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Smart cities: a smart act to follow

A recent study found more than 80% of local authorities had little or no involvement with the smart cities agenda. Take a look at Peterborough and it soon becomes clear what they’re missing out on

It’s a city on a cloud but without its head in the clouds. Peterborough secured a global accolade recently for innovation in using cloud technology to solve specific challenges, when winning AWS’ Global Public Sector Smart City Award.

The Cambridgeshire city, population 190,000, clearly punches above its weight when it comes to the application of digital technology and last November scooped the Smart City of the Year award from The World Smart City Congress (WSCC).

The Congress’ judges evaluated 265 entries from 52 countries and chose Peterborough for its ‘commitment to becoming the UK’s first circular city, its environment capital vision, and collaborative approach to citizen involvement’.

Contrast Peterborough’s success with the struggles that many local authorities have in implementing new technology or making the most of its potential. Recent research published by Lucy Zodion, drawing on 187 UK councils, highlighted that many lack the budget, leadership or capability to progress smart initiatives and connected technology.

How can councils learn from Peterborough’s work? And what difference has embracing the smart city agenda made to local services, to residents’ behaviour, and to the city’s environmental impact?

John Harrison, corporate director of resources at Peterborough Council, told EJ his ‘key focus is to drive forward the efficiency agenda of the council’.

And that drive to efficiency led to the technology choices Peterborough made, he says.

‘Our digital journey started from the premise that if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you will always get what you always had. If you want to get members’ and chief executives’ and boards’ attention, you talk about better outcomes, reduced costs, and tools to help survive austerity, you don’t talk about digital and tech first.’

The smart cities journey
The council works with its wholly-owned economic development and inward investment company, Opportunity Peterborough, to lead the delivery of the future cities agenda through the Peterborough DNA programme. Steve Bowyer, Opportunity Peterborough’s chief executive and the director of the programme, concurs with Harrison: ‘In Peterborough, digital and technology are a means to an end not an end in itself.’

He explains how a number of programmes dovetail to support the smart city agenda. In 2012 Innovate UK, formerly the Technology Strategy Board, launched the future cities demonstrator programme and Peterborough was awarded £3m to test, develop and implement new concepts and ideas, harnessing the power of data and technology. At the same time, London and Bristol were each awarded £3m while Glasgow got £24m.

But it was Peterborough’s approach that was truly innovative, says Bowyer:

‘Some cities have taken a pure digital approach [to the use of Innovate UK funding]. Peterborough is a smaller city: we knew we had the potential, but had to work with citizens and businesses to make the programme relevant.’

How so exactly? ‘We looked at specific challenges around efficiency, businesses, citizens and the environment and found the digital and tech solutions relevant to overcoming them. For example, we are running several programmes around the circular economy agenda. Peterborough has consistently said it’s got to be humans, businesses and communities at the centre of this. And the phrase “citizen-centric” is now much more strongly on the smart city agenda.’

Sounds great, but what does this mean in practice? How are these programmes ‘relevant’ exactly, and in what ways are they so ‘citizen-centric’?

‘A great example of how Peterborough has used best in class technology to improve citizens’ lives and increase efficiency is the work we’ve done with Bibliotheca in libraries,’ explains Harrison.

‘Everyone has a problem with libraries; we wanted to save money but not close. Open+ has saved 20% off the budget and increased the opening hours by 50% and no libraries have been closed.’

smart citiesBowyer cites how the installation of 25 weather stations in schools by a company called ScienceScope demonstrates the integration of technology across programme areas. ‘They are a resource for teaching: monitoring weather patterns is very real for the children, their school and their environment. The schools use the data to monitor air pollution quality around school drop off times. Then there are wider benefits: the stations are a data source for the Environment Agency and other partners looking to model climate fluctuations.’

The council’s AWS Cloud infrastructure acts as the central hub to integrate data from the weather stations, smart energy meters, connected devices in the city, homes and libraries, with the council’s core applications.

‘At a cost of less than £30,000 to install, the weather stations have generated a range of research projects which upskill young people and monitor and influence environmental conditions,’ Bowyer continues.

