Is the UK ready for smart city life?


Today’s urban environments are packed with technology that receives, processes and transmits data on a 24/7 basis and connected places. These ‘smart cities’ are widely acknowledged as offering tangible benefits for the people who live in them, ranging from better traffic management and pollution control, through to improved security, public transport and intelligent street lighting.

According to research conducted for UK Parliament, after £24 million of public funding in 2013, the ‘Future City Glasgow’ project reported an initial return on investment of £144 million by 2017 benefits and predicted substantially larger ongoing.

The UK’s ambition in this area is to be an early adopter and leader in smart city development, with Government investment including £5 billion in 2020 to make gigabit-capable broadband available nationally, and £50 million in 2021-22 to demonstrate the potential benefits of 5G technology.

In addition to Glasgow, other UK cities implementing smart city projects include Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Hull, Manchester, Milton Keynes, London and Peterborough.

Smart cities: barriers to adoption

However, as with all new technological advances, there are significant barriers to adoption that need careful consideration if the UK is to be fully ready and able to adopt a smart city life.

Chief amongst these obstacles is a lack of technical skills, local authority funding, regulatory hurdles for large-scale projects, and low public trust in digital initiatives.

The UK Parliament Smart Cities Research Briefing adds: ‘Security and privacy concerns have been raised about the use of smart city technologies, particularly those that collect data about citizens’ behaviour, public services or critical infrastructure.

‘Some projects have been criticized for prioritising the implementation of new technologies over citizens’ needs, and the degree of influence that smart city technologies may allow industry.

‘Additionally, smart city projects may raise issues for inequality, for example, if the benefits or projects are not equally experienced by rural and urban communities, of if they are disadvantaged by those without digital skills or access to digital technology such as smart phones.’

Big data and cyber threats

In particular, the gathering of ‘big data’ and associated privacy concerns, plus ever-growing cybersecurity threats, hang ominously over issues affecting all of our lives and lead to the inevitable question: ‘Are we ready for smart city life?’

The UK’s expanding population means that economic resources are stretched in many areas and fast-moving technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT), are all viewed as providing opportunities and solutions to modern living.

Despite this, revelations in the 2010s that personal data belonging to millions of Facebook users was harvested without consent by UK consulting firm Cambridge Analytica for use in political advertising, fuelled concerns over how companies use our accumulated data.

On average we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, or one billion billion bytes, every day.

Smart cities gather vast quantities of this ‘big data’ from digitally-linked objects and our online activities, and then use this to improve new services and products that aim to make city living better.

Although this offers the potential to transform our lives, it also comes with the same privacy concerns posed by any large-scale digital transformation.

While tracking, monitoring and automated systems can enhance safety, productivity and cost-effectiveness, potentially unethical and ongoing surveillance, along with the ever-present threat of cybersecurity breaches, can equally negatively impact people’s lives in new and unexpected ways.

The Cityware project, for example, tracked the physical interactions of 30,000 people using a combination of Facebook profiles and smartphone signals, resulting in reports that almost 250,000 owners of Bluetooth devices, mostly mobile phones, were spotted by Cityware scanners worldwide.

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