Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part one)
I’ve been meeting frequently of late with academic, public sector and private sector partners in city systems to explore the ways in which Smarter City initiatives are funded. Whilst many such programmes are underway, it is still the case that individual cities starting on this path find that it can take considerable time to identify and secure funds.
The ultimate stakeholder in Smarter City initiatives is often a local authority – they alone have the responsibility to ensure the functioning and success of a city as a whole. But whilst some reports show that private sector sentiment is finally improving following the 2008 crash, public sector – and in particular, local government – is still in the grasp of an unprecedented squeeze in funding. So where can city authorities look for the – sometimes substantial – funds needed to support Smarter City initiatives?
Up to now, a great many Smarter City initiatives have been funded at least in part by research grants. By their nature, these will only fund the first projects to explore Smarter City concepts – they will not scale to support the mass adoption of proven ideas. So we need to consider how they are used alongside other sources of funding.
In this post I’ll describe the first five of ten ways that Smarter City initiatives can be funded, including but not limited to research grants. None of them are silver bullets; but they all represent realistic ways to start paying for cities to become Smarter. I’ll describe another five in a follow-up post next week.
1. Apply for research grants to support new Smarter City ideas
Whilst research funding will not pay for widespread adoption of proven Smarter City ideas, it will still support the search for new ideas. And we have certainly not exhausted the supply of ideas – far from it. In the UK, the Technology Strategy Board’s award of thirty £50,000 grants to perform “Future City” feasibility studies has kick-started a frenzy of activity. Just one of the thirty cities awarded these grants will be chosen to receive £24 million to support a demonstrator project; but many of the others will use the results of their feasibility studies to seek independent funds to move ahead.
The European Union recently launched an Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities and Communities that is expected to provide €365 million to support projects demonstrating innovative urban technology systems; and many funding programmes that are not labelled “Smart” or “City” are nevertheless relevant to Smarter Cities – such as the Technology Strategy Board’s “Innovating in the Cloud” funding competition or the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s “Research in the Wild” programme.
From social science to sustainability to healthcare to transport and buildings, many research agendas are relevant to creating the cities of the future; and new, well-formed ideas can always seek support from the relevant funding organisations. In this context, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing ever-closer links being forged between cities and the Universities that are located in them.
2. Exploit the information-sharing potential of shared service platforms
City and regional authority finances are under unprecedented pressure from the acute financial situation and expected demographic changes. In the developed world, we are getting older, and more people who have retired from work need the support of less people who are still working and paying taxes; and in emerging economies, urban populations are growing at a staggering rate.
In order to save money whilst maintaining vital services, local governments are increasingly sharing the delivery of support services such as finance, HR and IT; saving money – and reducing staff – in those functions in order to preserve the delivery of frontline services such as education and social care. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these changes; in the UK, for example, it is expected that nearly 900,000 public sector workers – 3% of the entire national workforce – will lose their jobs over the next five years as a result. Whilst specific characteristics vary from place to place, similar trends are visible across the world.
One outcome of these changes is that shared IT platforms are increasingly in place in cities and regions to support shared services. Those platforms now host co-located, multi-agency data. Cities such as Plymouth, Dublin and Sunderland are starting to explore the benefits that might be realised from that data. In Sunderland, the CEO and CIO have both spoken extensively about the opportunities they see to transform the city and services within it using their City Cloud platform. The East Riding of Yorkshire has been sharing services between agencies for some time, and has reported their achievements in addressing Child Poverty through improving cross-agency information sharing as a result.
These examples all show that whilst the current acceleration of shared services in cities and regions has its origins in adversity, it nevertheless offers the potential to support some positive outcomes too.
3. Find and support hidden local innovations
City populations are not passive observers to the Smarter City phenomenon. They may be crowd-sourcing mapping information for OpenStreetMap; running or participating in hacking events such as the forthcoming Government Open Hackday in Birmingham; or they may be creating new social enterprises or regional technology startups, such as the many city currencies and trading schemes that are appearing. Simply running social media surgeries as Podnosh do in Birmingham, can have a powerful effect on local communities by helping them exploit social technology to uncover hidden synergies and connections.
