Last week, Manchester played host to a three day ‘conference-as-lab’ that brought together big thinkers from all over the world to explore findings from local and international smart city projects.
Day one was dedicated to SmartImpact, and sharing findings from the two-year European Commission project that Manchester City Council has been leading.
This was followed by Smart City Live on day two – an interactive day of workshops, talks, walking tours and demonstrations showcasing Internet of Things demonstrator projects.
The final day, titled Future Sessions, launched with a series of audio-visual performances and featured talks and arts events with leading thinkers and creators working at the frontiers of our technological landscape.
A world of smart cities
Smart City Live in particular presented an opportunity for us to not just show off the work we’ve been doing within CityVerve, but to field questions from visitors working on similar projects too.
The day was designed to be discursive, with talks giving over large portions to Q&A and workshops bringing together experts, citizens, and policy makers to share ideas.
More than 150 delegates arrived from all over Europe, eager to see what we’ve been up to, and after a day of picking apart the pros and cons of the smart city movement were treated to a panel discussion hosted by the chief executive of Manchester Science Partnerhips, Rowena Burns.
Joining her were Drew Hemment of FutureEverything, Innovate UK’s Jonny Voon, Andrew Smyth from Siemens, Simon Navin from Ordnance Survey, and Cisco’s Peter Shearman – all of whom have been involved in the strategy behind and delivery of the CityVerve project. (Unfortunately, our health and social care lead, Julie Harrison, was taken ill and unable to sit on the panel).
In keeping with the nature of the day’s other sessions, this would be an opportunity to talk candidly about both the achievements of the CityVerve project to date and to examine the areas in which it might be improved.
“When we set up CityVerve, we had a particular view of trying to make it as relevant as possible to people,” Peter offered, “and we’ve still got some way to go to figure that out.”
This, he explained, was a case of moving beyond smart cities as a purely infrastructural undertaking and considering what these projects can mean for the identity and makeup of a city. It’s something, Peter went on, that the technology industry should be considering as a whole.
— Cisco UK & Ireland (@CiscoUKI) March 21, 2018
Simon Navin, meanwhile, argued that the core success of CityVerve has been in realising the ambition of bringing such a large partner group together – and being able to align otherwise very disparate operating profiles.
By taking this approach, he said, and working hard to define upfront what it is the project wants to achieve (rather than feeling rushed into action by unavoidable time constraints), it’s possible to formulate a vision of how making a city smart can genuinely improve it.
This is by no means easy, particularly with regards the constraints, but Andrew Smyth agreed that CityVerve was already delivering a strong signal to other demonstrators of the value of co-creation. “There has to be an individual as well as collective ownership of the work being done,” he said. “More often than not, technology will find a way to make change happen – so you need to make sure the cultural environment is there to support that as it happens.”
Where to begin
This process (of defining what you really want to achieve in building a city of the future) should start with a simple question, said Jonny Voon: “Do you look to the past, and incorporate what others have done before, or try to start with a clean slate?”
There’s not necessarily a single clear answer to that but, Jonny said, what’s become obvious to him is that you can throw as much tech as you like at a city but ultimately you can’t prescribe the solution to the city.
Drew Hemment agreed that engaging with citizens has been as important as it has been challenging. Taking a human-centred design approach has been key.
And @LingQL is on hand to demonstrate her work with the young members of the community from across Manchester who've participated in the creation of the project #EveryThingIsConnected pic.twitter.com/qwPoTRV1IQ
— CityVerve (@cityverve) March 21, 2018
Simon Navin, however, argued that this human-centred approach, incorporating citizen feedback, must be genuine and not retro-fitted. Sometimes, he said, it can be tempting to use user-centred design to validate pre-existing use cases rather than to actually shape them.
This highlights, Drew said, both the challenge of working as a consortium of public and private organisations, with a similar blend of funding streams. – at which point Peter chipped in that some of the discoveries of CityVerve were that innovation also needs to happen at a business model level.
Empowered with the people
Ultimately the panellists agreed that any project serving a city’s various communities is dependent on the ability to communicate with those communities.
“You shouldn’t have to be a smart citizen to be part of a smart city,” said Jonny. In this way, the benefits of a smart city need to be communicable in terms of the improvements they can make to citizens’ lives.
Really healthy communities, said Rowena, are those that are constantly in dialogue.
For smart cities, this means listening and working out which are the core services (in health, safety, security etcetera) that people care about. Which of them are working? Which of them are not doing so well? Use your findings from this process, Rowena said, to build your future city.
And share these discoveries, Jonny chimed in. He learned the importance of this, he said, from adhering to an old adage: “A smart person learns from their own mistakes, but a wise person learns from the mistakes of others.”
This, Jonny argued, is where CityVerve holds huge value, both in learning from the errors of other smart city projects that have gone before it, and being able to pass on to future pioneers the key lessons learned when things didn’t go as expected in Manchester.