they connect, the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) is connecting smart objects and people in places in new ways that promise to make smart places richer, safer, healthier and more productive. Individuals in such smart places will be both more independent and yet more connected to each other than ever before.
The flip side to this social and technological utopianism is concern that all this personal data can and will be linked, analysed and abused to individual or community detriment. So some people are asking what are the risks of living in a smart place and what new skills might citizens need to manage them? What should be the role of democratic governments in protecting us and our civil liberties? And who will watch the watchmen?