A Tale of Smart Cities in the UK

The challenge to design the smartest cities has been embraced in most larger UK cities but less is known about how to evaluate and measure the “smartness” and desirability of each approach.

Smart city projects and programmes are emerging across cities, offering solutions for contemporary challenges facing cities associated with population and urbanisation pressures, and bringing opportunities for smarter governance, economic development, citizenship, living, environments and mobility. This is enabled by smart technology defined by the British Standards Institution (BSI) as ‘the application of autonomous or semi-autonomous technology systems’, while recognizing that smart city development requires the ‘effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment’ (BSI 2014, p12).

To support future city strategies, we need to understand the benefits of ubiquitous technologies embedded in smart city developments and our everyday lives, by examining contemporary approaches to evaluation, measurement and reporting on the outcomes. The benefits claimed include sustainability, prosperity and social inclusion, to name but a few. Contesting the benefits of smart city development are concerns about the possible dystopian impacts of smart urban development. Will smart urban development lead to technocratic governance? Corporate dominance of city systems, including technological lock-ins? Hackable city systems? Panoptic surveillance and control of citizens? Public-sector marginalization? And how will big data be used by government and corporations? Despite extensive critical debate on the merits of smart city developments, there has been surprisingly little research to date on the evaluation of smart interventions and the outcomes of embedded smart technologies for cities and citizens.

The SmartDframe project linked to the MK:Smart project at the Open University examined city approaches in Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Milton Keynes and Peterborough to the evaluation and reporting of smart city projects and programmes and their impacts on city outcomes. This work includes a series of smart city case studies informed by city reports and interviews with representative local government authorities that exemplify contemporary practices, offering a timely, insightful contribution to discourse about best practice approaches to evaluation and reporting of smart city projects and programmes.

So what were the findings?

The smart city work led by councils and their directorates in the selected smart city case studies was a product of collaborative partnerships between public, private and third sector organizations and citizen groups, and was typically embedded in their future and smart city programmes. Birmingham has an advanced approach apparent in its Smart City Commission, Vision and Roadmap. The other cities had established a variety of programmes including ‘Smart City Bristol’, Manchester’s ‘Smarter City Programme’, Milton Keynes’s ‘Future City Programme’ and Peterborough DNA – a Future Cities Demonstrator Programme.

The approaches to smart city evaluation were focused at a project level, being driven primarily by funders’ requirements. However, the city authorities did consider that establishing baseline measures, strategic targets and KPIs offered an insightful approach for monitoring performance and measuring progress over time. This would help to demonstrate the validity of innovation concepts and identify projects with the biggest city impacts and replication potential.

Some of the city projects were already delivering significant data outputs aligned with city strategies, such as on energy, climate change, transport, waste, economic development and liveability. This supported city interests in developing data intelligence through establishing new mechanisms for generating, collecting and sharing data, including web-based, open data portals linked to city data hubs.

The city authorities were aware of work ongoing with standardization initiatives, and several were actively engaged with BSI’s standards and the Eurocities’ CITYkeys initiatives. However, city authorities were less familiar with many of the smart city indicator frameworks reviewed for the SmartDframe Project.

The case studies showed that the cities were at the early stages of developing plans to evaluate the city-level impacts of smart city developments and were working in partnerships, mainly with local universities, to address the evaluation challenges. As yet smart city evaluation practices were not strongly embedded in city management structures and performance reporting processes. There is currently no statutory obligation for UK cities to report their smart city work through city performance and political reporting processes, and therefore the smart city work was only beginning to influence city decisions, particularly around development and investment decisions.

Some cities were unconvinced of the need for an overarching, standardized smart city measurement framework, which might not be sufficiently specific and relevant to their unique city challenges, strategies, circumstances and projects. Moreover, some city authorities were reluctant to add to the already large number of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) they needed to measure and report. Rather than developing new smart city KPIs, some city authorities prefer to measure the contribution of their smart city work against measures of existing city KPIs to establish city-level impacts.

The case-study analysis led to recommendations that evaluation design should:

  • e appropriate to the project, programme or city level;
  • be appropriate to the development maturity of the smart city development/innovation and scale of city projects;
  • reflect strategic city objectives and be open to improvement and evolution;
  • be flexible, relevant and adaptable to different city challenges and circumstances;
  • have a diagnostic utility, helping cities identify both gaps in their smart city development and emergent innovation opportunities;
  • not focus solely on arbitrary or easily-measured indicators;
  • include quantitative and qualitative, meaningful and comprehensive indicators that reflect the multi-faceted nature of smart cities and the complexity of urban systems;
  • build on city data intelligence to support future city strategies based more on a vision of liveable cities than simply a digital city vision.

With the proliferation of smart city programmes and projects around the world it becomes increasingly important to measure and evaluate the causal impacts smart city developments and prove the value for cities and citizens. Choosing suitable methodologies for measurement, evaluation and reporting is vital for demonstrating that smart city developments are delivering the future cities we want to live in.

Further reading:
BSI (British Standards Institution). 2014. BSI- PAS180 Smart Cities –Vocabulary. BSI Standards Publication. Published by BSI Standards Limited. http://www.bsigroup.com/en-GB/smart-cities/Smart-Cities- Standards-and-Publication/PAS-180-smart-cities-terminology

Caird, S., L. Hudson, and G. Kortuem. 2016. A Tale of Evaluation and Reporting in UK Smart Cities. UK: The Open University. 51pp. http://oro.open.ac.uk/46008/

Caird, S. 2018. “City approaches to smart city evaluation and reporting: Case studies in the United Kingdom.” Urban Research and Practice 11(2):159-179.

Caird, S. and S. Hallett 2018. “Towards Evaluation Design for Smart City Developments.” The Journal of Urban Design DOI:10.1080/13574809.2018.1469402. Published online: 23 May 2018.