Smart Cities – Power to the Citizens?

April 15, 2015

The 2015 Budget set aside £140m to stimulate research into smart city technologies and to find health and social care applications for the Internet of Things: £40m of this money was set aside to ‘support a competition to fund a smart cities demonstrator as part of the Internet of Things programme to trial and showcase these new technologies’. The rest being earmarked for investment in developing ‘intelligent mobility’ including ‘driverless car technology and the wider systems required to implement and adopt the technology – such as telecommunications’.  According to the Budget document, ‘smart city technology could prove transformative, as well as providing significant opportunities for supporting jobs and growth’.  It would seem that smart cities are firmly on the UK Government’s agenda.

 The Government also believes that smart technologies may help to address some of the challenges of urbanisation such as pollution and resource consumption. Closer monitoring and comprehensive information gathering could lead to a better management of supply and demand of scarce resources.   It may also allow consumers to make more informed decisions about their consumption of such resources which in theory will reduce the waste and cost of utilities and extend the life of existing infrastructure.[1]

Promoters of smart cities have helped us to visualise a world where technology could be seamlessly integrated into every facet of the urban environment. From transport systems, lighting and climate control to commerce, utilities and security, the smart city has come to epitomise the most efficient, clean, and safe way to live.  We are led to imagine that the smart city will benevolently watch over its citizens, gathering data for the purpose of responding instantly and intelligently to their needs. In reality, there is little consensus over the extent to which smart technologies, and the relentless collection and dissemination of data, will measurably improve the lives of ordinary citizens.

As technological  functionality advances, it tends also to centralise. It is likely that in the smart cities of the near future, our phones and watches will become the remote controls for our lives – summoning our driverless vehicles, communicating with our appliances, transacting our payments and monitoring our health and wellbeing. All this functionality in one place carries an enhanced risk of operative paralysis, inconvenience and financial loss should controllers be lost, stolen or damaged or if connectivity suffers through malfunction or cyber-attack.  These are genuine perils that millions of mobile phone owners will readily recognise. Consumers trust their bank to protect their security and privacy but it is debatable that this relationship extends to the mobile phone provider which tends to be a much shorter relationship. On the other hand, security measures to protect private data may in future become so onerous as to negate any discernible benefits of connectivity. By way of example, banks are now re- introducing physical security measures like portable card readers to protect virtual transactions.  This would seem to pave the way for increasing use of iris or fingerprint technology – providing that users can be assured that the information will be stored securely and used only for purposes to which they consent.

Speaking at a recent Smart Cities event hosted by Bond Dickinson LLP in Bristol, Vinnett Taylor, head of M2M at O2, cautioned that the success of smart cities will depend largely on how information is used. Taylor believes that, ‘what we do with the information we collect and who owns it are the key questions facing smart cities’. The law has not always been particularly helpful in this area but it is difficult for any law to keep up with the speed of technological innovation – this is not a new problem.  However, regulatory certainty and confidence in technology are key… ‘.  In fact Vice President Ansip has highlighted ‘ownership and management of data flows, use and re-use of data, management and storage of data’ as issues that need to be addressed as we increasingly move towards the age of ‘big data’.[2]

Open-data initiatives such as those currently being trialled in Bristol and Manchester raise further issues of privacy and security. Whilst it is a laudable notion to make available data about city parking, planning and public services to the people who pay the taxes, there are questions over how this information will be structured and presented, how accurate it will be and for what purpose it might be reused. Mike Rawlinson of consultancy City ID who is working with Bristol on the Open-data initiative is concerned that smart cities may even hasten the end of democracy. [3] It is increasingly likely that future decisions will be made on the basis of data sets (where it is more difficult to apportion blame if anything goes wrong) rather than on public opinion or creative individual thinking.

