TechTown

Posted on 11/09/18 by Matthew Snowden in

Predictions and creative thinking about what our future cities might look like have entertained and sometimes terrified us for many years.

From the technology of early Star Trek episodes, that seemed so far-fetched and now appears mundane – automatic sliding doors for example – to advances in medicine and transport that still seem a long way off.

Some were just too ahead of their time, but still feel possible…

Doc Brown may be right and there may come a time where we don’t need roads, but he and Marty filling the flux capacitor with trash and finding that to be the case in 2015, was sadly not to be…

 

All over the world, cities are changing and developing to become more efficient and sustainable.

Addressing the key issues of economic sustainability, energy-conservation and accommodating a growing population means that every city needs a robust forward-plan.

 

TechTown cities recently got together in Stockholm for one of their transnational meetings, where representatives share ideas, ambitions and discuss the themes that drive their work.

Stockholm is one of the cities that is embracing technology to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

It’s one of the ‘Lighthouse Cities’ where ideas are being developed and trialled, before being implemented by other cities across Europe.

 

Stockholm has the largest city-wide, open-fibre digital network, providing a 1GB service for €20 – €25 per month to local residents. Yes, you read that right, 1GB. But it isn’t only in terms of access to networks that Stockholm is improving the environment for its citizens and businesses.

City leaders have an ambitious target of eliminating the use of fossil-fuels by 2040. One way it is working towards this is by developing the use of bio-fuel – the use of human waste to power vehicles. Filling stations around the city sell this sewage-based fuel, which equates to 100 people going to the toilet to fuel each car.

They are also working with an energy company to develop a city-wide heating programme, using an existing network of underground pipes. As part of the scheme, they are encouraging data companies to locate their offices in the city, where excess heat can be syphoned off to be used in heating nearby homes.

There are plans for an underground networked waste recycling programme and a scheme for monitoring and reducing energy use in the home. Of course, all of the plans will only succeed with engagement from the population, which is always the biggest challenge for a city embarking on an ambitious programme.

 

In Barcelona, another ‘Lighthouse City’ there is a massive 500km fibre-optic network and a successful city-wide Wi-Fi-scheme for residents and tourists to plug into the data network and stay connected during their time in the city. The city has converted more than 1100 streetlights to LED, as well as incorporating sensors that react to footfall; detecting people and brightening or dimming accordingly.

There is also a network of environmental sensors, attached to the lights, to monitor air quality.

The humidity and rainfall detected in a particular area determine how much irrigation is necessary for the public parks.

This led to a 25% reduction in the city’s water budget.

Barcelona’s buses operate onboard charging for smartphone users, who can stay connected and access any information they need while travelling. To demonstrate its commitment to digital, there is a ‘People’s Roadmap to Technological Sovereignty’, led by the City’s Technology and Digital Commissioner, Francesca Bria.

The plan is all-encompassing, driving the city forward and developing a City Common Data Infrastructure to encourage and drive innovation. It covers everything from a technology buying guide to help businesses in Barcelona choose open technologies services, developing and maintaining the necessary skills to fulfil the need for digital services – and plug any gaps – plus a Technology Code of Practice, which defines the commitments to open-­‐source, open standards, interoperability, security and transparency.

Barcelona is currently 9th on the European Digital Cities Index (EDCI), which is the EU’s measure of how well cities across Europe support digital entrepreneurs.

The Index ranks sixty cities and London is at number one. So what does London do, to achieve this position?

 

Having a large financial sector, certainly helps London, as there is a lot of overlap between the digital and financial sectors. Innovation is essential in the fast-paced environment of finance where it is essential to take advantage of the latest developments in the industry. The EDCI also lists London as the “accelerator and co-working capital of Europe” with a vibrant cross-sector start-up scene, thanks to more than 275,000 companies, employing almost 1.5 million people.

It’s also worth mentioning that Manchester is also included on the list, coming in at number 16. This is a boost to northern technology in the UK, where a digital transformation is being encouraged in the northern towns and cities.

Innovation and digital entrepreneurship are seen as a key step to progress for the former industrial and mining areas. Manchester has a thriving digital sector, with many established digital and media organisations located and relocating there in recent years, including the BBC and tech giants such as Hitachi and Siemens.

 

It’s reassuring that cities such as Barcelona and Manchester feature highly on an index that includes major capitals. It’s certainly encouraging for the medium-sized cities within the TechTown group. Learning from the experiences of the Lighthouse Cities and those leading the way in digital innovation will enable smaller cities to adapt these ideas to suit their own environment and culture.

Of course, it is always important to have the support of city leaders and politicians have a big job to play in enabling the right conditions for digital growth and entrepreneurial activity.

 

Regulation must be enabling, not restricting and whatever happens with the European Single Market over the next few years, there is a strong case for the establishment of a European Digital Market, which should be encouraged to grow and flourish, in order to encourage and maintain these European Digital Cities of Innovation.