(The Bristol Pound, a local currency intended to encourage and reinforce local trading synergies.)

It’s been a busy week for cities in the UK; and we should draw important insights from its events.

On Monday, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB); Department of Business, Innovation and Skills; and the British Standards Institution were the sponsors of a meeting in London to establish a UK “Future Cities Network”. One of their objectives was to build a consensus from the UK to contribute to the City Protocol initiative launched at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona this month.

Wednesday and Thursday saw the society of IT managers in local government (SOCITM) hold its annual conference in Birmingham. This community includes the technology leaders of the UK’s city authorities; many of them are driving the transformation to shared public services in their regions; and exploring the opportunities this transformation provides to improve service quality and outcomes, as well as reducing costs.

Finally, it’s been a week of mixed news for Future Cities: the Technology Strategy Board shortlisted 4 UK cities as the finalists in their competition to host a £25 million “Future Cities Demonstrator” project.

This is clearly fantastic news for the cities concerned – London, Glasgow, Peterborough and Bristol – and they should be congratulated for their achievement. But it also means that 22 other cities who submitted proposals to the TSB have learned over the past two days that they will not benefit from this investment.

Whilst the TSB’s competition – and their progress in setting up the related “Future Cities Catapult Centre” – have been great catalysts to encourage cities in the UK to shape their thinking about the future, the decisions this week throw the real challenge they face into sharp focus:

No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter.

The TSB investment of £25 million is astonishingly generous; but it will nevertheless be only a small contribution to the city that receives it; and the role of innovation stimulus organisations such as the TSB and the European Union’s FP7 programme is only to fund the first, exploratory initiatives; not to support their widespread adoption by cities everywhere.

The UK government’s “City Deals” are a great innovation that will give cities more autonomy over taxation and spending. But in reality they will not provide significant sums of new money; especially when compared to the scale of the financial challenge city authorities face. As the Local Government Association commented in their report “Funding outlook for councils from 2010/11 to 2019/20“:

“… councils will not be able to deliver the existing service offer by the end of this decade. Fundamental change is needed to one or both of … the way local services are funded and organised [or the] statutory and citizen expectations of what councils will provide.”

(A station on London’s Underground railway under construction in 1861, from the Science and Society Picture Library)

Some of these changes will be achieved through public sector transformation. The London Borough of Newham, for example, were recognised at the SOCITM Awards Dinner this week for their achievements in reducing costs and improving service quality through implementation of a successful transformation to online channels for many services.

This is a remarkable achievement for an authority serving one of London’s least affluent boroughs, demanding careful and innovative thinking about the provision of digital services to communities and citizens who may not have access to broadband connectivity or traditional computers. Newham have concentrated on the delivery of services through mobile telephones – which are much more widely owned than PCs and laptops – and  in contexts where a friend or family member assists the ultimate service user.

But local authority transformations of this sort won’t create intelligent transport solutions; or trigger a transformation to renewable energy sources; or improve the resilience of food supply to city populations.

In the UK, many of those services are supported by physical infrastructures that were first constructed in the Victorian era, more than a century ago. Through pride and vision – and the determination to out-do each other – the industrialists, engineers and philanthropists who created those infrastructures dramatically over-engineered them. We are now using them to support many times the population that existed when they were designed and built.

As competition for resources such as food, energy and water intensifies, driven by both a growing global population and by rapid improvements in living standards in emerging economies, these infrastructures will increasingly struggle to support us at the cost, and with the level of resilience, that we have become accustomed to. And whilst they are now often owned and operated by private sector organisations, or by public-private partnerships, the private sector is in no better position to address the challenges faced by cities than the public sector.

In the recent recession and the current slow recovery from it, many companies have failed, lost business, and reduced their workforce. And as the Guardian reported this week, whilst many business leaders take sustainability seriously and attempt to build it into their business models, the financial markets do not recognise those objectives in share prices; and do not offer investment vehicles that support them.

So if government and the financial markets can’t or won’t pay cities to become smarter, how are we going to re-engineer city infrastructures to be more intelligent and sustainable?

In my view, the key is to look at four ways in which money is already spent; and to harness that spending power to achieve the outcomes that cities need.

1. Encourage Venture Capital Investment

(Photo of the “Container City” incubation hub for social enterprises operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland)

The current economic climate has not stopped investors and venture capitalists from investing in exciting new businesses. Some of the businesses they are investing in are using technology to offer innovative services in cities. For example, Shutl and Carbon Voyage both use recently emerged technologies to match capacity and demand across networks of transport suppliers.

The systems that these businesses operate have the potential to catalyse local economic trading opportunities – and in so doing, safeguard or create jobs; to lower the carbon footprint of travel and distribution within cities; and to offer new and valuable services to city residents, workers and visitors.

