How to make the digital revolution a success for all

A recent joint ICE Thinks/Smart Energy GB breakfast roundtable was held at ICE HQ to discuss how to make the digital revolution a success and really engage the public in smart infrastructure.

Smart cities: engaged with the people that live there
Smart cities: engaged with the people that live there
  • Updated: 27 February 2017
  • Author: Jo Gonet, ICE Public Affairs Manager

The breakfast discussion was framed by ICE President Tim Broyd’s Presidential Address, Engineering a Digital Future, the lessons learned from the national smart meter rollout and Smart Energy GB’s REAL Ratio white paper, and the way that cities like Bristol deliver their digital transformation agenda.

It was held under the Chatham House Rule – so this is a non-attributable summary of the key issues raised.

A smarter overall agenda

Technology can make our cities more resilient, efficient, affordable and liveable. Stakeholders involved with shaping and driving the smart city revolution have a responsibility to ensure that digital technology transforms the way the UK designs and delivers infrastructure while at the same time improving people’s lives.

Smart infrastructure should be designed in way that is relevant to the lives of the citizen. Policymakers and industry need to then engage them in understanding how it transforms the often mundane challenges of everyday life.

The approach to the smart meter rollout has been built around creating empathy with the current consumer experience and explaining how that can change, delivering long-term behaviour change. It’s campaign that’s inclusive and allows us to speak to everyone while working through advocates and trusted voices.

Cities like Bristol have adopted a citizen-focused model for smart cities, with citizens helping to be part of the experiment – creating a ‘living laboratory’.

Engagement and trust is key

Adding value to everyday life is the goal and a smart city should seek to be engaging, communicable and designed for its citizens. It’s what we call ‘liveability’ – arguably one of the benefits of smart technology that speaks most to people.

The next step now is for industry and policymakers to agree which policies are achievable.

By educating people about the ultimate aim of technology like smart meters we are more likely to secure consumer acceptance, trust and confidence. This will require engagement at grassroots level to find out what issues people want to address through technology. In particular, technology has to be usable for the older generation.

There is also an argument to be made for more automated products that don’t require people to proactively engage. Ease and effortlessness when rolling out any new technology helps improve attitudes towards it.

However, if smart technology saves people money then why should they need to be encouraged or driven towards accepting it in their home? Why are individuals being asked to be more altruistic than companies? Trust is a key issue here.

A distinction also needs to be made between consumers and citizens. Consumers implies a more transactional relationship.

Data and integration

The current narrative around a lot of technology is negative. It’s frequently associated with security breaches, job losses and confusing complexity. There is a lack of public understanding and access to real data. Yet personal data is at the heart of changing technology. Data is beginning to exceled physical infrastructure in terms of value, yet the value of that data is still unrealised.

For example, for a city council, data on healthcare would ensure early intervention and help reduce costs.

The UK rail network and the train time app was cited as a good example of an ‘open data’ strategy. However there is as yet no standard way of structuring the data. Lessons need to be drawn from existing technology and a systems approach adopted.

Could a water meter rollout draw on the same technology as the smart meter rollout and ensure integration between the two, rather than having to use bespoke technology each time?

ICE’s forthcoming State of the Nation: Digital Transformation report will explore how we use both data and technology in the design, construction, use, maintenance and decommissioning of our infrastructure.

ICE Thinks is ICE’s thought leadership programme that brings together ground-breaking thinkers from across a range of sectors in order to identify the megatrends and disruptors that will have the biggest impact on future infrastructure design and delivery.

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