Manchester

Where next for smart cities and the Internet of Things?

By: Tom Saunders, Senior Researcher, Nesta
Published: Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 10:18 GMT Jump to Comments

Can Manchester lead the way in bringing Internet of Things technology into the wider public consciousness with a £10 million investment?

Smart cities and the Internet of Things (IoT) are back in the news with Manchester’s recent win of the £10 million Internet of Things city demonstrator competition. There is little consensus around what specifically makes a city smart - the term has been around for decades and most often refers to the use of sensors, data and advanced computing to improve the way a city works. This ultimately speeds up information flow, reduces waste and improves how cities manage their resources.

What’s new this time, and why has the government decided to spend £10 million funding it? Essentially, the government wants the pilot to demonstrate the suitability of IoT in addressing the challenges that cities face.

This is important because governments and companies have invested heavily in smart city demonstrators in the past and have not yet seen any real evidence of a return on investment. All too often it seems that demonstrators are too concerned with hardware rather than with people, and are too focused on finding uses for new technologies as opposed to finding technologies that can solve pressing problems.

This was a key finding of Nesta’s recent research on smart cities. That being said, the pilot in Manchester could go a long way towards creating a model for the future development of smart cities. Here are four tips on how the city can do this.

1. Open up participation in the demonstrator

Smart city pilots are typically run by ‘experts’ in large technology companies. Experts don’t, however, have a monopoly on the best ideas. Opening up problem solving to wider groups can often lead to more innovative outcomes. For example, Chicago’s Array of Things project has created an open, modular network which can accept sensors from a range of organisations, rather than developing its own sensors. 

Manchester should engage a wide spectrum of people and organisations in the demonstrator, using tools like challenges prizes, hackathons and innovative procurement tools such as the small business research initiative.

2. Generate and share evidence

Despite the huge sums invested in smart cities worldwide, there is little published evidence which shows that ‘smart’ solutions are effective. As a result, city governments currently have no clear guidance on what technologies to invest in.

Rather than waiting to publish an in depth review two years from now, Manchester should share lessons in real-time, blogging about each iteration of hardware and software and the challenges that they face. This will help other cities in the UK and around the world to start learning from the pilot straight away.

3. Invest in smart people, not just smart technology

Collecting large amounts of data won’t help a city if city government employees don’t have the ability to interpret data and understand how or why it is collected. While paying companies to do this is an option, there are issues around basing decisions on the outsourcing of data analysis. Manchester should invest a proportion of the demonstrator funds in data training for city government staff: both basic data handling skills and more advanced skills to train a group of data specialists would be particularly useful.

4. Engage citizens intelligently

In the past, many smart city demonstrators have offered residents little chance to engage in the design and deployment of new technologies. This seems counterintuitive as residents know a huge amount about their cities. Tapping into this ‘collective intelligence’ could help the city better define and solve the problems that matter most to residents.

Manchester should do this using online tools that let residents propose and debate ideas for projects. Better Reykjavik, for example, is a good model to base this on. The city could also organise a participatory budgeting exercise, to give residents the power to decide how a proportion of the demonstrator funds are spent.

When thinking about the IoT, Manchester should also include smartphones, which give a city a ready made city-wide sensor network. Manchester should invest a proportion of the demonstrator funds in innovative ways to crowdsource data, which could potentially lead to much lower data collection costs. Successful examples include Petajakarta, a platform which creates crowdsourced flood maps using Twitter data.

As investment and interest in smart cities continues to grow the concept needs to evolve from proprietary technology and processes to open innovation, from ‘technology push’ to solutions based on the challenges that cities face, and from top down systems to collaborative innovation.

The involvement of citizens, SMEs and civil society in defining and addressing the issues that matter to them in their cities will also be a priority. If it is done well, the Internet of Things pilot in Manchester could go a long way towards achieving these goals.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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