Smart cities won’t make the grade without smart communities


This article on smart cities was written by Lightfoot and first published in Grow Exeter magazine. Grow Exeter a fantastic publication reporting relentlessly positive news in our hometown of Exeter.

“The role of smart cities is not to create a society of automation and alienation, but to bring communities together.”

Ian Stewart MP (Chairman of the All Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities)

What makes a city?

Is it the buildings lining its streets, the businesses headquartered there, or is it just a shape on a map?

What about the people and communities within it?

The people who walk those streets, make those businesses thrive, and turn a city from words on paper to a living, breathing web of stories and memories.

Perhaps the question we need to ask is – what is a city without people?

When we look to the future of cities, especially ones like Exeter that are growing at such an accelerated rate, there is no shortage of grand promises and plans.

“Smart cities” is the phrase of the moment for developers and planners.

Exeter is uniquely positioned to benefit from the adoption and integration of smart city technology – it is one of the ten fastest-growing cities in the UK, has a thriving technology and IT landscape, and benefits from forward-thinking and dedicated leaders in local government. Smart city technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) have the potential to revolutionise how we live, work, travel, and interact.

But potential can very easily go unfulfilled and smart cities are not a panacea for the problems inherent in urban centres.

If we really want to ensure cities adapt and grow sustainably…

We need smart communities

Without engaged communities that embrace tech for good, who truly understand how smart solutions fit into their lifestyles, a smart city will be nothing more than a pretty marketing tagline. We need communities to grow with smart cities by engaging with and adopting beneficial technologies and new models of consumer behaviour. Our focus needs to switch to sustainability and striving for incremental progress, not perfection.

Thankfully, the people who can make a difference in Exeter are well aware of this.

In the recently-published Exeter Transport Strategy, special mention was given to incentivising the uptake of technology to reduce pollution and improve air quality, street design to emphasise sustainable travel, and real-time technology to help with route planning.

As more smart city solutions and their application within Exeter become clear, it is vital that a coherent strategy for community engagement runs parallel to their implementation.

Developing the city with IoT infrastructure, sticking smart sensors on every corner, without context or explanation to the communities that should be using them will achieve nothing. Ultimately, technology doesn’t make the difference – it’s the people using it who do.

A smarter city is only possible if the people who live and work there understand why they need it.

The reality is that, before people can see the benefit of smart cities for the wider community, they first need to know how it can benefit them. Once the intrinsic value becomes clear to individuals, you remove the greatest barrier to widespread adoption.

If a city is made by its citizens, their involvement and engagement in development is paramount.

As a developer and manufacturer of connected car technology, Lightfoot is at the centre of one of the UK’s burgeoning IoT markets. One of the greatest challenges we have had to overcome is working out how to secure and maintain that engagement.

We quickly learned that, if we give a driver Lightfoot, we create a smart vehicle.

Smart vehicles don’t do anything

Instead, if we give a driver Lightfoot, engage with them to explain the benefits our technology delivers, how they can get the most out of using it, and – vitally – reward them when they use it effectively, we create something different.

Breathe Exeter is a perfect example of this in action. It is not enough to promote the message of smoother, greener driving. The success of the initiative so far has come from ensuring individuals see how they personally benefit from changing their driving habits. Then, it becomes easier for them to see how – adopted at scale – smart solutions benefit everyone.

And that is how we have created a community of better drivers.

An engaged, aware group of citizens embracing technological solutions to the challenges in urban growth.

A smart community.

Breathe Exeter can serve as the model for developing smart cities across the world – by engaging individuals, you the engage the wider community, and the city itself follows.

Change comes from the bottom up – Exeter is already proving this.