Could 'digital boards' help cash-strapped councils go digital?

© Cisco
© Cisco

Local authorities should join forces with the technology industry and academia so that they can deliver better-value smart city initiatives more smoothly, argues techUK.

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As UK cities race to become even smarter, from the development of smart initiatives to integrated testbeds for emerging technologies, it is crucial that local authorities join hands with the technology industry to lead digitisation projects.

The tech sector has the ability to support local authorities and it has been evident that companies are keen to contribute towards building smart cities, however, local authorities are struggling to implement these initiatives, according to techUK, not least because many of them are strapped for cash.

"I think, when you look at the UK's smart cities market, we've got a lot of companies that are having success abroad in solutions and delivering change but we're not seeing the vibrancy of market that we might expect in the UK itself and there's obviously a reason for that – local authorities are under a real tight financial spending envelope," Matthew Evans, associate director at techUK told Computerworld UK.

When talking with local authorities techUK found that, with the current state of technological change, what is required is better understanding of the potential existing solutions on the market that could make the development of smart cities a lot smoother.

According to techUK, a 'Digital Board' is the solution. Similar to the Mayor of London's Smart London Board, backed by London chief digital officer (CDO) Theo Blackwell, a Digital Board would include a mixture of contributors from academia, local bodies and the technology industry.

Read next: First-ever London CDO Theo Blackwell lays out smart city plans

They could support the design, adoption and implementation of all digital services and applications while helping local authorities use digital to deliver better public service outcomes that benefit citizens.

For instance, Manchester's CityVerve Project is an example of how IoT is used to provide better services. It includes talkative bus stops, smart lighting, bike sharing and more innovative elements the focus on healthcare, transportation and civic participation.

The CityVerve consortium is made up of over 20 organisations as well as Manchester City Council and the University of Manchester.

"It's about being able to bring people together so they can work more closely and the local authority, while they may not always be the primary driver or lead in a smart city deployment, they're going to be at the very least a major stakeholder," said Evans.

"So bringing a Digital Board together within that local authority is to enable conversation really, but also to embed digital into that local authority is really important for us and it's about that flow between industry and the local authority so the industry can understand the challenges local authority faces and better tailor solutions."

A report from Consultancy UK forecasts that an increase in digital adoption could provide Britain with a £57 billion boost by 2020. Although the process could potentially cause financial and political risks, the benefits are numerous if coordinated effectively.

"The problem with smart city commissioning in the UK has often been that the person that will pay a lot of the costs only captures some of the value, and that means that it's a really hard pitch to make because you're essentially giving other budget holders within the local authority a lot of benefit and a lot of advantage, so it's about trying to pull those budgets," Evans added.

The right step

Establishing a Digital Board with the right leadership is what will lead local authorities' digital journey in the right direction. TechUK has previously called for local authorities to appoint their own CDOs, who could provide the vision and leadership to put councils on the right path to effective and successful digital service delivery.

"It requires leadership, which is another aspect of our work around demand size maturity and another reason why we call so strongly to have a CDO amongst local authorities," added Evans. "The Digital Board would really need to work closely with the CDO, as we see in London where Theo Blackwell chairs the Smart London Board.

"I think that's a really good example of a Digital Board that's empowered, it's got a lot of accountability and marry that with transparency as to what its responsibilities are and giving it an action-oriented focus as well."

London, then, is a clear example of a digital board that not only exists within the UK but one which has drive and is working. TechUK believes that similar initiatives should be applied across other city authorities that are going digital.

The Isles of Scilly Smart Islands Programme is another example where the board is made up of key stakeholders such as members of the council as well as technology partner Hitachi Europe, who work together to manage the infrastructure, economic and sustainability challenges.

"For us, a Digital Board is very much drawn from the public sector but has a really strong interface into the local authority," said Evans. "This digitally informed leadership is related to the local authority and like I said, it's just about having that vision of what digital is going to deliver for the local area and citizens but being clear that you can push through institutional, which exists in every form of life."

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