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Why the Smartest City Solutions Put People and Environment First

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

There is a lot of hype around the term ‘smart city’ and its definition can be ambiguous. At UrbanEmerge, we refer to smart cities as those that use data and technologies to improve the lives of the citizens and businesses that inhabit them. Solutions based on Information and Communication Technologies that are augmented by data sharing and analytics, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence have enormous potential to empower city managers to help plan and develop, maintain and govern cities. We also like to refer to this area as ‘urban innovation.’

Urban innovation can help improve sustainability by more efficiently managing limited resources, by better balancing supply and demand, and by enhancing resilience to disasters. Smart solutions also empower individual citizens in participating in the planning and management of cities, helping to improve their own quality of life.

Digital and smart city solutions are a vast and rapidly growing market area. Around the world, municipal governments are expected to invest $80 billion in smart city technologies this year, in order to make better, data-driven decisions (International Data Corporation). Organisations involved in cloud computing, digital interface and data analytics are increasingly developing smart city solutions. In China, where I’m based, Alibaba Cloud, Huawei and Ping’an have large smart city teams and are developing platforms to help manage and optimise urban operations, such as traffic flow and emergency response.

The growing business area of urban innovation

I was recently honoured to represent UrbanEmerge in the UK Future Cities Catapult (FCC) Delegation to China, from Aug. 19 to 22. UrbanEmerge was one of a handful of companies invited on the trip, with the primary objectives of attending the Shenzhen Smart City Expo and the UK-China Government Forum on cooperation in the area of future cities. The FCC also took this opportunity to launch its portfolio of inspiring UK-based companies interested in doing business in China; a group in which UrbanEmerge is happy to be featured.

At the Shenzhen Expo, the Catapult and the China Centre for Urban Development invited me to give a talk on the UK experience in smart city solutions. I set out seven key points for smart city success in the UK, along with some examples of interesting initiatives, such as Bristol is Open (a key reason behind Bristol being identified as the UK’s top smart city in 2017).

My key principles were:

  1. Government and academic backing to support smart city research and innovation

  2. Open data platforms to support many new uses for data analytics

  3. Strong connectivity to enable the Internet of Things

  4. Partnerships to enable collaboration, knowledge sharing and new ideas

  5. Human-centred approach to improve quality of life

  6. AI and machine learning to support urban systems

  7. A view of cities as systems that must balance economic, social and environmental needs

Andreas Beavor, co-Founder of UrbanEmerge, pitches at an event to

match UK businesses with potential clients and partners in China, as part of the

UK-China Government Forum on Future Cities at the Shenzhen Smart Cities Expo.

Making sure the Sustainable Development Goals are at the heart of smart city solutions

While we’re getting excited about all the technological possibilities out there, it’s important to remember that smart city solutions must first serve the people of cities. This is particularly important in the context of rising income and opportunity inequality in many cities around the world, including in the UK and China.

Urban innovation must help us use digital technologies to address a full range of social, environmental and economic goals that will enable sustainable development. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through more efficient mobility or smart energy management can be enabled by smart tech. Improving community resilience to disaster can be improved through early warning systems. We can improve urban ecology and link it to resilience as technology can support effective monitoring of environmental indicators. Greater understanding leads to new and better solutions.

One thing that is increasingly clear is that tech providers would often benefit from forming partnerships with urban development specialists to make sure the solutions being developed are effectively solving specific problems as well as addressing the needs of sustainable development. Urban specialists really understand data and how it can inform integrated planning and management, as well as how to work with participatory approaches in developing projects and ideas.

Inside the Ping'an smart city solutions display at the Shenzhen Smart City Expo

Sharing knowledge, experience and lessons learned also helps to create effective urban innovations which place people and environment at the centre. Every passing month witnesses an acceleration in technology development and it’s essential to learn and build on what’s been done before. Many solutions already exist in other geographies and contexts and sharing lessons on approaches and outcomes is important, even for private sector partners more cautious about intellectual property.

The urban future is fast arriving. It’s a future in which there are so many opportunities to create more liveable cities and contribute to the global sustainable development goals. Making sure that urban tech innovation proactively contributes to those goals rather than existing primarily for the sake of sales and market share in the IT business sector is something we should all be mindful about.

Andreas Beavor is a Co-Founder of UrbanEmerge and a consultant in urban and regional development and inclusive economic growth.

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