Devolution and the Smart City - how Manchester is leading the way

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The University of Manchester recently hosted “Smart Cities: solutions for tomorrow’s world” featuring a panel of academics and prominent business leaders who together explored what a Smart City is and the potential use of smart technology to benefit Manchester.

The University of Manchester recently hosted “Smart Cities: solutions for tomorrow’s world” featuring a panel of academics and prominent business leaders who together explored what a Smart City is and the potential use of smart technology to benefit Manchester.

Smart Cities

The basic idea of a Smart City is to connect up smart technologies with the wider city functions. Smart Cities run on data. The key to developing the Smart City as a concept is not just gathering that baseline data, but working out ways to analyse and use it to identify very specific problems and prepare solutions in collaboration across disciplines. This enables provision of services and facilities in an efficient and a proactive way based on data provided by citizens in real time, such as through a connected bus stop to allow people to “check-in” to their location, alert bus operators of demand for the service and then enable them to continue to monitor the service levels throughout the day. Ultimately, it has the potential of revolutionising from the way our health care is provided to the management of energy and transport systems.

In December 2015, Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership won a £10 million bid to become the UK’s first Internet of Things demonstrator. The Internet of Things is broadly about creating and opening up networks using our phones, tablets, computers, wearable technology and autonomous vehicles allowing data to be shared and analysed as the devices “talk” to each other (and this is hotly tipped on our technology law blog as one of the top ten tech trends to watch out for in 2017).

The resulting project, City Verve, is an innovative and pioneering project which combines the public sector, the private sector and the academic world, focusing primarily upon the Oxford Road corridor which links the hospitals, the universities, the Science Park and the city centre. Even at a university level, City Verve is drawing together research groups of academics across a range of disciplines. An example of progress so far is the installation of technology to control the air quality systems in a new building in Manchester Science Park which works by monitoring data from the heating, cooling and ventilation systems and has the potential to add on capabilities to manage energy use and security.

There are plenty more projects being explored in and around Manchester. CityVerve is just one example; another is Concentricity, the pilot transport service which aims to demonstrate driverless bus capability in Salford by 2020.

Devolution Revolution

At the Smart City panel discussion it was clear that issues of governance and the services to be provided by a city are very much connected with how smart technology is used most effectively.

The industrial strategy follows up on George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse initiatives and places a strong focus on devolving certain powers and budgets to key regions. Manchester is already advanced as a city region in terms of governance with a strong council and a distinctive voice. The election of a Mayor for Greater Manchester and the scope of the associated powers means that the position will be comparable to the Mayor of London role. This will create a visible spokesperson with a voice on the national and international stage.

The detail of devolution, however, is much more than just an elected mayor. Key powers will be devolved to a city level - responsibilities such as transport, policing, housing and infrastructure funds and, most significantly, the health budget. Having the autonomy to handle the health budget opens up the opportunity for Manchester to use its innovation, its tech expertise and develop ways to manage and use budget to address local problems.

This is Manchester, we do things differently here.

Smart Cities require strong civic leadership and interdisciplinary relations. Manchester is a very prominent national experiment in city governance which presents an opportunity to completely reconsider how public functions can be provided.

The excitement around Manchester’s tech scene has been growing over a number of years, proving that the talent and the experience is very much based in the city. Devolution presents another option for people to build up their expertise and experience in a very different area of technology on a large scale, hopefully drawing in innovative and ambitious talent to meet the challenge of setting up what the devolved city looks like.

There are of course a considerable risks and concerns still to be addressed with regards to the application technology in such a wide and public way. Questions of data security, vulnerability to cyber-attacks and energy consumption. It is a very public project and requires a great deal of public policy consideration. In considering what sort of city it wants to create, Manchester has the perfect opportunity to create a truly innovative city of the future.
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