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Damian Ryan: How London could be a smarter, more agile city

31 May 2013
Damian Ryan: How London could be a smarter, more agile city

Known best for his live reporting from global climate talks, here Damian Ryan our Senior Policy Manager, writes about smarter technology integration, inspired by our newly launched report FASTER, SMARTER, GREENER: The state of city innovation on climate change and other urban challenges.

This week we launched a new report on the processes that cities are using to become more ‘smart’ and ‘agile’ as they move towards low carbon development.

FASTER, SMARTER, GREENER argues that to accelerate the shift to truly sustainable cities, municipal governments need to combine smart information and communications technology (ICT) with more agile city management processes

The potential for smart ICT to enable emission reductions and drive energy efficiency in other sectors is well known, as our seminal SMART2020 report from 2008 first showed. But just because you have access to a smart technology doesn’t necessarily mean it gets adopted or used well. This is where ‘agility’ comes in.

In a fast changing world, cities need to have agile processes in place to allow them to identify and communicate their challenges and implement solutions in a way that is timely and cost effective. Having clever solutions is all very well and good, but of limited use if inward looking city procurement processes mean they never get adopted.

Smarter cities

The good news from our report was that the cities we surveyed clearly understand this symbiotic need for both ‘smartness’ and ‘agility’. These cities are also working to implement smart solutions in ways that integrate city systems and are using open source approaches to communicate problems and find solution providers.

I helped edit the report, which was the first time I’ve worked on our smart ICT program. Unsurprisingly, the report got me thinking of how smart technologies might be changing my daily interaction with the city systems we all take for granted. I have to confess that I’m no early adopter, so perhaps I’m unaware of the full range of smart solutions already available to me. Yet my gut instinct is that smart solutions are still tinkering with incremental changes rather than creating transformational ones.

Take transport as an example. By definition, I’m a long distance commuter. From my home in Oxford I’ve got about 65 miles to travel to get into the office in central London. I’ve got a couple of options. First, I can take the train, a fast service that takes an hour followed by a 20-minute cycle past Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. The alternative is the bus, a significantly slower but also substantially cheaper commute. Both options – being public transport – are relatively low carbon, but neither, I would argue, is particularly smart.

Efficient commuting

The question is, does this matter? Certain smart services already exist for the train, such as an app that lets passengers check their train's progress using an app. But because the train service itself runs on a dedicated line by a monopoly company, it operates within a fairly simple, non-dynamic system (at least in terms of interactions with other forms of transport along its route). This isn’t to say that the service couldn’t be made more efficient and effective, but the main solutions are more likely to be found in better regulation and improved business models.

The bus commute is another matter entirely. In theory, it should be able to deliver me to London nearly as quickly as the train. But the journey can take twice as long, mainly due to traffic on central London's main highways. Now in a ‘smart world’ this is where my bus driver would check his on-board traffic management software to tell him the optimal route. In reality, it’s more dependent upon Frank’s assessment of traffic levels at junction two. Relatively clear? We’ll try Baker Street. Bumper to bumper? It’s High Street Kensington.

Now to be fair to Frank and all the other drivers and bus companies, smart technologies have their limitations in the face of some fundamental structural problems, not least of which is an inner city motorway designed in the 1960s. The old school solution would have been a bigger motorway with more capacity, but in today’s austere and environmentally responsible times this isn’t going to happen. And that’s a good thing.

Better London 

So what, then, is the solution to my unnecessarily long and inefficient bus commute? Smart traffic management systems are definitely part of it. But some of the best options are more low-tech and behavioral in nature. A high occupancy lane is one possibility, ensuring that buses, taxis and shared cars get priority; although already limited highway lanes would make that an unpopular move. However, the success of London’s congestion charging zone shows that such schemes are possible when the political will exists.

Option two could be an integrated system that links my Oxford bus (and all other intercity buses) with a fast train/tube service from the cities edge at the M25 to its centre. A 15-minute train ride could then replace an hour’s crawl in the rush hour. With luck, London’s CrossRail project, due to begin operations in 2018 might just do that.

Becoming more 'agile'

Making such things happen, however, is never easy or straightforward. This brings us back to our new report and the importance of cities being not only smart but agile as well.

An agile city – that is say one that is fast and flexible in finding and implementing solutions – stands a much greater chance of making smart solutions work and ensuring the transition to a sustainable low carbon future is both rapid and successful.

Creating the conditions for agility, such as open-sourcing to identify both city challenges and ideas as well as transparent procurement processes, is therefore as important as developing the new smart technologies that will increasingly define our experience of cities.

Read: FASTER, SMARTER, GREENER: The state of city innovation on climate change and other urban challenges

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