"Smart cities: technology friend or foe?"

Urbanisation is a principal characteristic of modern human life.

Digital technology and connectivity have a role to play in optimising the benefits of city living. However, this report clearly shows that much needs to change in the approach of technology companies, governments and city authorities if this role is to be successfully realised. There needs to be far less focus on projects and pilots that provide cities with Internet of Things ‘bling’ for self-promotion. Instead, more attention must be paid to seriously engaging with people’s very real concerns about the use of technology in the cities in which they live.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers recommends the three priority areas for action in the short term are:

  1. UK Government includes the electricity system requirements of digitally integrated smart cities, in terms of both demand and reliability, in the planning of pathways to the nation’s future power infrastructure. The continued adoption of internet-connected digital technology in UK cities for the monitoring and control of engineered infrastructure, makes city services increasingly dependent on electrical power. Not only does this potentially lead to a substantial increase in the scale of power demand in cities, particularly with the anticipated use of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Massive Internet of Things (MIoT), but it also creates a requirement for 24/7 reliability of supply in cities 365 days a year. In future UK cities, even relatively short interruptions to supply will potentially lead to substantial economic and social impacts. Government must absolutely ensure that as well as meeting demand, the electricity supply to future UK cities is highly resilient to uncertain external physical shocks and cyber security threats, as well as to normal operational faults and breakdowns.
  2. City authorities focus more on collaborative working and sharing smart city learning across networks of cities, and engage with people’s concerns regarding equality of access. Today’s culture of cities competitively positioning themselves against one another for smart city status, and for access to public funding for smart city initiatives, is against people’s overwhelming desire for equality of access across the UK to the benefits of digital integration. Instead, UK city authorities need to pay more attention to working together in city networks to share smart city knowledge, learning and experience, as well as creating stronger physical connectedness with each other and nearby communities. UK engineered infrastructure and city services should integrate digital technology only when it makes credible economic, business or social sense to so, and such projects must take into account people’s concerns, as raised in this report, about the use of technology in the cities in which they live.
  3. The education profession acknowledges the new skill sets needed for living and working in a digitally-enabled urbanised society, and radically reconfigures education and training to be fit for purpose in a 21st–century smart city future. Substantive shifts are already taking place in the character of life and paid employment in UK cities as a result of digitisation. Further integration of digital technology into engineered city infrastructure and city services will likely increase the pace of this transformation, bringing into sharp focus the need to address people’s concerns regarding the degradation of life skills and acquisition of skills to meet the requirements of future jobs. The UK education community needs to recognise these changes and concerns and work with the engineering profession, as well as relevant others, to consider a radical repurposing of education, training and skills development in the UK to ensure fitness for purpose in a 21st century digitally enabled urban world.

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