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Smart-Eco Cities in the UK 2016



This research report presents the findings of an ongoing multi-centre comparative analysis of ‘smart-eco city’ initiatives in the UK. The ‘smart-eco city’ concept captures the recent trend for future-oriented urban development schemes that display both ‘green’ and ‘smart’ ambitions. More precisely, the smart eco-city is defined here as an experimental city, functioning as a potential niche for testing and introducing environmental and economic reforms. The report forms part of an ESRC-funded research project titled SMART ECO-CITIES FOR A GREEN ECONOMY: A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF EUROPE AND CHINA, coordinated by the University of Exeter in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from King’s College London, the Universities of Westminster, Plymouth and Cardiff. The international partnership includes research teams in China, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
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Notions of the smart city are pervasive in urban development discourses. Various frameworks for the development of smart cities, often conceptualised as roadmaps, make a number of implicit claims about how smart city projects proceed but the legitimacy of those claims is unclear. This paper begins to address this gap in knowledge. We explore the development of a smart transport application, MotionMap, in the context of a £16M smart city programme taking place in Milton Keynes, UK. We examine how the idealised smart city narrative was locally inflected, and discuss the differences between the narrative and the processes and outcomes observed in Milton Keynes. The research shows that the vision of data-driven efficiency outlined in the roadmaps is not universally compelling, and that different approaches to the sensing and optimisation of urban flows have potential for empowering or disempowering different actors. Roadmaps tend to emphasise the importance of delivering quick practical results. However, the benefits observed in Milton Keynes did not come from quick technical fixes but from a smart city narrative that reinforced existing city branding, mobilising a growing network of actors towards the development of a smart region. Further research is needed to investigate this and other smart city developments, the significance of different smart city narratives, and how power relationships are reinforced and constructed through them.
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Investment in the release of open data has become increasingly central to the implementation of smart city programs by governments around the world. Though originally arising out of a push towards “open government” and the pursuit of more transparent decision-making by public authorities at multiple scales, open data programs have more recently been adopted by municipal governments to support entrepreneurial goals of enhanced competitive positioning and attracting investment. As urban scholars now subject the smart city project to critical scrutiny for its role in advancing urban entrepreneurialism, this article considers the relevance of the open data agenda as it shapes wider understandings of the smart city. In particular, I address the collection of policy practices, aspirations, stakeholders and entrepreneurs active in framing the opportunities and values of open data for urban governments. Both the momentum of support for open data, along with a recent shift in the rhetorical aspirations of the open data movement away from the values of openness and transparency and towards a more confined focus on value generation, raise important critical questions for urban geographers concerned with the nature of urban governance in an age of big data.
We know that digital technologies are offering new opportunities for cities to meet the challenges of the 21st century. There is an opportunity to use ubiquitous urban sensing, big data and analytics to better understand the real-time functioning of our cities, as well as inform longer-term planning and policy decisions. Smart grids could enable efficiency within our energy infrastructure and intelligent transport systems may encourage multi-modal low carbon urban mobility. Anywhere-access to information through smartphones and mobile infrastructure could transform the way people use the city, and support the development of new products and services. But of course, technological capability is only one part of the answer and is interwoven within layers of complexity. City governments are faced with the challenge of exploring the economic return in smart city investment, the business models, the value that it brings to citizens and the role that they should play within an ecosystem of delivery partners and stakeholders. They must decipher funding options, measurement and reporting regimes and the implications for their organisational structure, operational requirements and responsibilities. On top of this, they must understand how these investments align to existing local and national political priorities and strategies. This is not trivial.
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