A real smart city doesn’t look like something from a science fiction movie

A still from the 1982 movie Bladerunner. Image: Warner Bros.

An abandoned mine shaft beneath the town of Mansfield, England is an unlikely place to shape the future of cities. But here, researchers from the nearby University of Nottingham are planning to launch a “deep farm” that could produce ten times as much food as farms above ground. Deep farms are an example of what the latest wave of smart cities look like: putting people first by focusing on solving urban problems and improving existing infrastructure, rather than opening shiny new buildings.

These smart cities look nothing like science fiction. In fact, the sleek, futuristic visions often used to promote smart cities tend to alienate residents. Isolated high-tech buildings, streets or cities can foster social inequality, and even free WiFi and bike-sharing schemes mainly benefit the affluent.

So instead of chasing ribbon-cutting opportunities in city centres, planners, community leaders and researchers are coming together to tackle mundane but serious issues, such as improving poor quality housing, safeguarding local food supplies and transitioning to renewable energy.

In my own research, commissioned by the British Council, I looked at how new projects and partnerships with universities in eight European cities are making life better for residents, through the clever use of technology. You may already be living in a smart city – here’s what to look out for.

More voices

Students bridging the divide. Image: Andrés Gerlotti/Unsplash.

These new smart cities are getting communities and universities involved, alongside big companies and city authorities. This has helped shift the focus of smart city projects onto the needs of residents. During my interviews in cities across Europe – from Bucharest, Romania to Warsaw, Poland and Zaragoza, Spain – I found that university students and researchers have played an active role in this, consulting with residents and working with city hall to promote cooperation between citizens and local institutions.

Universities produce a wealth of knowledge about the kinds of problems facing cities, and there is often a need to make more people aware of new research, so they can shape it, use it and build on it. In Milan, the City School initiative brings together the Municipality of Milan and six local universities to discuss issues facing the city. Universities take turns to showcase research and activities, and city officials test urban policy ideas with experts.

But above all, communities are now part of the conversation. The EU-funded Sharing Cities programme, led by city halls and universities in London, Lisbon and Milan, has the audacious goal of proving that at least half of the 15,000 locals affected by improvements have actively participated in the process. As such, city authorities have worked with residents to design and implement smart city technologies including smart lampposts, energy management and e-mobility (smart parking, car sharing, electric charging points and so on) – but also to ensure these changes actually improve their lives.


More complexity

Successful smart city projects blend disciplines, bringing together experts in behavioural change alongside specialists in artificial intelligence and information technologies. Interdisciplinary work can be messy and difficult, it can take longer and may not always work – but when it does, it can bring real benefits to cities.

For instance, Nottingham City Council and Nottingham Trent University have been part of the Remourban regeneration programme, working across sectors with cities around Europe. Homes in the Nottingham suburb of Sneinton have been upgraded with new outside walls and windows, a solar roof and a state of the art heating system – a process that takes just a few days.

The result is improved insulation and reduced energy bills for residents, but also better public health: calculations suggest that bad housing costs the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) £1.4bn a year, and improving the quality of homes can cut visits to local doctors almost by half.

The German city of Darmstadt has worked with citizens, universities, museums and businesses to plan for the future. For smart city projects to be embraced by residents, the benefits of new technologies need to be balanced against the need to manage privacy and security concerns. Darmstadt has set up an ethics advisory committee and has a strong focus on cyber security.

The city was recently crowned winner of the German Digital City competition, and the municipal government is now working with other German cities to share what has worked.

More places

The new wave of smart cities spreads improvements beyond the city centre, with universities from France to Ireland running initiatives to bring residents from surrounding areas onto campus, and take their expertise into local communities.

For instance, when Technological University Dublin and Dublin City Council came together to develop a new campus in the deprived district of Grangegorman, they opened it up to the rest of the city. The community eat with the students in the canteen, new buildings reuse material from the old site, renewable energy is stored locally, with excess power released onto the grid, and signage throughout the campus is the same as the rest of the city, blurring the edges between the university and the city.

Technology can play an important and often decisive role in tackling urban problems. But the smart city of the future is more likely to be defined by quieter upgrades to existing infrastructure and new partnerships that better represent residents, than flashy new developments that resemble visions from science fiction.

The Conversation

James Ransom, PhD candidate, international higher education, UCL.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.