The Drum's Day Before Tomorrow series exploring technological disruption continued last night with the screening of the third episode, which explored smart cities.
An audience including transport and travel professionals, architects, urban planners and environmental experts gathered to watch the programme, written and presented by The Drum’s head of TV Dave Birss.
The screening was followed by a panel debate featuring Matthew Griffin of Transport for London (TfL), Lewis Blackwell of The Building Centre, Nigel Vaz of SapientNitro and The Drum editor Gordon Young.
The film looked at everything from how smart cities grow, how information sharing drives innovation, ‘vertical gardens’, behaviour change, citizen empowerment and the role of government versus the private sector in managing the flow of data.
“Being able to operate as a city requires us to innovate,” said Griffin during the panel session. “London’s population is growing at the rate of 100,000 a year and there is huge pressure on our infrastructure, particularly the road network.”
One challenge TfL’s information management team was given was “how to use digital to break the link between car ownership and car usage,” Griffin added. He said that digital has already driven innovations such as car clubs and car sharing websites, while Nissan has trialled offering people who buy its electric cars the loan of a larger vehicle for short periods, like summer holidays.
TfL is looking at collecting data from people on the move – in cars, on foot and on public transport – which it can use to improve their journey times and experiences by advising them in real time about better ways to get from A to B.
Vaz quoted research by Fiat, which suggested that if everyone in London drove digitally enabled smaller cars and monitored driving behaviour using apps, £24bn could be saved through improved fuel consumption, faster journey time and better air quality.
The real challenges, though, according to Vaz, are changing people’s behaviour and developing the infrastructure to support smart cities.
Blackwell suggested that the way to overcome major challenges is to start with small-scale behaviour change. People can be daunted by big tasks: so creating “near wins, to show people that small steps can build up to have a long term impact,” is important. “We need to motivate individuals,” he said.
Using digital technologies to get individuals to work together was a theme raised by all the panellists. Young pointed out that “with digital, lots of things that the government does now can be done by communities.”
But it would be dangerous to take the experience of digitally rich urban environments like London and assume they can be used as a model for the whole of the UK, Young continued.
City dwellers currently have access to physical and digital communications opportunities that those living in rural areas do not have. So while we are now living in a connected world, Young observed, “London seems to have more in common with New York or Singapore than it does with some parts of the UK.” Digital technologies should be used to bring people together across the country, he said, not just in cities.
The film actually looked at smart communities and even smart countries, as well as smart cities; but the panel agreed that smart cities are a key focus because cities drive economic growth and innovation.
Sharing data is key to the development of new digital services. TfL, for example, took a decision to make its data freely available via APIs so anyone who wants to can develop a new app that improves people’s journeys in some way. As Griffin said, “by letting the data out, we get help from the people creating the apps. We are amazed at how our data can be used to change people’s lives.”
Blackwell added that the objective should be “to use the data we already have out there in better ways. We need to get people thinking more seriously about how cities work, connect up the data and run the city better.”
Using data better, though, may mean convincing UK citizens that there is a benefit to them in sharing information. As Young observed, “in the UK there is an obsession with privacy.” Overcoming that barrier will mean convincing people that there is a real benefit to them from sharing ‘their’ data – but people have always traded data for “some kind of convenience,” added Vaz.
One final telling comment came from an audience member during open discussion: “This is our Industrial Revolution, and we have to learn how to cope with it.”
The Day Before Tomorrow series is available on The Drum's YouTube channel. Part 3, focused on smart cities, can be viewed below.