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The standard criticism of the smart city concept is that it’s all talk and no action. Smart cities – based on ultra-efficient technologies and infrastructure responding to real-time data – seem to be always five to 10 years away.

The smart-city project most people are talking about is not in Asia or South America – but Glasgow. Glasgow was announced as the Technology Strategy Board’s winner of the Future Cities Demonstrator, having beaten competition from 60 other cities.

Much of the work has already begun. “We are developing an integrated operations centre, looking at social transport, street lighting, energy efficiency and active travel … [for example] we can harness the physical infrastructure of street lighting to be able to do more things than just light up streets, using this network as a digital platform for the city. This can be as basic as new CCTV for community safety, or as complex as a city-wide data collection and sharing network. That is already happening – we’ve got a pilot with 1,000 lights, and are talking with Green Investment Bank and others to extend that to 20,000.”

Data handling is central to the smart city model. By learning how people use the city, Glasgow will be able to design new solutions. Burns admits that up until now a lot of this has been based on guess work and a “guy with a clipboard”. Whereas a central operations system houses, “a data repository to collate data and bring it out the other end to help us understand city behaviour and design future services.

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Another smart city that is well underway is Barcelona. Vicente Guallart, chief architect and director of urbanism at Barcelona, explained that a central operations system is also crucial to its model, as are lamp-posts: “We are making fibre optics in parallel to power to every lamp-post in the city. So from that we can have sensors everywhere and Wi-Fi everywhere.” These sensors can monitor everything from noise levels to C02 emissions and simple street use – if no one is using the street, the lights turn off. Such intelligent use of lighting combined with LED technology could save a city up to 80% off its lighting bill.

This combination of sensors, central data and citizen input is what Guallart calls “slow data and fast data – slow data, such as which buildings are meeting which regulation. And then fast data coming in from sensors and from citizens”. The ultimate goal is to be a “slow city within a smart city”, says Guallart.

Barcelona’s digital infrastructure intends to lure business and industry back into the city limits, meaning more people can walk and cycle to work; some municipal green space is also being transformed into urban orchards. Smart cities need not mean bright lights and big screens; in Barcelona, much of the technology will remain below the surface, allowing people at street level to revert to a slower, greener way of life.

Delivering smart cities increasingly requires the private and public sectors to work together. The days of city governments being able to forge ahead on their own are long gone. The Glasgow project, for example, is a partnership between the local authority and private firms. As Gareth Macnaughton, points out: “We can’t operate in this sphere alone, we need partners. The more we share our technology, the more the energy sector, the water sector and the healthcare sector will take our technology and do far better things with it than we originally imagined.”

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But local government mindsets can be hard to change. Kaveh Memari, chief executive of Renew, told how his smart bin design for recycling pods coupled with live information screens and Wi-fi hubs struggled with some local authorities for the very reason that they address several problems at once: “You could see the fear in their eyes as they realised how many people would have to sign off these things … there were four committees that had to say ‘yes’, but nine that could say ‘no’,this is the matrix in which we are trying to bring out innovation [and] that is one of the barriers to the smart city concept.”

Some feel that this is slowly changing. The need to collaborate and innovate is greater now than ever as budget restrictions force departments out of silos. And a willingness to embrace new technology is seeing success stories emerge; with each success, others will follow.

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