Which UK councils are leading the ‘urbantech’ revolution?

Written by Sam Trendall on 7 November 2017 in Features

Local authorities must invest in AI and smart technology to overcome a multibillion-pound funding gap, a new report claims. Which cities and regions are ahead of the pack?

Local authorities need to embrace new technologies – dubbed ‘urbantech’ – or face major funding challenges, a report claims  Credit: Fotolia​

Whether it is cleantech or greentech, edtech or adtech, fashiontech or fintech – there are few things the IT industry loves more than a new portmanteau.

With smart cities gaining ever-greater prominence, the sector’s lack of such a catch-all term is becoming more and more conspicuous. But which of the possible candidates are most likely to catch on? Citytech? Sensortech? Publicinformaticsandcivicinfrastructuretech? 

A new report into local government’s use of technology has another suggestion: urbantech. 

The study, titled The Rise of Urbantech, was co-authored by London’s chief digital officer Theo Blackwell, alongside Max Chambers, director of insight at Public, an incubator scheme for companies creating technology designed for use by government or the public sector. Or, as it is commonly referred to, ‘govtech’.

One high-profile backer of ‘urbantech’ – both as a term and as a concept – is West Midlands mayor Andy Street. To coincide with the publication of the report, Street announced that the West Midlands Combined Authority is launching the Urban Challenge competition, which is inviting proposals from tech start-ups able to help solve the region’s challenges in four key areas: youth unemployment; wellbeing; digital citizenship; and homelessness. Winners will undertake a three-month pilot project with the authority, and will also receive £10,000 in financial backing.

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In the foreword for The Rise of Urbantech, Street says: “UrbanTech – that is, technology that makes cities and urban spaces more connected, liveable, and efficient – can transform old-style services relatively inexpensively. Data, used smartly, can enhance all manner of interventions, from social care and the fight against homelessness, to how cities plan housing, organise transport and, perhaps most importantly for a tech-savvy and smartphone-enabled population, engage with citizens.”

The West Midlands mayor adds: “Making the most of the opportunities, however, requires local politicians and officials alike to be willing to rethink local services, take advantage of data, adopt cloud-based solutions and, critically, give start-ups a chance to pilot their innovations, even if it means breaking with old ways of working. For a new era, we need new technologies, and new ways of buying services and products.”

The West Midlands is not the only area throwing its weight behind urbantech, the report finds, with councils representing a total of 20 cities, counties, boroughs, and regions commended for their work to date to create “ecosystems of innovation”. The report picks out the following “notable future urbantech opportunities” for each of these places:

  • AberdeenScotland’s third city has instigated the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group Partnership, and has also created operating models to help embed smart-city objectives into the design and delivery of services
  • BelfastThe strong cybersecurity credentials of universities in the Northern Irish capital have helped cultivate a range of security start-ups. Belfast also plays host to The Internet of Things Annual Conference
  • BirminghamThe UK’s second-biggest conurbation provides the City4Age programme, which aims to use tech to aid the early detection of frailty risks. The city has also taken steps to embed smart technology into its service design via its Living Lab testing programme
  • BristolCompanies developing smart-city offerings are being helped through the council’s City Experimentation as a Service programme
  • Buckinghamshire Inspired by the Government Digital Service, the county is currently engaged in a service-redesign programme intended to build excellent digital services
  • Cambridgeshire and PeterboroughAn intelligent transport system and a pilot scheme for autonomous shuttle vehicles are two of the innovations credited to Cambridge, while the Circular Peterborough scheme is a good example of the sharing economy at work
  • Camden Budgeting decisions in this London borough are based on outcomes, and led by technology 
  • DurhamThe council is commended for its work to use data to improve policymaking and service delivery
  • EssexSensor lampposts, schemes to use technology to manage bus capacity, and a £7m precept for digital services in the social-care sector are some of this county’s urbantech achievements to date
  • Edinburgh and GlasgowThe two biggest cities in Scotland are both working to embed digital platforms and ways of working in service design in areas such as health and social care, and criminal justice
  • GreenwichThis London borough has a developed a keen focus on how tech innovation could help it reduce carbon emissions. Landmark schemes include the £8m Greenwich Automated Transport Environment driverless vehicle project
  • LeedsThe West Yorkshire city is commended for its use of open design principles and common standards
  • LiverpoolThis city is home to the Sensor City incubator for innovative urbantech firms. The scheme is delivered in partnership with both the city’s universities
  • Manchester The GM-Connect programme opens up data for use by public bodies, while the city’s Mobility as a Service project is taking an open-source approach to solving transport challenges
  • Milton Keynes A number of companies and public institutions took part in the MK:Smart smart-city programme, which included the creation of a data hub
  • Newcastle upon Tyne The north-east conurbation is promoting the smart-city agenda via its Grand Challenge public procurement competition
  • OxfordshireThis county has taken steps to bring in outside expertise to help build digital services in areas where its in-house teams lacked the necessary skills
  • SheffieldSome 6,000 start-ups will call South Yorkshire’s biggest city home by the year 2024, if the local council meets its ambitious target. The city is also commended for the work of its Smart Lab Platform, which is dedicated to coming up with new ideas to improve the delivery of public services
  • YorkThe council and the city’s NHS Trusts, as well as the Environment Agency, are pooling intelligence to improve the design of services and benefit citizens through initiatives such as an ultra-low emission zone and better flood planning

Other councils across the UK must begin to follow the example set by these 20 locales and embrace technologies such as artificial intelligence to cope with a looming funding crunch, the report says. 

Cuts to grants from central government will leave local authorities across the UK with a collective funding shortfall that will stretch to £5.8bn by 2020, it explains. Additionally, councils will receive a total of £8.4bn of EU investment over the 2014-2020 period – a pot of money that the report says may shrink drastically, depending on the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal. To maintain services, councils will have to use technologies to make delivery more efficient and intelligent, according to the report.

Co-author Max Chambers tells PublicTechnology that investing in smart technologies need not mean undertaking big and expensive multi-year hardware rollouts.

“It is always about not big hardware infrastructure, a lot of it is software. We are trying to go beyond sensors, and the [big] smart-city contracts, he says. “We have tried to map all the lines of business that can be augmented… [and] improved by smart use of data.”

What is more, working with smaller start-up tech firms allows authorities to invest with a lower level of risk and upfront capital outlay, according to Chambers.

“There are these early-stage companies that are out there doing disruptive, interesting things and have technologies that are ready to be trialled,” he says. “Because those companies are young, because they are looking for their first contracts, there is an opportunity for councils to be in that early wave of innovation.”

Chambers adds: “These are start-ups, they are not the big SIs that are going to charge 50% margin and then surprise them with additional costs. Give them a one- or two-year contract, and let them think creatively.”


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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