Four tips on how to run a smart city demonstrator

Congratulations to Manchester, which has just been announced as the winner of the £10m Internet of Things city demonstrator competition. While few details from the winning proposal have emerged so far, essentially the UK government is funding Manchester to install sensors across the city, to demonstrate the ability of the so called ‘Internet of Things’ to address challenges that cities face. According to the press release, the project will cover everything from healthcare and transport to the environment and community.

A huge amount of money has already been invested in Internet of Things and smart city demonstrators in the UK and around the world. Notable projects include the £24m Future Cities Demonstrator in Glasgow and a €6 million city-wide sensing pilot in Santander, Spain. However, large scale pilots like these have often faced criticism: for being too concerned with hardware rather than with people; too focused on finding uses for new technologies rather than finding technologies that can solve pressing problems; and for emphasising marketing and promotion at the expense of hard evidence and testing solutions out in the real world.

The pilot in Manchester could go a long way towards addressing these issues and create a model for the future development of smart cities (and the internet of things in an urban context) in the UK and internationally. Drawing on Nesta’s research, here are four tips on how Manchester can do this.

1. Open up participation in the demonstrator

Typically, smart city pilots are run by ‘experts’ in large technology companies or city hall. But experts don’t have a monopoly on the best ideas. Opening up problem-solving to SMEs, residents and civil society can often lead to much more innovative outcomes. In recognition of this, smart city pilots around the world are becoming more open and participatory. One of the best examples of this is Chicago’s Array of Things project. Instead of developing its own sensors, the project has created an open, modular network, which can accept sensors from a range of organisations.

Manchester should adopt a variety of methods to engage a wide spectrum of people and organisations in the demonstrator, from challenges prizes and hackathons to innovative procurement tools like the small business research initiative.

2. Generate and share evidence​

Despite the huge sums invested in smart cities worldwide, there is little published evidence which shows that ‘smart’ solutions are effective. There are many reasons behind this, including issues around commercial secrecy, but the result is that city governments currently have no clear guidance on what technologies to invest in.

Manchester should ensure that it is as open as possible about the activities and findings of the demonstrator, not only through an in-depth review two years from now, but also through regular blogs and events so that other cities in the UK and around the world can start learning the lessons from the pilot straight away.

3. Invest in smart people, not just smart technology

The ultimate goal of covering a city in sensors is to collect large amounts of data. However, without the ability to interpret data and understand how and why it is collected and analysed, there is a serious risk that it could be misinterpreted. Manchester should ensure that the demonstrator nurtures smart people as well as smart technology by using a proportion of the demonstrator funding to invest in data training for city government staff. This should include both basic data handling skills for a wide group of employees that will be involved with the demonstrator, and more advanced skills to train a group of data specialists. The city should should also invest in data training for residents so that they can engage with the demonstrator.

4. Engage citizens, intelligently

In the past, many smart city demonstrators have offered residents little chance to engage in the design and deployment of new technologies. While people tend to be the implied beneficiaries of smart city projects, they are rarely consulted about what they want and their ability to contribute to making the city work better is often ignored.

But cities are missing a trick by ignoring their residents. Residents know a huge amount about their cities and tapping into this ‘collective intelligence’ could both help the city better define the problems that matter most to residents, as well as generate innovative solutions. Manchester should tap into this collective intelligence using online tools that let residents debate ideas and decide which projects get implemented. Examples of this include Better Reykjavik. Challenge prizes are another way to gather ideas from citizens about the issues that are most important to them. The city could also organise a participatory budgeting exercise, to give residents the power to decide how a proportion of the demonstrator funds are spent.

When thinking about the Internet of Things, Manchester should also broaden the definition to include not just physical sensors attached to infrastructure across the city, but also ready-made city-wide sensor networks that people are already using in the form of smartphones. Manchester should invest a proportion of the demonstrator funds in innovative ways to use smartphones to crowdsource data, which could potentially lead to much cheaper data collection costs. Successful examples of data crowdsourcing include Petajakarta, a platform which creates crowdsourced flood maps using Twitter data.

As investment and interest in smart cities continues to grow, the concept needs to evolve, from proprietary technology and processes to open innovation, from ‘technology push’ to solutions based on the challenges that cities face, and from top down systems to collaborative innovation, involving citizens, SMEs and civil society in defining and addressing the issues that matter to them in their cities. Done well, the Internet of Things pilot in Manchester could go a long way towards achieving these goals.

This blog draws on Nesta's extensive research into cities and innovation, and is largely based on the findings in Rethinking smart cities from the ground up, a report which looked at how cities around the world are using data and technology to address the challenges they face, with a particular focus on the role that digital technologies can play in enabling cooperation between city governments and their citizens. Further examples can be found here: 10 people-centred smart city initiatives.



Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Principal Researcher

Tom was a Principal Researcher in the inclusive innovation team.

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