Iqbal Bedi, director and founder of Intelligens Consulting, hosted a panel at Britain Connected 2021, discussing how we have already made cities smart in Britain – the focus being on Birmingham, and how to move forward in delivering a smart Britain within all cities and rural communities. Editorial assistant Kiera Sowery covered the key topics from BC’21, and what to look out for over the next few years.
There are over 103 different definitions in terms of what constitutes a smart city. But for Raj Mack, head of Business Engagement, Information, Technology and Digital Services at Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, a smart city is any system or application that enables a better outcome for citizens or businesses in a sustainable way.
Mack states: “For me, it’s about data, data integration, and the ability for different systems of the city to be able to be easily integrated.
“So, when we have new applications, we need a platform that enables us to plug those in and take them out depending on when we need them. So, a platform that enables interoperability is one of the key components from a smart city perspective.”
This article covers the views of the panellists who discussed Birmingham’s smart city prospects – particularly why the city is considered a smart city leader in the UK, what needs to change to make Birmingham smarter still, how other cities can follow in Birmingham’s footsteps, and the plan of action to tackle rural areas specifically within Britain.
Birmingham is the smart city leader, but what needs to change?
Raj Mack introduced Birmingham as one of the leaders in smart cities, and a pioneer when the smart city movement started a few years ago. In 2016, Birmingham published its Smart City Roadmap, which focused on challenges such as how to secure the infrastructure, as well as the skills, applications and services needed to transform the city.
More specifically, such challenges in smart cities relate to innovation, and the need for collaboration between different partners – establishing the use cases and business cases needed to move the right ideas forward.
Birmingham’s 5G programme is stifled to some extent because they don’t yet have the fibre connectivity there, but nevertheless, there is an emerging set of use cases that would support such technology. The problem is that Birmingham also needs the right business cases to roll out full fibre and this is one of the many reasons that they welcome market intervention, as Raj Mack explained.
“The stuff that the likes of Openreach and Virgin are doing is absolutely brilliant, but what we are seeing is that it is still being done on a commercial basis. There are still parts of the city that aren’t going to be covered by the 5G Program.”
Raj went on to say that even in the future power rollout plans, many parts of the city centre will still be left underserved with the infrastructure needed to bridge that innovation. This means that from an infrastructure perspective, there are still significant gaps between where Birmingham wants to be and where it is now.
With this in mind, Birmingham is now attempting to galvanise the market by using its assets to close such gaps within infrastructure.
Another area for change according to Raj is the collaboration piece, referring to the lack of collaboration between SMEs and the public sector. Entrepreneurs need to work with SMEs to get that differing perspective, respond to changes faster and, therefore, really innovate.
“That’s what we need, and we can’t do that with some of the big organisations – we do believe there has to be a blended approach to bring investment forward,” said Raj.
Currently, there are great ideas being put forward by different accelerator programmes, including the West Midlands 5G Accelerator, but there is a need for a ‘leap of faith’ from the private sector, to take some risk and offer investment into these big ideas.
“That’s the thing that lots of organisations have talked about for many years – how the private sector is changing and that they’ll put risk in with us. But we still haven’t really seen that.”
Raj concluded by stating how the pandemic has shown that we cannot live without technology and that models will change, and the various services will need the right infrastructure to support them. “We’ve been asked to launch our Digital Cities Program, which is there to support that inclusive growth area,” he said.
Ultimately, according to Raj, leadership is really beginning to emerge, and most people understand that technology will drive us forward.
How can other cities follow in these footsteps?
Jessica Ellis, head of Programme at 5G Testbeds, emphasised that the focus for cities should be getting the data right: “We only just touched on data today, getting the data, right – getting the data organised, is the backbone to all of this, and that needs a lot of attention.”
With this in mind, Raj expressed the importance of ensuring that citizens understand how their data is being used, that it is being used for ‘good’, and what the positive benefits of this is. This will ensure people are onboard with data sharing. Jessica Ellis added that we need to focus on how we can educate society and citizens at all levels on how some of the fibre rollout impacts them, as it means nothing to a lot of people unless we get that communication right. She added: “We are moving into that space where we’re wanting to demonstrate the good that’s come out of the programme.”
When considering the future of smart cities, it is important to look at how to get these technologies scaled and adopted at scale to build the business case, in turn making the concept of smart cities bankable in terms of investment. We therefore need to look toward how we can enable that innovation at scale and take some of the work that has already been done by various innovators and put it into place.
Building a smart city goes beyond just the infrastructure needed, as Raj and Jessica agree. Raj explained how over the last 18 months, we can see that people are connected, but the bandwidth available to them still means that they are isolated, at least in terms of their lack of the right skill capabilities.
“We must move away from just putting infrastructure in and saying that a place is connected and therefore must be a smart city – it has got to come with a package.”
The pandemic has brought to light the fact that the problem of disconnectivity isn’t just one that rural areas face. It is also in cities themselves. We have seen deprived communities, struggling to get connected.
Consider the children who have not had sufficient data packages to embark on online schooling, and elderly people who can only contact their GP using an over prescribed telephone service as they don’t have access to the online NHS system.
For Raj, this demonstrates the need to think differently about what we mean when we talk about connectivity: “It’s not just in the ground, it’s not just a connection. It’s the package that goes with it.”
Raj concludes that in a 21st century environment we shouldn’t be seeing people struggling and blaming it on their bandwidth that they are unable to use a service.
“This is not going to support those people that really rely on our support.”
“We must consider what it means to the child that can’t get connectivity: how do you make that benefit and outcome real in terms of what you’re doing as a leadership in a council, or a combined authority?,” said Jessica.
“We need to continue to bust barriers by supporting operators and local authorities to deploy more connectivity in their places so they can reap the benefits, both for businesses locally and wider society.”
When thinking about what it means to be rural, we think about being far away from it all, not having infrastructure, and ultimately not being connected. Part of the challenge, therefore, is to bring connectivity to rural areas in a non-intrusive way.
What is next for rural areas?
On the one hand, Ben Roome, CEO of Digital Mobile Spectrum explained how people living and working within rural communities complain about the lack of access to resources, being able to get online and make a payment, access to healthcare, and the issue of homelessness, all very real wellbeing problems within such communities. Yet on the other hand, residents and businesses are concerned with the physical appearance of the infrastructure needed to combat these problems. (Consider the backlash that has been received over 5G towers alone.)
Ben Roome stated that achieving the right level of connectivity within what are otherwise total ‘notspots’, including areas of natural beauty and national parks, will ensure a phenomenal experience for residents because it will make them part of the few who can enjoy being connected to the 4G service.
Rural businesses and farmers who have notspots on their land are less productive and so allowing them connectivity allows greater efficiency in the production of their goods and services. for experts like Ben: “That kind of connectivity is absolutely vital”.