He gives another example of how young people are engaged in the programme. ‘Smart Suppers is a brilliant initiative that brings together young Peterborough citizens and businesses. Businesses pose a challenge and teams of young people work together to provide solutions. The teams then present at a supper, paid for by business leaders at £10 per head. The winning team is awarded the proceeds of the evening to help develop their ideas. When you see a 12-year-old presenting creative, well thought out ideas, it’s absolutely phenomenal – and the feedback from businesses is tremendous.’

The most recent winners were a team of 17-year-old boys who are now working with global construction company Skanska to implement their idea in the city. ‘When you see a teenager asking questions of business and council leaders, while learning practical skills about how to develop apps, it’s absolutely phenomenal – and the feedback from businesses is tremendous,’ adds Bowyer.

Investment vs return
Harrison and Bowyer both emphasise the return on investment from the Innovate UK funding. ‘People always ask, “how much have you spent?”’ comments Harrison. ‘I say I’ve put in investment: it’s all about return on investment. Cash returns and hard measurements. Self-esteem is great but it’s never balanced a budget. Peterborough’s position at the top table of smart cities is not just about feeling good but promotes the city: we can now work at a national and international level.’

Which partners helped to make this happen? Harrison says: ‘We dumped pretty much every public sector provider and have gone for best of breed rather than local government solutions, choosing providers such as Arcus, Salesforce, AWS servers in the cloud.’
This technology enables the council to make smarter, data driven and digitally enabled decisions, according to Arcus Global’s CEO, Denis Kaminskiy, who says the global recognition is ‘real proof of the innovation and ambition that Peterborough and Arcus share’.

And it has enabled Peterborough to develop a ‘single customer view’, which is crucial, according to Harrison: ‘Once you get a single customer view, you can ensure you’re dealing with customers properly – through personalised web content, how you deal with social media, and how you respond to businesses in the city. That’s a real way to make sure you embed the issue of their (businesses’) buy-in to the city.

‘And of course, Steve runs services such as the Bondholder Network – this is very much about the businesses in the city coming together to drive prosperity.’

Bowyer backs this up: ‘One of the reasons Peterborough can break down silos relatively easily is the commitment from the private and public sector to break barriers.’

He adds that the city plotted its own approach to challenges for several years:

‘Look back to the recession of 2008-9. The majority of councils toned down their growth aspirations. Peterborough was the only council in the region that said we were going to grow. What was a period of risk became a period of opportunity. If you are an investor, are you going to come to a city that is looking to grow and is confident? Yes, you are.’

DJS Research and Lucy Zodion’s aforementioned report, published in early July, identified a significant gap between councils leading the way on smart cities and those not yet engaged. Over 80% had little to no involvement with smart cities, but early-adopters who secured funding are striving ahead.

A lack of funding, a lack of evidence, insufficient collaboration, and a general lack of confidence amongst council leaders were four of the major barriers to smart cities delivery in the UK, according to the report.

The Innovate UK Future Cities funding certainly gave Peterborough the confidence to collect evidence and test initiatives, according to Bowyer: ‘The funding means you can take more risk: there’s no burden on the local authority, you can be brave and think differently. What is really interesting is how it doesn’t have to be ‘big project’ solutions meaning initiatives can be repeated and replicated in other cities without massive financial burden.

‘Peterborough didn’t just throw the £3m at a single solution: that’s the important lesson. We wanted to make it have real impact and that’s for the funder – Innovate UK.’

Like many UK cities, Peterborough has grappled with the challenges of reducing inequality, attracting inward investment, supporting job creation and reducing its environmental impact. Is it a poor relation to its internationally renowned neighbour, Cambridge?

Not according to Harrison: ‘Peterborough was one of the original environment cities and has an aspiration to be the UK’s environment capital. Energy and digital fit into this programme of work, all around the principle of “one planet living”. In November we’ll be demonstrating Peterborough’s approach at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona.

‘For us digital brings together all the things we’ve been working on. We see the linkages, we don’t see silos. Technology has enabled us to lead a change in attitudes and behaviours. And more people are starting to realise the power of the digital agenda to drive economy and effectiveness through efficiency.’

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