Why it’s time to get REAL about smart cities

When planning smart cities, policy makers need a system to assess whether a new initiative works ahead of time, argues Claire Maugham from Smart Energy GB.

Talk to those we serve about smart cities - rather than those intimately involved in contemplating how digital technology can transform our urban lives - and the conversation typically prompts two questions. Question one: how will I benefit? Question two: what effort is required from me? 

These common-sense questions are an opportunity to focus the minds of policy makers, infrastructure consultants, academics and think tank thinkers alike. For cities to be really smart, those involved need to make their plans relevant to the everyday lives of residents.

A city that can regulate street lighting to keep the community safer, streamline refuse collection, reduce wasted energy and transform public transport provision is a city that understands ‘smart’. 

In short, people are interested in outcomes. An Institute of Engineering and Technology survey found that when ‘smart’ is framed in terms of the technology - ‘autonomous or electronic vehicles hired or ordered from smartphones’, for example - there is little enthusiasm. Just 8% of respondents registered interest in this case. ‘Smart’ needs to be expressed in a different way, one that reflects the benefits. 

That’s why, Smart Energy GB has developed the REAL Ratio, a framework that allows policy makers to test ideas against the tangible needs of cities and their people. 

Here’s how it works.

REAL stands for Resilience, Efficient, Affordable and Liveable. Against these four criteria, a series of 12 questions are posed and rated.

For example, when judging whether a project will provide necessary resilience, it’s important to ask if the project can enhance the city’s ability to recover quickly from external shocks such as weather events or a terrorist attack. Whether the project will increase the reliability of services local residents depend upon. And whether the project makes the city safer. Similar outcomes-based questions are posed around the other three criteria.

By plotting the results in visual form planners can identify the unique features and qualities of a project. It’s worth noting that the aim is not, necessarily, to score highly on all measures. There will, for example, be different drivers and priorities for different areas based on aims, demographics and challenges specific to the region. 

Nonetheless, a model that puts the citizen first is asking the right questions. 

In Great Britain the smart meter rollout will see 53 million smart meters installed in households across the country by 2020, bringing our energy system into the digital age, enabling cities and the entire country to better meet future energy demands. Smart meters are an essential step for consumers, to a world where they have better control of their energy. When an initiative is designed with people’s experiences and needs at its heart, engaging residents becomes much more achievable. This is why we have developed the REAL Ratio.

Around the world there are two approaches to smart infrastructure. One where policy makers decide what they will do ‘to and at’ their citizens. The other is where policy makers think about how they can work ‘with’ their citizens to develop solutions. There is little doubt which is the most effective in the long term. The REAL Ratio provides a check, to make sure that you are really working ‘with’ those you serve.

Click here to download a copy of The REAL Ratio report.

Claire Maugham is director of policy and communications at Smart Energy GB.