There were so many good ideas and sources of inspiration at this week’s Smart Cities Live show in London that it is difficult to know where to begin. However, a key question is why innovation springs up and flourishes in one place but not another. Why does it arise in, for instance, Exeter in the UK, Cluj in Romania, Adelaide (aiming to be zero carbon by 2025), Trevisco in Italy (already achieving 85% recycling rates) or the Isles of Scilly, but not in many of their similar looking counterparts around the globe?

Criteria for Success

How are the seeds sown and what are the criteria for success? I put this question to several of the presenters. “The nudge often comes when backs are against the wall,” said Theo Leijser, Chief Executive of the Isles of Scilly Council. The islands, off the south-west coast of England, have high levels of fuel poverty, a precarious energy supply (a single ageing cable link to the mainland) and very low renewables, despite more sun than anywhere else in the UK, plenty of wind and exceptionally high tides. It is now aiming to reduce energy bills by 20% by 2020 and 40% by 2027; have 40% of cars low carbon/electric by 2025; make all homes across the island energy efficient; and generate 40% renewables by 2025.

If the ‘backs to the wall’ driver is compelling, then perhaps there is hope. For many local authorities in the austerity-ravaged UK, it is now hard to do anything other than fire-fight and there comes a point (arguably passed by most councils some time ago) where doing the same thing with the same processes but with ever fewer people and budgets becomes unsustainable.

A quote from former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, resonates. She observed that people now talk to governments using 21st Century technology but governments listen with 20th Century technology and respond with 19th Century processes.

Enlightened leadership perhaps doesn’t always need a ‘backs to the wall’ impetus but there are high barriers: risk aversion, rigid procurement in the public sector, and siloed structures, budgets and thinking, plus a lack of decision-making based on meaningful data.

The traditional failings were well articulated by Toby Eccles, Founder and Development Director at Social Finance, which pioneered the social impact bond. “Public services for the vulnerable are trapped in the 20th Century,” he said (so slightly more generous than Albright). There’s siloed thinking, he argued, data is fragmented (it is not built around people so there are only limited insights), and the focus is on processes not outcome accountability. There’s a lack of preventable services and over-reliance on universal ones. “Vulnerable people often hate them, they are assessed all the time” but there’s no real support. There is a focus on price not quality, arbitrary cost-cutting and “narrative-based decision-making not data-based”. The quality of the narrative compared with the numbers is “often disturbing”.

There needs to be “dynamic leadership”, said Ricky Morton, former Smart City Lead at the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. This must apply to politicians and chief officers, with the need as well for service heads to be won over.

Focus can be provided by establishing smart cities teams. Matthew Wood-Hill, Cities Standards Co-ordinator at Future Cities Catapult, felt these provide co-ordination, leadership, recruitment of relevant skills, and a culture of openness. One success criteria that was emphasised again and again over the two days was “bottom-up” innovation based on truly listening to citizens.

So it is perhaps no surprise that Barcelona is a beacon of innovation, given that its current mayor came from one of the citizen movements. “Technology is the least of the problems, the real challenge is culture and organisational change,” said Francesca Bria, the city’s Chief Digital Technology and Innovation Officer (an interesting title, of course). This includes openness and flexibility in procurement, she argued. “It is a non-sexy topic but it is at the heart of what government does.” There needs to be a shift from a contractor relationship to a partnership model, and a move from a top-down structure of siloes that don’t talk to each other to an ‘open source’ approach. “The smart city can only be built from the ground up by involving citizens.”

This can’t be lip-service. Exeter City Futures is a good example of this in practice. It is a Community Interest Company funded by Oxygen House Investments and works with Exeter City Council. It is seeking to create an energy independent and congestion-free city by 2025. The challenges were identified through community engagement and it seeks ideas and solutions from the same source. It has a partnership network, which includes the local university and schools, and a start-up accelerator programme. The latter has seen an initial four start-ups selected for investment comprising Escargo (a cargo bike last mile delivery service); binit, which connects small businesses to collectively purchase waste management services; Qbots, a solar and battery storage software specialist; and Green Ride, which is developing a car pool app.

The openness of Exeter to ideas should raise questions among other political leaders. In particular, how straightforward would it be for an individual or a start-up to come to your organisation with a smart idea, whether on-line or in person?

“The procurement budget is a powerful tool,” said Silje Bareksten, Head of Smart City Oslo. Her city’s Oslo Accelerator  initiative encourages procurement from the start-up ecosystem. Oslo has identified four challenges as smart mobility, smart health, smart infrastructure and smart climate (reducing emissions by half by 2030 and by 100% by 2050). It had an eight-week accelerator project to which 80 start-ups applied. 17 were chosen to pitch, four were selected and two of these to date have secured procurement contracts (BySpire, which is innovating in hydroponics, and TikkTalk, which links interpreters with non-native speakers).

