How smart cities can support climate action

Businesses are now digitising fast and investing in low carbon infrastructure. Local authorities have a big role to play in this transition, writes Teodora Kaneva, head of Smart Infrastructure and Systems at techUK

‘Smart Cities’ is a phrase we hear almost on daily basis now. But what it really means is very different for industries and people.

With a global urbanisation wave, the best way of explaining this trend is to re-imagine what a city is, how it is being designed, retrofitted, and managed. At techUK, we are looking at the building blocks of what makes a smart city, to develop, deploy, and promote sustainable development practices to address growing urbanisation challenges.

Technology is prevalent in addressing many of those challenges, when it is deployed sustainably. Intelligent infrastructure allows us to capture new insights for more informed decision making, more efficient and decarbonised systems, and opens the opportunity for new business models.

Mitigating climate change commitments
The UK is in a strong position to tackle urban challenges. Government leadership has been somewhat positive it this area - the launch of the new industrial decarbonisation strategies for infrastructure (such as energy, transport, water) was a positive step in the right direction. Digital now sits at the core of the industrial transition in the road to decarbonisation.

Prior to COP26, the Prime Minister pledged to source 100 per cent of the UK’s electricity from clean energy sources by 2035. More announcements were made at COP26 on, for example, but not limited to, the phasing out of coal, carbon market breakthrough, climate adaptation and climate finance, and DfT sustainability strategy.

System of Systems
To be able to deliver on our national targets, industries must change the way they operate. Cooperation and collaboration have a very different and much more significant meaning now. We are seeing a huge transition towards digital, with companies like Shell and British Petroleum transitioning to becoming a clean technology businesses. Energy suppliers are becoming tech businesses and creating partnerships with car manufacturers  or consumer device manufacturers.

Business models are changing rapidly and within those partnerships we are seeing that it takes a lot more industries working together to address urban challenges and create meaningful and affordable services for citizens.

Transport companies are also becoming technology businesses, building their own innovation inhouse, with software and hardware solutions for transport planning and mechanisms to decarbonise.

Businesses are now digitising fast and investing in low carbon infrastructure. Meaningful insights with data analytics, AI, machine learning, and digital twins are being utilised to address efficiency challenges and make better decisions.

Local development
Local authorities have a big role to play in this transition. National issues such as climate change operate cross-council boundaries, and there is a concerted effort to work collaboratively. Better communication between authorities is needed.

Setting a digital strategy and transitioning to a data-driven model could help with efficiency within local authorities.

Data analytics and closer collaboration with DNOs/DSOs could scale the type of opportunities for low carbon and renewable energy generation with existing and potential areas of energy usage, providing a real change for citizens.

Gathering data on managing flood risk and drought resilience, where coasts and river catchments do not follow council boundaries, could improve management of those assets. Using digital twins could also replicate those assets and create a digital map, which could provide different case scenarios for environmental or geospatial awareness.

Working together on climate change issues will also provide opportunities for councils to develop and share data, evidence, and expertise. Spatial planning and land use planning could be delivered digitally using technology and data analytics. Digital ticketing, maintenance, and planning could improve Interoperability and transport services between regions.

Of course, there are a lot of barriers that need to be considered. Funding and resource constraints for local authorities is a huge hurdle. Investment within public services, health and social care are prioritised. There is also a lack of digital skills and resourcing efficiencies that need to be addressed in terms of recruitment and creating innovation planning and scalability. There is a significant lack of data and digital infrastructure. Legacy technologies are still being used and procurement of new digital tech is a large upfront investment.

Another barrier is lack of collaboration and engagement with Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) on energy planning and grid connection. There is a fragmentation piece that also needs to be addressed in the way local authorities work with the private sector.

Local authorities have a huge responsibility to ensure that communities are served well and are provided with a healthy infrastructure, and affordable local services.

The power of the digital transition is real. Local authorities must seriously address automation and design their own digital strategies - to make sure that their services are delivered and ultimately, their businesses are run affordably and efficiently.

Commercialisation and leveraging digital technology are key to finding new revenue growth and bridging the funding gaps that are starting to cripple delivery of public services.

Digital technology
As a representative of the tech sector, our first priority is to look inward and avoid creating more emission impacts or affecting human rights issues.

Tech has rightly faced scrutiny given that we contribute two-three per cent of global emissions, so we must put our own house in order and we at techUK and our members are very focused on that. On a positive note, currently 40 per cent of the sector has signed up to the Race to Zero globally. We can see already that tech can help make the difference in all sectors, and the report we have published together with Deloitte has identified that digital technologies already in the field could deliver a 15 per cent increase in UK carbon emissions abatement by 2030 whilst adding £13.7 billion Gross Value Added (GVA) to the UK.

Tech and innovation can help towns and cities across Britain to ‘build back greener’ and unleash the power of digital and data. Connectivity and cyber resilience do take centre stage in delivering the digital infrastructure. Intelligent Automation has the ability to transform our society, bringing in new productive technologies and allowing our people to focus on the strategic issues that really matter. However, it can only do this, if the embrace of Intelligent Automation is done in a safe and secure manner, protecting data and intellectual property, and ensuring that we have mitigated routes to attack.

Cyber security is an area that the UK is taking extremely seriously. The tech sector is working closely with government to ensure that smart/intelligent digital devices are designed with the necessary security by conception, to protect consumer privacy.

Data strategies within infrastructure sectors are working together with consumer advisory bodies to create a sustainable framework for data accessibility and privacy.

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