How innovation neighbourhoods can kickstart the move to smart cities

Institution of Engineering and Technology

Incremental changes to local infrastructure are paving the way for the large-scale overhaul needed to create the urban environments of the future.

The coronavirus outbreak has accelerated conversations about the importance of robust digital infrastructure, with mayors and local authorities in urban areas around the industrialised world seeing smart cities as the ‘what’s next’ in government and economic development. Futurists, technology companies, consulting firms and community organisations talk about how the cities of the future will capitalise on the technology being developed today, creating those efficient, diverse and connected communities where ideas thrive.

How will we turn today’s conversations into plans to turn those ideas into reality within the existing urban environment?

The ‘innovation neighbourhood’ has been cited by many as a potential route to a smart city. This provides an opportunity to start small, prove the concept and progress to broader deployment. The innovation neighbourhood also paves the way for a more manageable funding equation. By breaking down the changes in infrastructure required for a full-scale smart city rollout into a smaller-scale implementation, that elusive funding source becomes more likely.

An innovation neighbourhood must start with outreach. The conversation must include urban planners, community leaders, infrastructure owners – electric, water and telecom – and residents and businesses, both existing and potential, with interests in the area or the technology to come.

Electricity utilities are in a prime position to lead this conversation, based on their established and extensive knowledge of existing community infrastructure. Regardless of who leads, the first step is drawing those stakeholders together to define the neighbourhood’s boundaries and begin the hard work of determining which businesses, activities and residents would populate the area.

This stakeholder group must be able to visualise the broad and numerous factors that go into building the innovation neighbourhood. This vision can develop on top of a backbone of three key components: net zero energy, high-capacity broadband and master-planned transportation.

Net zero energy creates a sustainable neighbourhood. The energy used there is produced there, with a focus on affordability.

High-capacity broadband enables planners to reach out to entrepreneurs to find out the types of things they would do in such a neighbourhood. How could they harness the connectivity to create something new and desirable, something that would generate revenue to support their presence and draw employees and residents to the neighbourhood?

Master-planned transportation is the foundation for innovation neighbourhood activity: how people get there, move within it, live there. The neighbourhood might incorporate park-and-ride services; mass transit connections; street layouts; parking capacity, and electric vehicle charging capabilities.

The successful development of this backbone supports livability for a neighbourhood through desirable live-work-play amenities.

With a backbone in place, a community can grow into itself. This will attract technology companies and establish the services and amenities that will draw residents and visitors.

Companies will establish themselves and grow in the innovation neighbourhood and their thinkers, developers and innovators will generate the very excitement that feeds growth. The people that come will be diverse: young people seeking amenities, nightlife and a connected life; workers looking for career growth; retirees seeking to return to a close community with everything they need within a relatively small area, and visitors looking to enjoy a cutting-edge environment.

Infrastructure is built for a long life – 30, 40, 50 or more years. Technology moves much faster, reinventing itself in 18-24 months. Smart decisions and planning will be critical in deciding what to replace, to improve, to piggyback on and to leave alone. Through continuous improvement, the smart city remains visible on the horizon.

A proven concept draws interest – and funding. Whether via new grants or revenues generated by successful business within a neighbourhood, resources grow once the concept becomes reality. Competition may even develop among contenders to be the next innovation neighbourhood.

Once a community proves the innovation neighbourhood concept, how does it progress to the next step and approach the ultimate goal of a smart city? Inside a successful innovation neighbourhood, some things will have worked, some things will have failed. To move on to a second innovation neighbourhood, those lessons will need to have been blended with new opportunities in technology and new ideas for ‘liveability’. As neighbourhoods build upon neighbourhoods, the smart city will come into focus.

If we are to overcome the challenge of climate change or better prepare ourselves for disruptive global events such as an epidemic in the future, we need to be working towards a wholesale overhaul of digital, as well as physical, infrastructure.

This is a journey that requires incremental, localised steps. Local authorities and mayoral regions, such as the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, already have the structures in place to begin to develop the innovation neighbourhoods that could be the first step in the journey to smart cities. Renewed focus on digital, hyper-local solutions will move that journey forward.

Jonathan Chapman is UK managing director of Burns & McDonnell.

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