With a network of over 32,000 enterprises across the country working on the challenges posed by global urbanisation, several universities and think tanks devising smart solutions for urban planning and more than 400,000 architects, civil engineers and urban designers, the UK, according to a new, government sponsored, report, believes it can become the world’s leading lab when it comes to planning and building the so called “smart cities”.
It’s an estimate $342 billion (£200billion) global market, according to the report “How can the UK innovate for the world’s cities”, produced by the Future Cities Catapult (one of seven government sponsored innovation centers) in association with UK Trade & Investment [UKTI], which highlights the scale and depth of the UK’s capabilities in several fields: from developing “green” technologies for the environment, to the use of crowdfunding and open data to promote innovation and engage citizens. Let’s have a look at some of the best practices included.
London is, of course, the main national hub for this kind of activities; perhaps the best example so far of the UK’s expertise and capabilities in cleantech, is the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London, a sporting complex built for the 2012 Summer Olympics and one of the largest new urban parks created in for over a century. The area is still under development.
Over 8,000 homes are being built on the site, over a 20 year time-frame and will be arranged along streets, terraces and squares inspired by London’s existing urban form. A low-carbon energy system heats and cools all buildings on the site using combined cooling, heating and power plant (CCHP) technology. The energy centres are fuel and technology agnostic, enabling them to switch between gas and biomass for heat generation depending on fuel tariffs, and to integrate additional renewable technologies in the future.
Another example is in Milton Keynes, a few miles from the capital, where a project to address the barriers which are preventing electric buses from becoming mainstream, thanks to the use of an innovative wireless charging technology. is being deployed.
Eight electric buses draw power wirelessly from 120kW charger plates embedded in the road at either end of the 15-mile route. This enables the buses to run a continuous service for 17 hours a day, just like their diesel counterparts, but greener. This will translate, over the course of a year in decreasing carbon emissions by 270 tonnes.
Going a bit further from London, Bristol, which will be the 2015 European Green Capital is investing £140 million in energy efficiency and renewable energy to save costs and cut carbon emissions, with the aim of strengthening its position as a UK leader in piloting energy innovations including smart metering, smart grids and renewable energy.
Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing the design of public space
In Liverpool, the Liverpool Flyover project plans to turn a concrete flyover in the centre of
Liverpool into an urban park that would cost less to build than the flyover’s proposed demolition.
So far 122 funders have pledged £17,000 to the project through the online funding platform SpaceHive. SpaceHive, quoted in the report as another of UK’s case studies, is a British startup launched in 2012, which enables anyone to pitch for funding for civic ranging from developing new Wi-Fi networks, to building playgrounds or cleaning parks: basically anything that “makes places better”. The UK government is exploring the possibility of offering tax breaks to crowd-funders for civic improvements, which would add 25% to the value of every pledge.
Open Data for citizens’ engagement
As I already covered in other articles, the UK (especially London) has been a pioneer in “liberating” public data, allowing citizens and third party developers to build up applications using the information available. The report mentions CityMapper, an application installed in about half of the iPhones belonging to Londoners, which allows to them to travel seamlessly (well, let’s say more fluently) through the city using transport data released by the UK government and Greater London Authority’s open data platforms. And CityMapper is just one of several application taking advantage of the over 500 datasets available on the London Data Store.
A number of other cities are experimenting with data; the Leeds Data Mill, for instance, provides an online platform for sharing city data. The Greater Manchester Data Synchronisation project brings together three Manchester local authorities, to improve sharing of city data between local governments and other users. In Glasgow, the city council is making its data publicly accessible via the Glasgow Open Portal. From locating available parking spaces to Wi-Fi zones and counsellors’ expenses, 300 datasets that can be downloaded for free.
This are just some of the best practices and case studies highlighted by the report, which is 66 pages long, and it’s well worth a read. Perhaps keeping in mind, that, although accurate, the report itself is part of a promotional strategy by Britain to establish itself as a leading global player in the innovation space. Inevitably, it largely fails to take into account the darker sides that every economy has (for the other side of the coin, you may want to have a look at this paper from Richard Jones, of Sheffield’s Political Economy Research Institute, “The Uk’s innovation deficit and how to repair it”).
Buried in a page almost at the end of the Future Cities Catapult’s study, however, researchers actually do mention some of the challenges the UK will have to tackle, if it wants to make its plan of becoming the world’s leading innovation lab a reality: from finding more effective ways of commercialising innovations, to addressing its lack of skills in manufacturing and engineering, to the need of better political coordination across different administrative levels to improve urban governance.