Why our city has to start thinking much smarter

For the first time in history, more people now live in cities than in the countryside. 

This has been the case for some time in Europe, but economic growth, especially in Asia, India and Latin America, has finally tipped the balance. We are now a planet of city-dwellers, in fact many live in mega-cities of 20 million people and more, and so we need to adapt to the challenges this brings.

One response is the emergence of Smart Cities.

Anyone interested in city development and urban regeneration will be aware of this new movement, or at least the phrase, if not its exact meaning.

It is a new genre, still very much the subject of early adopters, think-tanks and policy papers, but it is increasingly becoming mainstreamed.

A Smart City is concerned with issues such as livability and resilience, and encourages iterative engagement with its citizens in shaping services. Smart Cities use big data, digital technology and new collaborations in a concerted shift towards making the city more customer-driven.

The concept has been described as being ‘more of a process than a product’ but it is attracting the attention of governments and even corporations, such as Siemens, Arup and Huawei, who obviously sense future income generating opportunities. 

The Department for Business Innovation and Skills has even issued a background paper and Glasgow has been awarded £24m as a demonstrator city.

Last month, Bristol was given the accolade as the UK’s smartest city, whilst neighbouring Nottingham was placed in the top ten (due to its transport innovations). 

All this begs the question – if your city is not smart, then is it dumb, and where does Derby sit?

My starting point is the simple fact that cities compete for business, talent and customers - being smart may soon become an expectation.

At Marketing Derby we are on that particular frontline every day – each potential investor we host has a choice, to invest in Derby or to go elsewhere.

We are delighted to have been involved in attracting premium brands into the city such as White Stuff, Yo! Sushi and Cosy Club. They bring employment, business rates and help the city retain more of its wealth. 

Businesses in growth such as Knights Professional Services, Altran and Florida Turbine Technologies all had a choice for their next location and all chose Derby.

And don’t assume the location options are always regional, or even national. A recent contact centre enquiry we dealt with was actively comparing Derby and South Africa – proof positive of the global nature of business today.

New concepts invariably come dressed up in the finery of new language, which frankly can be difficult to interpret. 

In trying to sort the wheat from the chaff, I think the Smart City concept boils down to three key areas - the economy, infrastructure and collaboration. My self-assessment against these criteria, in that order, would be pass, fail and in development. 

On the first indicator we achieve a clear pass, there is no doubt that Derby hosts a smart economy. 

With 12% of the city’s workforce employed in hi-tech functions and the highest salaries outside of London being central to this, as well as the presence of talent thirsty tech companies in aerospace, rail, composites and nuclear, we are right at the top of this particular tree. 

Being the world HQ for Rolls-Royce helps, but so do the hundreds of SMEs in the sectors listed above. Most cities would gladly swap places with Derby on this factor alone and it provides us with a great platform on which to build.

The picture on infrastructure is not so rosy, and on this I have to reluctantly mark Derby today as a fail. 

A Smart City uses technology to drive urban systems in transport, healthcare, energy and the like. Sadly, we are barely at the starting block, as the blank electronic car parking indicators sited around city gateways stand testament.  

Glasgow has developed apps pulling together city data such as traffic, pollen count and even fuel prices. In Barcelona, waste disposal is electronically planned in new neighbourhoods with collections triggered by demand not timetable. In London, public transport information is given in real time enabling passengers to make modal decisions that make life easier.

I can’t help but think that we have the skills in Derby to make this happen – think of all the tech companies based here for a start – but we are yet to define a clear ambition which is needed before we pull the talent together.

Which brings me neatly to my third measure, that of collaboration, where I score the city as ‘in development’. 

Derby can teach many places about developing excellent public-private partnerships. We’ve been doing this since the attraction of Toyota and development of Pride Park in the 1990s. Marketing Derby itself is a manifestation of the city’s partnership ethos.

To move towards a pass on this, I feel we need to further enhance collaboration across the city, between business, academia and the public sector. This will involve a shift from silos, to more engaged and transparent service design and delivery. 

This is not an easy thing to define and there is a change in culture and behaviour required, possibly even a change in personnel. 

For the past 300 years, Derby has had a strong claim as a centre for innovation. From the world’s first factory in the eighteenth century, to rail technology and aerospace in the nineteenth and twentieth, Derby has always been there or thereabouts.

If Derby is to build on its capital for innovation moniker into the twenty-first century, then defining, designing and delivering our future as a Smart City may well be key. 

Time to start the thinking.