Smart cities: embracing continuous change

Collaboration is the key to unlocking the full potential of data in the UK. Stuart Patrick, chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, details what is happening in Glasgow and how smart digital technologies will impact city centre experience

Smart city infrastructure requires collection of data, which is best described as the fuel that powers smart cities. Smart cities are designed to inform decisions by capturing massive amounts of data about the population and its patterns, such as traffic flows and water use.

The product of this is big data gathered via surveillance, and the ease and affordability of sensors, AI and advanced analytics will mean this function will be completely automated. The data can be collated from a variety of sources, including traffic lights and cameras, pollution sensors and building control systems – all feeding giant data stores held in the cloud. This will enable decisions that make the best possible use of resources such as space, fuel, energy, water and electricity - with an emphasis on sustainability.

Smart technologies are an opportunity for city centres if they are embraced positively and with imagination and flexibility, but urban centres which fail to adapt could face stagnation.

In a city like Glasgow the changing methods of delivering retail and public services will mean that the use of the city centre will involve accelerated and continuous change. But at the same time, fast evolving consumer and citizen preferences and behaviours mean that there are new opportunities for the city centre to develop its role as both a multi-functional destination, and as a focus for digitised transactions, information, and incentives.

City centres must adjust to these changes and opportunities and develop a confident new approach, and in Glasgow a project called Tomorrow’s City Centre was developed by Glasgow Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the Urban Land Institute.

The aim of the project was to consider how constantly evolving smart digital technologies would influence consumer behaviours and potentially impact Glasgow city centre experience. The project involved the delivery of a Tomorrow’s City Centre retreat and conference, which were held in Glasgow in the aftermath of the Commonwealth Games in late 2014. As an output of the project, a report was generated to capture key questions, challenges, and opportunities facing the centre of Glasgow.

An evolving digital landscape
While the findings of the report were specific to Glasgow, many of the lessons are applicable throughout the UK and indeed the world, as all urban centres begin to address the rapidly evolving digital landscape.

There were 10 key findings that the report said Glasgow city centre should prioritise. Firstly, build upon and renew historic strengths and traditions and develop ambitious visions for becoming a global leader in the digital age. Glasgow has a rich manufacturing culture and that can be used to help establish itself as a forerunner in digital innovation.

Secondly, use and share data efficiently and effectively to quickly respond to what people want from their city centre. Smart data should also be used to showcase how Glasgow’s city centre ‘stacks up’ in comparison with other urban centres the UK and beyond.

Additionally, Glasgow should strive to be a hyper-connected city centre, ensure ubiquitous, high-quality wireless and broadband connectivity to drive productivity and innovation. Next, Glasgow city centre should focus on putting people at the centre of digital strategy, including how digital systems can be customised to individual needs.

Moreover, invest in smart car parking that frees up the time spent in the car looking for parking. This will allow for more time enjoying city centre attractions and increase productivity. Glasgow should also re-use urban spaces in a way that allows for more artisan, incubator or pop-up business to experiment and become more entrepreneurial. Update and deregulate policies that restrict the ability of city centre businesses and spaces to adapt to real time changes in the demands from customers and citizens.

The report also suggested the importance of creating a permanent Strategic City Centre Operations Group to respond to the needs of the city in real time, and making the innovation economy in Glasgow City Centre more visible both to its citizens and potential innovation angels and investors. Better define the innovation districts in the city centre and their identity and location.

Finally, the city should encourage more people to live in the city centre. Glasgow could have a much larger city centre resident community in the same way as cities such as Manchester. It should also define the circumstances needed to shift towards reduced car use. In the longer term can find better transport solutions using smart data to incentivise alternatives to car use?

The Urban Big Data Centre
In the time since the report, there have been some important developments in Glasgow, led by the city’s two oldest universities. The Institute for Future Cities at the University of Strathclyde has created the City Observatory as an integral part of Glasgow’s £24 million Future City Demonstrator project. The City Observatory is a tool that uses data to understand cities in new ways, to help develop innovative approaches to solving urban problems in areas such as crime, health, economics, sustainability, and deliver positive outcomes for cities.

With more than half the world's population now living in cities, the Institute’s research seeks to improve quality of human life in urban areas across the world.

The Urban Big Data Centre, an exciting project linking business and academia was ranked top in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) call for ‘new approaches to Data Science’ and was in January this year awarded £3 million in funding. Led by the University of Glasgow, the project brings together global businesses with data scientists, statisticians, control engineers and urban social scientists to find solutions to ensuring large scale data-driven systems perform optimally.

By working closely with businesses who need answers to big data problems, academia can learn what really matters to the data owners. The project funded by the EPSRC will co-create solutions through this partnership approach. It will test how to keep data useful and current in a number of areas including personalisation of hearing aids; analysis of cancer data, and adapting the computing resources for a major bank.

The partnership includes the University of Glasgow; JP Morgan, Skyscanner, Widex, the Urban Big Data Centre, the Data Lab and Glasgow Polyomics. Amazon are also keen to support the work on this project via Amazon Web Services and engagement with Amazon Research.

Professor Roderick Murray-Smith, who leads the Information, Data and Analysis Section at the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing Science, said: “Our world is developing incredibly rapidly. We are acquiring data from billions of devices in our homes, businesses and environments. Analysis and interaction with these vast amounts of data is at the core of the challenge for us all. When monitoring living cities or companies and the data that flows through them we are not able to run ‘clean’ experiments on them. We get data which is affected by the way they are run today, which limits our ability to model these complex systems.

“Many organisations and cities have little choice but to ignore the large volumes of data they are producing as they have no way of analysing it. Our project is about how to learn from data and optimise performance when a system is running.”

Professor Mike Barrett, director of Glasgow Polyomics, said: “Research in the Life and Biomedical Sciences today collects data on an unprecedented scale. We need ways of finding useful information from the massive data sets appearing from genome and other big data projects. Linking to data science will enable a better understanding of the processes of life and where they may go wrong. In turn this will help in our quest for new drugs and ways to equilibrate the environment.”

Gillian Docherty, CEO at The Data Lab, which brings industry and academia together as a vital component to the UK data science ecosystem, said: “Scotland is a trailblazer when it comes to data science and initiatives like this further enhances our international reputation as an epicentre for data science excellence.

“Collaboration is the key to unlocking the full potential of data in the UK. This partnership with the University of Glasgow goes right to the heart of what we do, harnessing data to find solutions which enable data-driven systems to operate to their best ability.”

So what is becoming clear is that it is vital that academic and data owners work together so that we can find solutions by testing systems, working live with people with real goals and constraints to see how they adapt and where they need to change as users impact on the data.

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