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Smart cities expert places Manchester 'at top of the list'

4th January 2018

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Smart cities researcher Chelsea Collier

Global smart cities advocate Chelsea Collier met the Manchester contingent at the 2017 South by Southwest technology festival in Austin, Texas. Excited by what she heard about the city, she wanted to see Manchester for herself. Invest In Manchester caught up with her during her visit.

Almost 5,000 miles from home, Chelsea Collier’s passionate interest in smart cities has brought her to Greater Manchester, satisfying a curiosity first stirred at the South by Southwest (SXSW) technology festival in her native Texas.

She didn’t know much about the forward-thinking and industrious city region in the North of England when she met the Manchester contingent at SXSW 2017, but soon came to understand that it is a place that shares many of her own ideas about the way that technology can shape the world around us.

Keen to learn more she vowed to visit for herself and is speaking to Visit Manchester during a whistle-stop tour that proved that she and Manchester are on the same wavelength.

Completely by chance, Collier’s visit to Manchester has coincided with a homecoming for global technology leader Ruth Porat. The CFO of Google and its parent company, Alphabet, has been in Manchester to open the new Google Garage – a centre which will help local citizens develop new digital skills.

Originally from Sale in Greater Manchester, Porat was welcomed back to the city by Greater Manchester’s elected mayor Andy Burnham, who noted her tributes to the city’s pioneering roles in the development of both computer science and nuclear physics with his own passionate appraisal of the smart city that Manchester needs to become in future; a place where it isn’t enough “that trams run on time”, but also a city where technology plays a part in improving the health and lives of citizens.

Speaking at the Google Garage launch, the mayor explained: “We want to be a smart city in every sense of that phrase, and what I mean by that is not just make the traffic lights just run a bit better, and the trams run on time.

"We want to be the smartest of all cities and for me that means connecting all people to technology and to opportunities, using digital to deal with our homelessness and rough sleeper problem, and tackling loneliness and isolation among older people. But crucially, giving young people that ability to get on in life and making sure that we can connect them to the opportunities that are out there.”

FutureEverything

Collier’s itinerary was too tight to include the Google Garage launch, but its themes clearly resonate with what she did see in Manchester, with visits to Manchester University, escorted by digital leader Dave Carter, and a tour of the FutureEverything digital innovation lab at Manchester Science Park.

Taking a coffee stop at Churchgate House – coincidentally, also the base for Burnham and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – Collier recalls how she first became aware that Manchester should be part of her research.

“At SXSW a year ago, there wasn’t a lot of content around smart cities, so I decided to create some programming around it myself,” she explains.

“I invited 25 leaders from different cities and from industry, who were offered a 10-minute opportunity to talk about what they were doing.

"I was introduced to Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese, and was honoured that he spoke at the event. That and an event hosted by MIDAS – Manchester’s inward investment agency - led me to think: ‘something smart is happening in that city. I want to be a part of it and I want to help other people to understand that story.’”

Sir Richard Leese takes part in the Smart City Day event at SXSW 2017

Acknowledged as a smart thinker on smart cities internationally, Collier’s interest in digital communities is long standing and evolved from her passion for connecting people, ideas and organisations with the intent of making a positive impact.

She believes that creating alignment between public and private sector leaders, with tech as an enabler, is a way to address some of the world's largest challenges at the most local level.

Born in Houston, Collier briefly worked in advertising before she took a role in economic development in the Governor’s office in Texas, working at a state-wide level, followed by a job in a tech start-up providing financial services for the underserved, which grew from just six to hundreds of people within a few years.

She left the tech firm to form her own consultancy eight years ago and was then chosen to research smart cities in the United Stated and China as part of a 2016 Zhi-Xing China Eisenhower Fellowship, a professional and leadership development program.

The Eisenhower Fellowship inspires leaders around the world through programs in the US and beyond.

“I wanted to learn how cities were optimising technology to create an enhanced quality of life for all residents and citizens,” Collier adds. “Here, [in Europe] smart cities have been around for 10 to 15 years, whereas in the US we’re still very new at this.”

She launched the Digi.City website as a way to chronicle her research and inform further debate about smart cities, and also contributes to other journals on the subject.

While the fellowship technically ended in May 2017, she says that her work is still only beginning. So far she has visited China, Singapore, cities across the United States and Europe, and now Manchester.

Core ingredients

Collier has identified what she believes are the core ingredients of a smart city and says that they work on four levels, starting with infrastructure – “the connectivity part of it, internet connectity and electricity – the nuts and bolts.”

The next level, she says, is the manifestation of that at a broader level – smaller mobile cells of connectivity, wi-fi, the ability to plug into infrastructure at a local level.

She adds: “The next level is the things that are starting to emerge in headlines; the internet of things, smart data, Artificial Intelligence, cyber security. Then the very top level is the one we’re all familiar with, the device level; it’s connected street lights, cameras and sensors on everything you can think of.”

Greater Manchester’s pioneering journey in devolved health and social care, where digital services are part of a £6bn experiment placing the needs of people first, represents the perfect example of smart city thinking, Collier adds.

“Smart cities at their very best are in service of people,” she says. “Many cities apply the tech first, because there’s a race right now and particularly in the US, competition is driving values.

“Smart cities really got started when the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued a Smart City Challenge – they issued a call, saying, ‘alright cities, here’s $50m, what are you going to do with it?’ Cities scrambled and the city that won (Columbus, Ohio) was chosen because they leveraged private and public sector buy-in in service of disadvantaged communities.

“The cities who really get it right are the ones who say, ‘what are the pain points in our city and how can we use technology to address those?’ It’s time to think beyond the age-old models. Pain and suffering are not new but now we have innovative tools to be able to mitigate those forces. Engaging the strengths of the private sector in cooperation with the structure of the public sector is critical."

She plans to share her experience of Manchester on the Digi.City and Smart Cities Connect platforms and is clear that it is a city heading in the right direction.

“You can see it walking around the city – this spirit of collaboration and co-operation. It’s no surprise that this is the birthplace of the co-operative movement and the Industrial Revolution. I kept taking pictures of old meeting new. It’s so easy to see that this is how it should work.”

The future for smart cities

Given Collier’s mission to inform and educate others, what does she feel the future hold for those cities who see the benefits of becoming smart?

“What I love about the smart cities movement is that no-one is exempt from it,” she adds. “Just because you’re a small town doesn’t mean you can’t be a smart city. In fact, you’ve probably got an advantage because you can move fast, and people understand the DNA of their cities, and the way that universities can work alongside public and private sector.

“You have to understand who your city is at its core, and you have to have people in place with very different attitudes and perceptions – it’s industry, it’s university, it’s city folks, advocates. No-one can be left out of the conversation. And of the cities that do that well, Manchester is at the top of that list. It’s so incredibly apparent. They move fast and they move in service.”

An audio recording of this interview is available on Soundcloud.

Click here to find out more about the digital, creative and technology sector in Manchester.

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