Individual officers in many councils work very positively with these community innovators. But substantial formal relationships can be impeded by the complexity of public sector procurement regimes which are simply too expensive and time-consuming for very small organizations to engage with. By simplifying procurement practices – or even by being transparent about the level of purchase below which competitive procurement does not apply – the level of engagement between city authorities and these communities could be increased. Bridging organisations can also play a positive role here, such as Sustainable Enterprise Strategies (SES) in Sunderland. SES provide support to the local social enterprise community and act as a link between that community and the City Council.
Local entrepreneurs and innovators often have limited resources. On their own, they are unlikely to implement such Smarter City infrastructures as energy grids or real-time transport information systems, for example. But collectively, their ideas could contribute significantly to the business case for a local authority to invest in such infrastructures. By engaging with this community extensively, a portfolio of potential innovations and outcomes can be created to demonstrate the value of such investments. By drawing on the collective creative energies of the city in this way, that portfolio is likely to contain many more ideas than could be obtained from central agencies alone.
4. Explore the cost-saving potential of Smarter technologies
At the heart of Smarter Cities is the idea that information integration and analytic technologies allow better, more forward looking decisions to be taken within cities; with the potential both to improve outcomes and to reduce costs. Whereas the desired outcomes may be citywide and social or environmental in nature rather than directly financial, many case studies show that short-term cost reductions can also be achieved within a single investing organisation. These cost reductions, of course, can then be the basis of an investment case – as they were for Sunderland’s City Cloud.
The London Borough of Brent in the UK, for example, realised significant cost savings by reducing error and fraud using such technologies, as did Alameda County in the US, who also identified new revenue opportunities (see this case study and this video).
As I dicussed in an earlier blog post exploring this topic, if these technologies are deployed on the shared IT platforms described above, then once in place they can be re-used for other purposes. This might lower the cost of deploying subsequent solutions elsewhere in city systems, such as traffic prediction for commuters in order to reduce the congestion that lowers economic productivity and job creation in cities; or predictive analytics to enable preventative approaches to social care, as demonstrated by Medway Youth Trust.
5. Could Smarter Cities be sponsored?
In recent times we have become used to the idea that sports stadiums take their names from sponsors who fund the teams that own them, such as Arsenal Football Club’s Emirates Stadium. Such facilities are cities in microcosm in many respects, operating their own power, transport, safety and other systems analogous to those found in cities. Some, such as the Miami Dolphin’s Sun Life Stadium are already transforming those systems to become Smarter Stadiums.
Other facilities such as ports, airports, industrial plants, shopping malls and University campuses can be considered “micro-cities” in a similar way; and as I have commented before some of these are large enough that transforming their systems can make a significant contribution to transforming the cities in which they are based.
Could the concept of sponsorship be extended beyond sports stadiums? It has certainly been applied to entertainment facilities such as the O² Arena; and many airports have changed their names for marketing and branding purposes.
I don’t expect we’ll see a city renamed by a corporate sponsor anytime soon, and novels such as Max Barry’s “Jennifer Government” and Rupert Thomson’s “Soft” have cautioned against such ideas. As past controversies around privatisation and commercialisation in areas of education and the justice system suggest, there are certainly city systems for which this idea could be challenging or simply inappropriate. But with cities increasingly conscious of the value of their brands in attracting investment and business, and with local employers conscious of the need for cities to seem attractive to the skilled people they need to employ, the possibilities for sponsorship to support some form of investment in appropriate Smarter City systems or facilities – especially those that are already private sector components of the city ecosystem – could be worth considering.
Funding the Smarter City roadmap
It’s very unlikely that any of the ideas I’ve discussed here will fund an entire Smarter City transformation, of course. But they are all realistic possibilities to fund elements of such a transformation. The challenge for cities is for their stakeholders to come together and agree how they will collectively exploit all of these ideas – and more – in funding the elements of a programme that they agree to undertake together.
Next week I’ll continue this discussion by exploring five more ways for cities to fund and support Smarter initiatives.
Sustainable Cities Collective