20 June, 2012 - 14:43 By Tony Quested

Smart city approach not so clever

On the face of it, the £24 million bait dangled by the Government to encourage development of a smart city demonstrator appeared one of the best technology initiatives ever to emerge from the UK’s corridors of power – and Cambridge looked prime to take advantage.

Councils were invited to compete for the cash to demonstrate how they could integrate their transport, communications and other city infrastructure to improve the local economy, increase quality of life and reduce impact on the environment.

The funding, from the government’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board, is to be awarded to the city or urban area in the UK that submits the best proposal for a large scale ‘future cities demonstrator’, showing how the city’s multiple systems will be integrated and how challenges in the city will be addressed.

But this was a honey-tipped arrow fired at the wrong target. The offer from the Technology Strategy Board sounded exciting enough: ‘Bids invited to become the city of tomorrow.’

It set the creative juices flowing. I put together a dream Cambridge consortium on paper in about 60 seconds flat. Then I talked to a source at the TSB to see how best to progress the masterplan – but within minutes we agreed that the rationale behind the project was seriously flawed.

The bids have to come from the cities themselves – the local authorities that under the same government’s austerity reign are scrapping to maintain services to council tax payers while under the most severe financial restraints in memory.

As if they have the time, the remit, the resources or the savvy to put together the kind of comprehensive, thought-through proposal that £24 million demands.

I’m a great admirer of the Technology Strategy Board. While its resourcefulness doesn’t quite extend to biblical loaves and fishes level, the TSB is stretching a limited innovation budget a long way and should be applauded for its enterprise. But this is likely to become a lost opportunity.

This is a job for a corporate entity or a consultancy in collaboration. If I was king for the day in Cambridge I would have Neul’s fabulous ‘Smart Cambridge’ blueprint at the very heart of this proposal.

Under the aegis of a 1Cambridge ‘smart’ collaboration I would mix into Neul’s smart city plan the smart home and smart business technologies being pioneered by thought leaders as follows.

AlertMe (energy management), Homaetrix and Cambridge SmartGrid (smart meters and networks in the home), Care with Canary (Acorn founder Chris Curry’s company that delivers healthcare monotoring via a smart network), Dawson King’s howareyou.com? health portal – plus the many similar ventures that together would deliver from Cambridge the definitive ‘smart cluster’ template.

This could be used as a business model and replicated throughout the UK and ‘sold on’ globally.

Iain Gray, the TSB’s energetic and thoughtful chief executive, was right in saying that “In the future there will be a large market for innovative approaches to delivering efficient, attractive and resilient cities.”

This is too good an idea to drop or waste. It is the perceived delivery process here that is wrong.It is unrealistic to expect technology ingenues in local government to pull together a turnkey initiative for which they lack the contacts, resources and expertise to execute.

I believe there is a case for recalling this initiative as it is currently constructed and seeking re-submissions from corporate consortia with the know-how to deliver the smart city concept on behalf of communities. It would certainly seem the smart thing to do.

Newsletter Subscription

Stay informed of the latest news and features