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Smart places need human hearts to empower people and drive productivity

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We are in the midst of the greatest societal revolution since the end of the Second World War. After decades of centralisation and an overarching trend towards greater urbanisation and megacities, COVID-19 has forced a pivot to localisation. Empowered by technology, work and commuting patterns have shifted, citizens expect the government to play a more central role in all aspects of their lives, and local authorities have been given greater autonomy to create better places for people to live, work and play.

Some local authorities are already exploring how they can rebuild in a smarter way by being more purpose-led, adaptive and collaborative. Cities such as Bristol, Glasgow, London and Manchester are using technology to streamline waste collection, reduce crime and congestion levels, monitor and improve air quality, and advise on multi-modal transport infrastructure – to mention just a pocketful of possibilities.

We believe there’s an opportunity for those involved in shaping ‘smart places’ – local authorities, central government, private players and the project and programme managers involved – to go further, faster. A change in approach is needed. We need to create regions where disparate technical initiatives are joined up by human insight that responds in real-time to societal needs.

There are two key steps that can give smart places human hearts – and move us all one step closer to creating a positive human future in a technology-enabled world.

First, create and work to a shared vision

Many smart places fail to deliver in full, seeing low returns for a high outlay. Challenges include funding, bureaucracy or an inability to generate momentum beyond a local pilot group. Too often, a narrow vision fails to capture wider input and imagination, and to deliver for a broad group of citizens.

Imagine, instead, if local authorities worked from a wider vision that brought together local authorities across boundaries. With suburban areas increasingly serving as the new urban areas and citizens used to remote working and services, there’s an opportunity to reimagine how citizens are served – both within and beyond their geographical boundary. For instance, transport rarely stops at the local authority border. Local authorities could work together on a common vision and shared procurement to solve similar challenges, using shared data to monitor usage and benefit citizens beyond their immediate populace.

When local government needed to step up to protect the vulnerable during COVID-19, a clear-headed identification of user need from Hampshire County Council helped us take a smarter approach to contacting and supporting those who were shielding. Rather than being led by technology, we worked with Hampshire and alliance partner Amazon Web Services to develop an automated call service. It is a bot-driven outbound call system that asks people how they are and if they need help. For less than 10 per cent of the cost of a human call centre, it creates efficiencies and better supports the local vulnerable.

Second, deliver smart places programmes in an adaptive, flexible way

As with many public-sector organisations, local authorities are attempting to deliver on their objectives while struggling with spiralling IT costs, legacy systems, antiquated governance processes and information overload. These challenges could potentially stymie smart places from fulfilling their potential.

In response, the approach of local authorities must be adaptive. This happens where a strong strategic centre is augmented by small, experimental teams; and where evidence-based decisions are delivered by empowered multispecies. It’s an approach we’ve refined through working with homeland and national security organisations to make them more adaptable to changing conditions – and these principles can help make smart places a reality.

To do this, local authorities must:

  • Accelerate insight-led decision-making, ensuring data is acquired, analysed and managed in the right way, with the right skills to decide what action to take based on the insight derived from this data. This is where machines, shared with neighbouring regions, can undertake complex analytical tasks, freeing humans to make decisions based on a contextual understanding of community requirements.
  • Step up the pace, moving from yearly cycles to monthly, if not weekly – shifting from ‘big reveals’ to incremental stages of improvement, co-creating outcomes based on user feedback and input.

We’ve seen organisations adopt the approach above with success. For example, we’re working with an organisation in the security sector to enable it to be flexible and responsive to external events. We’re using adaptive thinking to change the way strategic decisions are made – enabling various areas of the organisation to come together to make key decisions. This delivers operational efficiencies, improves governance and enables quicker response times.  

We believe there’s an opportunity to move the conversation from siloed projects to integrated delivery, from smart cities to smart places – be they local or regional – and from data-driven infrastructure to human insight. It calls for a shared vision, bold leadership and adaptive thinking, and promises places where we can drive the recovery from COVID-19 and shape a society that’s better for all of us.

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