UK cities not as ‘smart’ as global counterparts

Sheffield University finds UK cities are not gaining benefits of new smart city initiatives due to lack of citizen engagement

Posted by Emily Hutton

Major cities in the UK are falling behind their international counterparts in their use of smart technologies, according to a new study from the University of Sheffield.

The research has found that smart cities in the UK, such as London, are not as advanced as leading smart cities across the globe, such as San Francisco, Barcelona and Amsterdam, because of a lack of citizen engagement with new smart technologies.

Smart and sustainable cities are built by utilising a set of advanced information and communication technologies – such as broadband networks, wireless sensors, cloud services and mobile apps – to generate radical new ‘smart’ services and facilities within a metropolitan area.

A recent report by the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills valued the smart cities industry at more than $400 billion globally by 2020, with the UK expected to receive a 10% share.

The research team, led by Dr Alex G.C. Peng from the University of Sheffield’s Information School, found that citizen engagement is severely affecting the rate at which British cities are becoming ‘smart’.

The Sheffield researchers specifically focused on London – one of the smartest cities in the UK – and its new smart parking service. The system aims to improve traffic congestion by helping drivers find a free parking space in the West End area, by using an app that is connected to sensors located within parking bays. The sensors provide data on whether each individual space is vacant or not, allowing drivers to see a real-time map of parking availability and be directed to an empty space.

Dr Peng, the study’s lead researcher, said: “Our study found that from more than 100 randomly selected people who regularly park their cars in London’s West End, 85% of them had never or very rarely heard about the service, and 70% said they know nothing or very little about the functions and usefulness of it.

“In addition, just over 78% of respondents said they never or rarely use the app to look for parking availability in the West End.

“These results show that the majority of citizens are not fully aware of the existence of this smart parking technology that has been available since 2012. As a consequence, and despite the substantial investment being made, citizens are not gaining the full benefits from this service.”  

The parking app in London was given the Parking Technology Award at the 2014 British Parking Awards, and the Innovation Award at the 2013 Tech Success Awards. It is an example of how ‘smart’ information and communication technologies can be used to improve the living experience of residents and visitors in cities throughout the world.

Research from the Sheffield team found that successful usage of the parking app could potentially bring substantial economic and environmental benefits to both the city, and Londoners.

Despite the low usage of the app at the moment, the research showed that those who used the service can save on average, more than seven minutes when looking for a parking space. This in turn can lead to an average saving of £30 worth of fuel (24 litres of petrol) and reduce CO2 emissions by 62.5kg per driver per year.

At city level, a smart parking system could help London save £266 million worth of petrol per year and reduce its annual CO2 emissions by 505,000 tons.

Dr Peng added: “Smart technologies such as the parking app in London have huge potential to improve everyday life within cities. At the moment the major barrier to deploying these technologies and pushing British cities into the next technological generation, is a lack of citizen engagement.

“In San Francisco for example, their use of smart parking has led to a 30% reduction in both vehicle miles travelled and greenhouse gas emissions from cars circling.

“Overall, the technologies to enable British cities to become truly smart already exist, but citizen engagement with these services will determine whether the promise of smart cities can finally become realistic. This issue does not just exist in the UK, in fact, there is increasing evidence to show that this is a crucial challenge affecting the success of smart city initiatives worldwide.”

Technologies such as London’s parking space-finder app can help people save significant amounts of money, fuel and help to reduce CO2 emissions.

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