Speaking at the Bristol Smart Cities event, Paul Wilson, Managing Director of Bristol is Open, claimed that in order to be truly smart, city planners should be asking the question, ‘why are we doing it?’. Wilson is an advocate of the citizen-led, ground-up approach and says that it is important to remember that ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should‘. Dan Hill, of urban innovators the Future Cities Catapult, would agree. Hill says that ‘Smart cities needs to answer the question, ‘How is it … materially going to affect the way people live, work, and play?”[4]   We would suggest that truly smart cities need to offer citizens something tangible, like a more efficient transport system and reduced commuting times. Smart cities should be driven by the genuine needs and wants of citizens and not the profit chasing agendas of businesses. 

It is clear that the Internet of Things has the potential to be an ‘enabler’: to achieve this it needs to focus on useful technology rather than an ever-increasing advancement of technology. It may even be that creatively re-thinking existing technology and infrastructure will benefit a city more than implementing better technology. This was aptly demonstrated by the citizen relief group, Occupy Sandy, who materialised in response to the devastating aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in New York City in October 2012. Using existing network capability and a creative redirection of Amazon’s commerce and infrastructure capabilities, these rank amateurs were able to monitor and respond to real-time need. They outperformed the official relief agencies that had significantly superior technology and resources at their disposal.[5]

One area where smart technology has the potential to improve everyday quality of life is transport.  Longer commutes waste time and money and the latest data analysis from the Annual Population Survey concludes that ‘all aspects of personal well-being are negatively affected by commuting’. It would appear that average happiness levels begin to fall and anxiety levels begin to rise after the first 15 minutes of the commute to work.[6]  Plans to improve the public transport network with smart ticketing systems, integration of inter-modal transport and greater information around availability and delays  with workaround solutions on offer are likely to have much support on the ground.  Passenger information can then also be used to ensure public transport can be directed where there is greatest demand.

As a country, we are also uniquely placed to embrace ground-breaking technologies like driverless vehicles which can already be legally tested on UK public roads. A review by the Department of Transport concluded that ‘the UK has one of the most welcoming regulatory environments for development of [driverless vehicle] technology anywhere in the world’.[7] Driverless vehicles have the potential to reduce commuter stress and increase productivity by allowing commuters to use travel time to work, socialise or relax.

The 2015 Budget document recognises that ‘to ensure that the UK can take advantage of [smart] technology, local areas will need to be empowered to make decisions, and collaborations will need to be built between cities, universities and business’. We need to go further than this and the challenge for today’s law-makers will be to ensure that useful innovation and data collection is pursued without compromising our right to privacy, and without allowing the individual voice to be overridden by any collective agenda.

In a recent article for The Guardian, Steven Poole asks whether citizens of smart cities will be regulated to the role of ‘unpaid data-clerk, voluntarily contributing information to an urban database that is monetised by private companies’.[8]  The recent Google case highlights the ways that companies can monetise information about an individual’s preferences through selling it to online advertisers to ensure that advertising is increasingly targeted. This puts the spotlight on big data analytics and reinforces the need for adequate privacy and cyber-security measures to be put in place in the design of our smart cities.

Emma Wright is a Partner at Bond Dickinson LLP:

Dianne Devlin is a Trainee Solicitor there.

[1] The Department for Business and Innovation Skills. The Smart City Market: Opportunities for the UK. October 2013.

[2] Turning Europe digital, preparing for future growth, Brussels, 14 April 2015 Speech by Vice-President Ansip at the European Policy Centre in Brussels


[3]   Quoted by Poole, Steven. The Truth About Smart Cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy’. The Guardian. 17 December 2014.

[4] Quoted by Poole, Steven. The Truth About Smart Cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy’. The Guardian. 17 December 2014.

[5] Adam Greenfield, The smartest cities rely on citizen cunning and unglamorous technology. The Guardian 22 December 2014.

[6] Office for National Statistics. Does commuting affect well-being? 12 February 2014.–2014/sty-commuting-and-well-being.html

[7] Department of Transport: The Pathway to Driverless Cars: Summary report and action plan, February 2015.

[8] Poole, Steven. The Truth About Smart Cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy’. The Guardian, 17 December 2014.