Imagine a city filled with drones that help the National Health Service send life-saving equipment to an emergency, sensor-controlled waste bins that tell the council your rubbish is ready to be picked up, and robots to fix and maintain crucial infrastructure and transportation. Or even just to deliver your pizza.
This is a Smart City, and it is why Dan Byles, a Conservative politician for North Warwickshire and Bedworth, is leaving parliament. He is taking up two new roles in the private sector to help build a digitised, more efficient Britain. Not just in the private sector but in state-run services as well.
Right after the May General Election, he’ll join a tech company that helps provide platforms to held build Smart Cities, Living PlanIT, full-time as part of the senior management team. He’ll then become the chair of a organisation that helps promote Smart Cities, SmarterUK, around the same time although the exact date is not finalised yet.
“Since 2010, I became increasingly interested in Smart Cities and the complex systems to run a society. It’s no longer about standalone verticals, it’s about finding a way to use technology to make a country more efficient,” Byles told Business Insider during a visit to Portcullis House in Westminster.
“I saw a gap in the market to bridge policymakers, the private sector and NGOs and charities from making Smart Cities a reality. There is a hunger to talk about this and the UK is primed to be the leader in developing this sector. We need better open data sources, streamlining supply chains and better digitally savvy cities.”
From parliament to the complex world of Smart Cities
During his four years as an MP, Byles successfully championed and chaired three cross-party parliamentary groups: Unconventional Oil & Gas, Smart Cities, and Skills & Employment.
He is also a member of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and is the sponsor of an historic Private Members Bill on House of Lords Reform.
However, in July last year he announced that he was going to leave parliament after the General Election in May 2015.
“I initially stepped down but with no agenda. I was looking what to do next. But I was very fortunate that a lot of offers came my way from the oil and gas sector as well as the Smart Cities arena,” said Byles, who also was the youngest serving major in the British army, at the age of 27, before becoming an MP.
“However, as I said, what interests me in the Smart Cities sector is how energy, infrastructure, healthcare, transportation and many other areas would benefit and become more efficient through technological developments. I can bring all my experience together for this arena.”
Robots, tech infrastructure … and Uber
Some of the world’s fastest-developing countries are already trying to build numerous cities that resemble something from a sci-fi movie. India is trying tobuild 100 Smart Cities, to not only improve the quality of life for its1.2 billion residents but also to tackle its increasingly extreme weather.
In Japan, the use of robotics for everything to serving food to cleaning your house, is becoming the norm.
Meanwhile, some of the world’s biggest companies are rolling out technological innovations to help make business more efficient and cost effective. For example, Amazon uses 15,000 Kiva robots across 10 order fulfilment centres in the US that can collect merchandise. A Kiva can lift 750 pounds. A human cannot.
“There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to developing Smart Cities as no one has completed a fully realised one yet,” said Byles. “But the attitude and mindset from businesses and the public for greater tech infrastructure to make their lives easier is there. It’s empowering to see businesses, government bodies and the public wanting to use innovation for everything from procurement to day-to-day business more efficient. We just need to tie this altogether to make Smart Cities. Anything is possible, look how Uber has grown in five years.”
Uber, the increasingly popular ride-share and taxi-hailing app, was founded in 2009. By December 2014, its service was available in 53 countries and more than 200 cities. It is an example of understanding how an already developed industry could benefit from a streamlined approach to connect the buy and sell side in an easy to use way, says Byles.
The appetite is strong for the latest tech developments to make society run better. Just take a look at the 2015 International CES trade expo in December last year. Window-cleaning robots by Ecovacs Robotics were presented there, and iRobot CEO Colin Angle delivered his keynote address via live video
on a moving robot.
Smart Cities to accommodate the growing population
Byles highlighted how the world population, not just Britain’s, is expanding rapidly and in tandem the technology available through smartphones and the internet means that the dynamics of globalisation are changing dramatically too.
For example, in Britain’s capital alone, the population is estimated to grow by one full tube train every three days, according to Transport for London.
Meanwhile, globally, urban populations are growing by an estimated 1.3 million per week, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). That’s the equivalent of the world creating a new city the size of Birmingham weekly.
In tandem, the world’s growing population is becoming more hooked up to technology. The Economist estimated that by 2020 an estimated 80% of adults globally will have access to a smartphone — bringing billions of more people online. Meanwhile, in a report by McKinsey Global Institute called ‘Urban world: cities and the rise of the consuming class in 2012,’ by 2025, the world would have built new urban floor space equivalent to the area of Australia.
Byles told us that it will take some time to get all cities up to speed before they become Smart Cities. Even getting fast internet available across the entire span of country is a big feat.
“There’s no single city in the world that has become a fully Smart City but Britain could potentially lead the world in showing how it’s done,” said Byles. “The UK has already launched a number of pilot projects across a variety of cities which has already shown the cost benefits and efficiency that technology can provide if applied to every day processes from transportation, to infrastructure, to waste disposal to healthcare.”
Starting off small
Last year marked the start of some big Smart City pilot projects in the UK.
In May 2014, Milton Keynes installed sensors into recycling bins so that the local council would know when the bins were ready to be collected. Birmingham said it is rolling out improved wifi services across the entire city and is even helping fund businesses who need a faster broadband connection to do business.
Manchester, Glasgow, and Bristol are a few other cities are aiming to digitise their landscapes more and create more open data, networks while also putting plans forward to get old and emerging businesses onto computer networks. London already has the Oyster card system train payments system, and that has branched out from the capital to some parts of Surrey. The UK is also looking to roll out fast broadband services to every corner of the country. UK train network Crossrail is also looking at how it can develop greater Smart City capabilities through its research body.
Challenges on the horizon
To make Smart Cities become a reality, the government, private sector, and NGOs and charities need to coordinate their efforts, says Byles. For example, Britain may face challenges when it comes to applying this dynamic to state-owned institutions like the NHS.
“Any development to something like healthcare is controversial and it’s likely this could hold back the sector from getting on board with Smart Cities,” said Byles. “But the potential for cutting costs and making it more efficient is incredibly important. The growing population means there is greater strain on our health services and technology can help with dealing with the inflow of new patients.” The NHS deals with over 1 million patients every 36 hours.
But as Byles puts it, there is “always a danger in democracy.” Every four years bigger projects might be put on hold for the elections. But he said Smart Cities is a “global phenomenon” and not just something one party concentrates on. “In fact, look at how everyone is pushing for greater devolution of British cities, Smart Cities would empower local governments, businesses and people,” he said.
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