In 2000, less than 7% of the world had internet access. Fast forward to today and that figure rises to a whopping 63%. A fact that is made even more astounding when you think that includes emerging and developing economies. Of that 63%, 93% are on social media – most of us didn’t even know what that was in 2000. By Mark Gannon, Director of Client Solutions – Public Sector and Nigel Hall, Director of Client Solutions – Health, at Netcall

Technology has become increasingly personalised and portable, and a significant part of our daily lives. Many would say it has become a necessity. The pandemic saw unprecedented digitisation rates, with consumers and citizens expecting greater levels of digital offerings and integrations. We became reliant on digital interfaces to work, shop, manage our health, socialise and more – uncovering a need for digital integration and interconnectedness. 

Technology’s role in our lives is growing. Smart cities are on the rise – referring to places that are leveraging and integrating technologies, data, communications and collaboration to facilitate a range of objectives. These include making citizens lives better, generating revenue and promoting sustainability. The global smart cities market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 22.6% over the next five years. In a survey of 167 cities around the world, 54% reported that the pandemic has accelerated the shift to online healthcare and 53% said it permanently changed the way we live, work, socialise and travel in cities. According to 65% of surveyed cities, the biggest lesson learned during the pandemic was that smart cities will be critical for their future. 

What are smart cities and why are they critical? 

We hear a lot of talk about ‘smart cities’ but often that neglects a large part of the conversation – it’s about smart infrastructure, across places and regions, including small towns and villages as well as big cities – it’s about “smart places”. 

Often, the conversation gets lost in the technology, however, the tech and data are merely tools for creating the connections needed to deliver better social, economic and health outcomes.

Currently, cities and the organisations within them are generally siloed. Despite often having similar goals, those organisations don’t routinely connect their data to enable more effective, efficient and quality services for citizens. Even within organisations, data often isn’t shared across departments, creating inconsistencies and disruptions for citizens. Anyone who has been through social or healthcare processes knows first-hand that these services are not always designed with the citizen’s experience in mind. 

Data is instrumental in this equation. Yes, we need the right technological infrastructure for smart cities, but that is just the engine – it is data that powers the benefits of smart cities. Data empowers organisations to take a more strategic approach to their priorities. For example, data regarding health inequalities combined with information on the environment, air pollution or heat loss can offer insights to determine the best strategies and investment areas. This is a significant upgrade to the more typical generalised approach, which lacks direction. 

Why should public organisations care about this now?

People and businesses are struggling, the economy is in recession, and public sector funding continues to be under pressure. The current systems and infrastructure just aren’t sustainable long-term. 

Too often, we observe local authorities and health organisations duplicating service provision to citizens that live in an area. These are inefficiencies that the health and wider public sector, with their extremely tight resources, simply can’t afford. 

What if organisations could respond to events before they happen? They could increase cost-savings, efficiency and service by utilising predictive modelling and analytics. Machine learning and artificial intelligence could be leveraged to inform better decision-making and drive efficiency-boosting innovations. For example, a council could install sensors, which are not expensive, that make them aware if water levels are getting too high and there is potential for flooding. They could then intervene before any damage was done and identify vulnerable citizens across the locality from multiple, pooled data sources. The costs saved from investing in a few sensors and sharing intelligence versus dealing with the aftermath of a flood are significant. 

However, before data can be leveraged in this way, a more integrated approach needs to be established. 

The cities and organisations that fail to pursue smart infrastructure not only risk missing opportunities to improve the well-being of the citizens they serve, but they also risk the overall health of the cities they operate in and their own economic development. As smart infrastructure continues to expand, investments will naturally flow to areas that have developed smart ecosystems and the transportation, logistical and environmental benefits they inherently bring. The gap between smart and ‘unsmart’ places then widens in a self-perpetuating cycle. 

How can organisations best gear up for Cities 4.0 today?

Some mistakenly assume that smart infrastructure must be complicated, costly and involve mass restructuring of existing infrastructure. However, in reality, the best approach is an incremental one. This is especially the case in the U.K., where many of our cities and infrastructure are aging and not easy to retrofit. 

This begins with policies. The vast majority of councils publish transport, planning, and procurement policies – the key is to ensure these are ‘smart’ friendly and work towards Cities 4.0. 

For example, local planning policies should stipulate smarter infrastructure, such as full fibre to the home and solar panels for new builds, avoiding rework costs in the future. 

Organisations should collaborate to create agreed standards regarding smart cities. This will avoid a Frankenstein-like monster of infrastructure that struggles with interconnectivity. 

Organisations need to assess their procurement processes and determine whether they’re encouraging or stifling innovation. Make sure any solution your organisation adopts has open standards that play well with other systems and solutions. This is crucial to avoid future issues of numerous smart city platforms across an area that can’t interact with devices on other platforms, obstructing data consolidation. 

If your organisation has an open approach from the start, you’ll be able to utilise other solutions you may need in the future, as opposed to being locked in with a single proprietary offering. A vendor agnostic low-code application platform (LCAP) can serve this purpose, giving organisations flexibility in the future whilst also enabling them to begin developing solutions today. Its drag and drop simplicity makes it an accessible solution for under resourced councils and health organisations by enabling a wider cross section of people to join the development team. 

As our environments become increasingly ‘smart’, organisations need to be able to update, improve and monitor their devices without relying on proprietary platform owners, which is why ensuring any adopted solution is agnostic during the procurement process is essential.

An additional benefit of low-code is its adaptability and innovative potential. Organisations need to be able to adapt and respond quickly to changing needs and circumstances. With an LCAP, the traditionally long development cycle is replaced with a quick, cost-effective cycle that allows for repeated iterations and experimentation. 

Given that innovation is the bedrock of smart cities, this functionality of LCAPs is critical. The best thing organisations can do is ensure they are supporting innovation with the right solutions, policies and standards, inching towards an ever-smarter infrastructure.

A greater purpose

At the end of the day, the purpose isn’t smart cities – that’s the enabler, the purpose is enabling thriving communities and great places where people want to live, work and play. 

This will require consideration of privacy concerns and options for those who are less tech-savvy. Public sector organisations will need to drive digital transformation to meet the demands of citizens and to support effective operations. The result will be a world built around the individual – a citizen-first world.