The Greater London Authority (GLA) is also looking at alternative forms of funding, as reflected in the fact that it now has a crowdfunding department that works with SpaceHive to find ways to deliver community facilities.

The GLA has recently appointed its first digital officer and is seeking to apply data science to its problems. An example is the highly topical one of air quality, where it is working with the Alan Turing Institute to try to find cheap but effective monitors that can be used by, among others, ‘citizen scientists’ to fill in the gaps between the measuring by its 130 Air Quality Monitoring Stations (AQMSs). GLA Director, Andrew Collinge, also felt that better data might allow a shift from the current “blunt means” of dealing with motorists, whereby everyone pays a flat fee regardless of whether they drive ten metres and park for the day or drive round in circles and clock up 100 miles.

There is no doubt that robust use of ever more data provides the basis for identifying the challenges and solutions. Social Finance’s Toby Eccles gave the example of Early Years Programmes where “data is usually all over the place”. If a child is not school-ready, then the data should flow back, to identify what went wrong, but this seldom happens. He cited a study for Newcastle City Council which brought together all of the data around NEETS (Not in Employment, Education or Training), where so often the focus has been on educational attainment. In fact, it was found that a much greater factor was vulnerability, with 67% of NEETs having had some previous contact with the council’s Children’s Services.

Start small, then replicate and scale up

Initial innovation is often more straightforward on a relatively small scale. This was certainly emphasised by Isle of Scilly’s Theo Leijser. It has around 2500 people across the five inhabited islands within the archipelago. It therefore knows all of its residents and also has the benefit of “no data leakage”, due to a single cable to the mainland, “so we can create this live laboratory and test ideas”. To his surprise, the likes of Hitachi, IBM and Google have been attracted to work on projects on the islands for this reason. A failed project on this scale should have only limited impact but a successful one can be replicated and scaled-up elsewhere. Decision-making can also be much quicker within a smaller entity, he added.

In fact, we can see the need for relatively manageable initial projects within some of the big cities too, whereby they focus on particular districts as, for instance, Barcelona has been doing in Poblenou.

With so much innovation now happening, sharing is key to taking major leaps forward. Stockholm, Cologne and Barcelona, for instance, are ‘lighthouse cities’ in a programme called GrowSmarter, within the European Commission’s ‘Smart cities and communities’ initiative under the Horizon 2020 funding stream. Twelve smart solutions will be rolled out in each city, which will then host free tours and workshops. Areas of focus include low energy districts; integrated infrastructures; smart waste management; Big Data management; and urban mobility. There are also official ‘follower’ cities within the programme, including Graz, Cork, Valetta and Suceava (Romania). The Business School of Navarra is analysing the payback of the schemes to determine whether they are sustainable.

Similarly, the Isles of Scilly are part of a ‘Smart Islands Network’ while Barcelona, Madrid and Helsinki are working together in a digital democracy programme that is seeking to create true participatory government. There is also city-to-city collaboration around adult social care (“a really neglected part of the smart cities vision,” said the GLA’s Andrew Collinge). Collaboration creates markets, encourages reuse, and exports best practice. “If we work with one city, it’s a client; if we work with 30, it’s a market,” observed Future Cities Catapult’s Wood-Hill.

Of course, the partnerships must also embrace the private sector. After all, only around 7% of greenhouse gasses stem from the public sector within cities, so to meet their reduction targets, there has to be much wider buy-in. The public sector can provide the environment for innovation but mostly it will be delivered by third-parties. And we shouldn’t forget the role of central government. Policy changes can bring rapid benefits, as reflected in the UK’s landfill tax, taxes on single use plastic bags and, most likely, the Scottish government’s imminent plastic bottle deposit return scheme.


One reason why cities are “stepping forward while states are stepping back” as observed by Barcelona’s Francesca Bria, might also be to do with their relative autonomy and straightforward governance (versus, say, the three-tier local government of much of the UK). She cited immigration, climate change and rethinking democracy as areas where this is happening and one only has to consider the city-based response in the US to Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Accord to see this in action.

There were plenty of reasons for optimism over the two-day event. As well as lots of energy, dynamism and tangible case studies, there are also, in many cases, the lessons from previous failed initiatives. There was a broad definition of cities (Isles of Scilly, Lapinjärvi in Finland, with a population of 2800) so perhaps ‘Smart Communities’ would have been a more appropriate title. But given that 65% of people live in cities (predicted to rise to 80% by 2050), that they account for 70% of greenhouse gases, 70% of general waste, 70% of the economy (by GDP) and more than 60% of energy consumption, there is no doubt that cities are crucial to the survival of our planet.