‘People first’ is the key to making smart city tech work

With five billion people projected to live in cities by 2030, urban environments are facing increased air pollution and intense pressure on infrastructure and services.

The global COVID pandemic is not expected to fundamentally change the long term challenges and the United Nations has dedicated one of its Sustainable Development Goals to making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Smart city tech has long been seen as part of the answer and Greater Manchester is one of the UK cities that has set its own ambition to be the leading green and digital city region, challenging itself to become carbon neutral by 2038, 12 years ahead of the UK national target.

Digitally connecting a wide variety of infrastructure and services with the aim of making cities more liveable through the collection and analysis of data is one of the major focus areas.

The opportunities and challenges this presents were debated at Sustainable Cities and Infrastructure, the latest Innovate Manchester event, created by MIDAS, GC Business Growth Hub and FutureEverything.

The keynote speaker was Bamidele Adebisi, a professor in intelligent infrastructure systems at Manchester Metropolitan University who has already been involved in award-winning collaborative projects with Greater Manchester SMEs.

Prof Adebisi said in the rush to create smart cities, all parties must not forget that the fundamental goal should be to have a positive impact on the wellbeing of people, making engagement with citizens critical to success.

He said: “When you look at the whole concept of smart cities, quality of life has to be at the very centre of the design. Success will be measured by the inputs received from people and how much the wellbeing of citizens is taken to account in the design and development of a smart city.

“That really is not just about engaging people, it’s about creating partnerships. We should think of people not simply as users, because they are actually part of the design.”

This sentiment was echoed by Jane Healey-Brown, director of planning, policy and economics at Arup, who argued that the COVID-19 pandemic had increased the need to focus on the design of human-centred cities, particularly in terms of mobility.

“We’ve seen more experimentation in our towns and cities in the last few months than we’ve had previously – from temporary infrastructure around COVID testing centres to pop up cycle lanes.

“But to deliver more sustained human-centred movement in our cities we need to create behavioural change alongside new infrastructure.

“We need to be thinking increasingly about how we can make better use of digital technology, to create that behavioural change, through approaches like nudge theory, for example.”

Jon Corner, the chief digital officer at Salford City Council, has been focused on the notion of sustainable infrastructure in Smart Cities now for several years. He believes the priority is forming partnerships to enable the better sharing of data.

“I think the challenge over the next five to 10 years in the UK is not a technology challenge. It’s a partnership challenge.

“If we’re going to make our cities sustainable, and we’re going to build infrastructure then we have to start doing partnerships differently and find new and innovative ways of sharing data.”

A new focus on public-private partnerships, connecting large corporates with civic leaders, will, in turn, create new business opportunities for Greater Manchester’s SMEs, said Jon.

“These large companies then create an ecosystem of SMEs, students, community foundations, civic leaders, coming together trying to solve the problems together.”

Dr Beenish Siddique is the founder and CEO of one such Greater Manchester SME which is working in the sustainable cities field. AEH Innovative Hydrogel is using sustainable growing materials to increase indoor farming in cities.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of UK supply chains, especially for food,” said Dr Siddique.

“Our company is helping indoor farmers to grow crops in a sustainable way. Indoor farming allows us to grow crops without using soil, and, most importantly, to grow crops that are normally imported from other parts of the world.

“Our aim is to reduce the operational costs to make sure that indoor farming is approachable for everyone to make our cities more green and sustainable.”

Innovate Manchester is part of a wider programme, which runs to February 2021, and is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, designed to drive business growth.