Addressing the challenges of smart cities


Smart cities are an elusive concept; are they here or do they lie ahead of us? That was the topic of discussion as industry experts, academics, students and guests of Alliance Manchester Business School gathered at last week’s Vital Topics.

Facilitated by biophilic design expert, Oliver Heath, the Vital Topics event brought together futurologists and infrastructure and data experts. The line-up included:

  • Ian Cotton, Professor of High Voltage Technology, University of Manchester
  • Mark Elliot, Professor of Data Science, University of Manchester
  • Chris Oglesby, CEO Bruntwood
  • Thomas Renn, Managing Director, Manchester Science Partnerships

Professor Mark Elliot opened the debate by defining the key elements of a smart city; these include technology, security and communication, and understanding people’s behaviour and interaction through data and information analytics to result in a social machine.

However, with an estimated sixty per cent of the buildings that we are using in the 21st century remaining into the future, we can be fairly certain that smart cities will look aesthetically the same as they do now, so how can the current infrastructure support the advances in technology and what needs to happen to make the vision of a smart city a reality?

“Efficiency is key”, according to Professor Ian Cotton, who believes that we lose sight in what we can do to use infrastructure efficiently and the pathway to smarter cities is to find ways to new ways to manage cities and make them more effective.

Cities need to be more effective because they represent three quarters of energy consumption and eighty 80 per cent of CO2 emissions worldwide. They are the largest of any environmental policy challenge. Urbanisation is only set to increase; cities house half the world’s population today but will host three quarters in 2050.

Will smarter cities alleviate consumption? Thomas Renn believes it is possible if people are better connected to understanding the implications of their consumption, we aim to build the most effective infrastructure and continue with new technology that is already reducing energy consumption. However, Professor Mark Elliot argued that with population growth and individual consumption increasing, overall consumption will increase because humans are taking the opportunity to consume more.

Looking closer to home, what needs to happen to Manchester to make it a smart city? Chris Oglesby believes that Manchester is already leading the way in devolution in the UK and internationally through the health devolution. Therefore, there is a massive opportunity to use technology to tackle healthcare problems and use the NHS budget to tackle problems upstream.

Professor Ian Cotton believes that the city’s students hold huge potential, which can be unlocked: “There are more than 40,000 students at the University of Manchester, if we can get 10 per cent of students working on problems associated with the CityVerve smart city project, for example, then we can make a difference to smarter city problems and engage with students to encourage them to stay and work in Manchester.”

Regardless of how cities become smart, or what the future of smart cities looks like, Professor Mark Elliot concluded that we must see smart cities as a process and not a destination. Becoming a smart city will not happen overnight, just like the industrial powerhouse did not. It is a process that will continue to be driven forward through innovation and cities must keep up.

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Alliance Manchester Business School has a global reputation for innovative and influential teaching and research, which impacts business on a local, national and international level. We call this Original Thinking Applied.

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