Sustainable Smart Cities: what could this mean for Leicester?

I hear the phrase “Smart City” more and more these days – in part, this is due to work that DMU is undertaking with Leicester City Council to explore what the Smart City concept could look like in Leicester, and how industry could partner with the university to make this happen. I’ve also been a bit unclear about what exactly the term means! So exploring links between “Smart Cities” and sustainability seemed like a good idea as part of the Spring 2017 Green Bridge event series.

You never know who will come to publicly advertised events and I found the turnout to this event wasn’t as I’d expected! I’d planned around a get-together of local sustainability practitioners coming together to engage with a new topic. Instead, I’d actually convened a gathering of professionals and academics with an interest in making sense of the Smart City idea, and sustainability played a smaller role in the discussions. This wasn’t a problem (in fact it made for an interesting and worthwhile discussion), but I did find it interesting. Perhaps people in the voluntary sector or members of the public with an interest in sustainability see the issue as not being that relevant to them?

At the event, Janet Riley from DMU’s Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development (IESD) provided an intro to the Smart City idea. Her current working definition is

“A smart city innovates with data, digital technology, infrastructure and governance to improve resilience, sustainability, safety, user-experience and quality of life for all who live and work in it or visit it.”

Specific examples helped to make the idea tangible. These included initiaitves such as “London datastore” and “Bristol is Open” that share data (on transport, building energy use) and invite others to make use of it for societal benefit. UrbanDNA’s vision of the “humble lamppost” was a catchy idea – a lamppost that as well as providing street light, could also be used for electric vehicle charging, wifi provision, public announcements and more.

Discussing the idea, we saw many possible benefits of Smart Cities, in particular around efficiency in transportation and building energy use. The idea also raised many concerns: how much we trust the organisations that accrue our data; whether people are socially excluded by systems that assume proficiency with smartphones; a risk of over-reliance on technological solutions and losing our capacity to adapt; and a concern that many of these changes may unfold with little or no public consultation or oversight. It was great having live input from participants joining us online, such as hearing about a number of Smart City projects already happening in Milton Keynes.

We left the session a little wiser about what “Smart Cities” could mean, and at the same time a touch baffled by an emerging and nebulous concept. You can listen to presentations on the day and view Janet Riley’s powerpoint below.

We’re still scoping out this idea at DMU, so your thoughts are welcome on if/how you’d like to see Leicester become a “smarter” city.

Janet Riley’s Smart City talk (Audio and Slides, 25 mins)