Several cities, including Dublin and Sunderland, are engaged in an ongoing conversation with their local community of technology, business and social entrepreneurs to encourage and support them in developing new, sustainable business models of this sort that promote the social, environmental and economic objectives of the city.

These investments are not on the scale of the tens or hundreds of millions of pounds that would be required to completely overhaul city infrastructures; but they are complemented by the revenues the businesses earn. In this way, consumer, retail and business spending can be harnessed to contribute to the evolution of Smarter Cities.

2. Build Markets, not Infrastructure

Transport is an example of a city system that is not usually considered a marketplace; that’s one of the reasons why the entrepreneurial businesses that I mentioned in the previous section, which effectively create new markets for transport capacity, are so innovative.

But some city systems  already operate as marketplaces; such as energy in the UK, where consumers are free to switch between providers relatively easily. The fact that city infrastructures are already market-like to a degree is combining with trends in engineering to create exciting new developments.

As both international and national policies to encourage sustainable energy generation and use take effect; and as some fossil fuels become scarcer or more expensive, new power generation capacity is increasingly based on renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro-electric, tidal, geo-thermal and biological sources.

A challenge associated with some of those energy sources is that their generating capacity is small compared to their cost and physical impact. Wind farms, for example, take up vastly more space than gas- and coal-powered energy generation facilities, and produce only a fraction of their output.

(Photo by Greg Marshall of the rocks known as “The Needles” just off the coast of the Isle of Wight; illustrating the potential for the island to exploit wave and tidal energy sources)

However, for other power sources, a reduction in scale could be an advantage. The European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) at Aston University in Birmingham, for example, exploit technologies that can recover energy from sewage and food waste. Those technologies can already be implemented on a small-enough scale that the city of Birmingham is setting up a local power distribution company to exploit a bio-energy power generation plant that EBRI will operate at Aston University. And the New Optimists, a community of scientists and industry leaders in Birmingham are considering on Birmingham’s behalf the possibility that such generation technology could eventually operate in city neighbourhoods and communities, or even within individual residences.

For all of these reasons, there is considerable interest at present in the formation of new, localised marketplaces in power generation and consumption. Ecoisland, a community initiative on the Isle of Wight, is perhaps at the forefront of this movement. Their objective is to make the Isle of Wight self-sufficient in energy; because their approach to meeting that objective is to form a new market, they are winning considerable investment from the financial markets due to the profit-making potential of that market.

3. Procure Infrastructure Smartly

City Authorities and property developers spend substantial sums of money on city infrastructures and related services. But the requirements and scoring systems of those procurements are often very traditional, and create no incentive for the providers of infrastructure services to offer innovative solutions.

Some flagship projects – such as Stockholm’s congestion-charging scheme and the smart metering programme in Dubuque, for example – have shown the tremendous potential of “Smarter” solutions. But their effectiveness is to some degree specific to their local context; relatively high levels of taxation are acceptable in Scandinavian society, for example, in return for high quality public service outcomes. Such levels of taxation are not so acceptable elsewhere.

There is tremendous scope for more creative and innovative approaches to procurement of city services to encourage service providers to offer “Smarter” solutions; Birmingham Science City’s Jackie Homan describred some of those possibilities very eloquently recently. The more urgently city authorities adopt those approaches, the sooner they are likely to benefit from the innovation that their infrastructure partners have the potential to provide.

(The Olympic flame at Vancouver’s Winter Olympics photographed by Evan Leeson)

4. Work With Ethical Investors

Finally, notwithstanding the challenges described in the Guardian article that I linked to above, some financial institutions do offer support for “Smart” and sustainable initiatives.

Vancouver’s “Change Everything” online community, for example, was an early pioneer in exploiting the power of social media to support social and environmental initiatives; it was created by Vancouver’s Credit Union, Vancity, a financial institution with social objectives.

Similarly, Sustainable Enterprise Strategies, who provide crucial support and incubation services to businesses and social enterprises in the most challenged communities in Sunderland, are supported by the UK’s Co-Operative Bank; and IBM and Citi-Group have collaborated to create a financing solution for city’s to invest in Streetline’s “Smart Parking” solution, which has reduced both traffic congestion and environmental pollution in cities such as San Francisco.

These are just some of the ways in which financial institutions have already been engaged to support Smarter Cities initiatives. They can surely be persuaded to do so more extensively by proposals that may have social or environmental objectives, but that are also well-formed from a financial perspective.

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”

All of the initiatives that I’ve described in this article are are already under way. As the science fiction author William Gibson memorably said – in what is now the last century – “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”.

We should not wait for new, large-scale sources of Smarter City funding to appear before we start to transform our cities – we cannot afford to; and it’s simply not going to happen. What we must do is look at the progress that is already being made by cities, entrepreneurs and communities across the world, and follow their example.