Tim Newns, CEO, MIDAS

We live in a rapidly urbanising world, with two thirds of the global population expected to be living in cities by 2050. This long term trend has increased air pollution and put pressure on infrastructure and services, and been made more complex by the COVID-19 pandemic. Today the question of how we can improve our towns and cities, with cleaner environments that are better managed for all, comes with a renewed focus on a simple idea: a sense of place has to come with a sense of well-being.

We also know that challenge equals opportunity. Urbanisation and sustainability are global issues and Greater Manchester businesses can access new markets and achieve significant growth by focusing on innovation and new technologies that will help create smarter places to live and work.  That was the message of Sustainable Cities and Infrastructure, one of the major events taking place as part of Innovate Manchester, an ambitious and participatory programme we created with GC Business Growth Hub and FutureEverything.

In this blog we play back the overriding themes from our distinguished panel of speakers, led by Bamidele Adebisi, a Professor in Intelligent Infrastructure Systems at Manchester Metropolitan University. Other speakers include Jane Healey-Brown - Director Planning, Policy and Economics at Arup, who is leading the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Towns Fund Delivery Partnership in the North. She was joined by Jon Corner, the Chief Digital Officer at Salford City Council, and Dr Beenish Siddique,  the founder and CEO, AEH Innovative Hydrogel Limited.

1. People are at the heart of smart cities

We need to change the thinking around public engagement and ensure there is a human centered-approach. Why talk in terms of ‘going to the public’ when describing what technology or system you want to introduce. Why not do it the other way around? Smart cities are not just about technology – ‘smart’ means actually helping people and creating a greater sense of well-being and security. To achieve this we need to engage with businesses and residents at the outset – understanding what citizens need, their challenges and problems. The reality is that people need to be at the heart of the ‘smart’ design process – how do people actually operate, travel etc. and what will inspire them to make the change and participate for a more sustainable city? Through asking and listening the process will reveal things and produce evidence that are helpful in policy development. It takes a while for behaviours to change but human-centric technology is the best way to positively create new behaviour patterns.

2. We have a partnership challenge

Partnerships are the only means of creating sustainable cities. Government, business, civic leadership, academia and the third sector all have a role to play in achieving transformational change. It’s not about command and control, asset management and/or pushing the new technologies of 5G, A.I, connected vehicles and so on through the supply chain. It’s hard to overstate the importance of working together but any barriers need to be overcome to ensure a joined-up approach that can overcome obstacles to change.

3. Things will not remain the same

Cities are constantly changing and a ‘smart city’ is not a single point in time but a journey. Three years ago when anyone defined a smart city they may not have thought about a pandemic. Today that would be considered. How do you contain a virus? Do you use temperature sensors in public spaces?

The pandemic has also underlined the overwhelming demand for innovative solutions, not just in terms of vaccines.  The crisis has, for instance, demonstrated the fragility of UK supply chains, especially for food. Emerging technologies, such as new forms of indoor farming, can make our cities greener and more sustainable.

The pace of technological advance, especially around digital, has given rise to the term the ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ - a way of describing the blurring of boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds. It's a fusion of advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other technologies. The transformative impact on our physical environment, businesses and how we live our lives is far from over.

4. Small scale interventions have a big impact

Innovation in its many forms is vital but mobility is an example of an issue where there has been substantial change without any new technology or large scale investment. In Milan, for example, the COVID pandemic prompted radical change in the city centre. New walking and cycle ways, street closures, park-lets were all created in a matter of weeks, reclaiming areas and encouraging behavioural change.

5. Digital inequality has to be tackled

Covid has exposed our society’s over-reliance on technology – and real poverty linked to digital poverty. Failing to address the issue will exacerbate our new inequalities and limit what can be achieved in terms of creating sustainable town and cities. 

New partnerships and connections across different parts of the economy are the lifeblood of progress. What are those new partnerships? How do we collaborate? How do we create an ecosystem that starts with the problem and works towards a solution? We need to open doors to innovation partnerships – SMEs, community leaders, academia and large corporates need to work together to solve our big challenges, as per the objectives set out in Innovate Manchester.

6. Collaborate-to-innovate is the methodology for success

Large corporates, SMEs, and academics can ultimately produce smarter solutions by working together. Answering the question of how we address the urbanisation challenge, creating cleaner environments that are better managed for all, means embracing the idea of working together. Greater Manchester is a great example of a region working together around an overarching strategy – an environmental vision that sets out the actions we all need to take for the region to be carbon neutral by 2038.  It’s not about two or three people or organisations doing something in a corner. It’s about cities working together and talking to Government to ensure buy-in at a policy level.

Innovate Manchester is part of a wider programme, which runs to February 2021 and is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, designed to drive business growth.  The event, ‘The Future of Human Experiences and HCD’ will take place on February 23th 2021. Find out more and register here.

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