Do Smart Cities need a changing of the guard in the partner/supplier community to succeed?

Smart city programmes are oriented towards the strategic rather than the opportunistic

To date, smart city initiatives have typically been facilitated/stimulated through the availability of relatively small amounts of grant funding to test ideas and concepts. In many cases, cities have had to rely upon the ability and preparedness of large multinational, engineering-led organisations to make matched or speculative investments of time and resource to develop, test and deploy solutions that deliver the outcomes sought.

As someone that has worked in large engineering-led, multinational corporations, I know that a key driver justifying this commitment of time and investment was the anticipated scale of return. In other words, it was going to be very significant; any resultant solution would be highly scalable; generate large revenues; and be transferrable to other geographies and possibly even other industries. Many smart city projects, therefore, have become ‘strategic’: big outcomes, big investments, complex solutions, long delivery timescales.

We are now seeing some of the benefits of that work in solutions that address issues in mobility, energy management, health and social care and so on. The question is whether these solutions are developed primarily for the benefit of the service providers, the public sector and the corporates; rather than directly for the citizens. Citizens will of course see some benefit, however, the business cases for these solutions are typically predicated on reducing the cost of service delivery or increased revenues. Aren’t smarter cities supposed to be more about improving the health, wellbeing and sustainability of our communities?

And that’s what got me to thinking whether the larger organisations have almost done the smart cities movement and the delivery of citizen benefits a disservice. Have we got the right balance between strategic and opportunistic, even tactical programmes? Have we inadvertently (or even deliberately) ignored or blocked opportunistic projects and programmes that are more often envisioned and executed by SMEs, in favour of more strategic programmes executed by Corporates?

SMEs have of course been involved in some strategic projects, but their time to value equation is completely different to Corporates. To survive, their solutions must work – and quickly! They must move at pace, deploy at scale, deliver outcomes and value in as short a time as possible, because if they don’t, they will not survive. Their solutions are therefore more likely to be tactical or opportunistic and, I would argue, potentially more geared at delivering citizen benefits. Therefore, their projects are visible and valued.

Let’s also not forget the smart cities movement was, is, the perfect backdrop for young, innovative, small, agile, design-led, service-oriented companies to come to the fore and take the lead. These companies are driven to succeed because they are often conscious capitalists, and, in a post-Brexit economy, they need to succeed, for UK PLC.

In summary, my question is: what is the right balance between opportunistic and strategic programmes and projects, and are we achieving it? My feeling is that we are not, that smart city programmes are oriented towards the strategic rather than the opportunistic. Surely what we need is a pragmatic combination of the two. This means allowing the SMEs some airtime and giving them the opportunity to innovate and deliver alongside their corporate cousins, rather than behind them.

Steve Peel – Senior Executive, Urban Innovation at Pulse Smart Hub