Technology in the Town
Technology in the Town Report – Just as technology in our homes and workplaces is changing the way we live and do our jobs, it is also transforming the villages, towns and cities around us. Faster, more reliable mobile coverage, full fibre broadband and the Internet of Things are not only changing how we interact with our public services, but the very fundamentals of how they operate. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is making it easier and cheaper for decision makers to deliver responsive, high quality services to residents and businesses across the UK. Whether it is CCTV that also measures congestion and pollution, street lights that automatically adapt to the weather, or bins that announce when they need emptying, avoiding unnecessary collections, new technologies are making an impact. Anne Sheehan, Enterprise Director, Vodafone.
Technology in the Town report explores the role that Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies can play in improving the UK’s urban areas and local public services. It is the third in a series of SMF reports on 4IR, following our 2018 reports on the use of 4IR in the home and the workplace.
4IR refers to the latest technologies which are building on the digital revolution that commenced in the second half of the 20th Century. This includes internet-connected household appliances (“the internet of things”), driverless cars, big data, robotics and artificial intelligence.
Many communities find themselves in a challenging set of circumstances in 21st century Britain. While local government finances remain under strain after years of fiscal austerity, local authorities are under significant pressure to address a wide range of issues. This includes air pollution, light pollution, congestion, waste and other local-level environmental issues.
- Local government finances remain under pressure. Local government has been running a fiscal deficit almost constantly for the past two decades.
- Local transport infrastructure will struggle as the number of cars on the road is set to increase. Across England and Wales, the proportion of roads that are heavily congested in the morning peak is set to increase from 11% in 2015 to 17% by 2050.
- UK roads are in poor shape. 905,000 potholes were reported on UK roads in the 2017/18 fiscal year, costing councils on average £169 each to address.
- Local government is struggling to address environmental concerns, including the need to improve household recycling rates. While 64.5% of household waste was recycled, reused or composted in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 2017/18, just 14.1% of waste in the London borough of Newham was.
- Growing populations will place pressure on local community infrastructure, to a varying degree across the country. Benefits of 4IR in local government The Fourth Industrial Revolution can address a number of the challenges outlined above.
Technology in the Town Benefits Outlined:
- Saving money and reducing light pollution with smart street lighting. Smart street lighting is currently being explored as a way of reducing light pollution, generating financial savings and offering other benefits to local government.
- A recycling revolution with smart bins. This includes bins fitted with fill-sensors, identifying when they require emptying. Smart bins have also been developed which automatically sort recyclable and unrecyclable waste.
- Improved road quality via the use of road-repairing drones which can detect potholes and are fitted with 3D printers which are able to spray asphalt into potholes. In addition, telematic boxes and cameras fitted to cars can detect potholes and notify highway maintenance authorities about repair needs.
- Autonomous public transport. In Singapore, there are plans to introduce driverless buses on its public roads by 2022.
- Smarter road pricing and parking charges which encourage individuals to travel into urban areas when traffic is less congested.
- The ability to rethink planning and urban spaces. For example, increasing proportions of inner-city land can be devoted to housing as retail increasingly shifts from being store based to web-based. Shared smart town/city data (for example on footfall) can help businesses decide where to locate, as well as their opening hours. Challenges in realising these benefits While 4IR brings with it a wide range of opportunities for local government, realising these benefits is not without its challenges.
Technology in the Town Includes:
- Financing challenges. 4IR has the potential to offer significant improvements and cash savings for local government, but in several instances there may be significant upfront costs and infrastructure requirements.
- Public concerns. For example, recent news stories have raised concerns about “spying bins and cars” with respect to smart, internet-connected technologies.
- A shortage of digital skills in local government. In its 2014/15 workforce survey, the Local Government Association found that over two thirds (68%) of local authorities in England had a capability or capacity gap in terms of supporting digitisation.
- The potential for 4IR to create and exacerbate economic and social problems in local communities. For example, the decline of high street retail could erode receipts from business rates and parking charges, and isolate the digitally excluded.
The Role for Policymakers:
The Technology in the Town Report sets out three practical policy recommendations that we believe could encourage more widespread use of 4IR technologies across local communities in the UK – creating a wave of “smart cities” and even “smart towns”:
- Create a local government “4IR innovation fund” to incentivise the rollout of 4IR technologies such as smart street lighting, drones, autonomous public transport and SOCIAL MARKET FOUNDATION 8 smart bins, and to help build an evidence base on the long-term financial benefits of such technologies.
- Explore the role that outcome-based contracts could play in encouraging private sector providers of outsourced services to roll out new technologies. Under outcome-based contracts, service providers are paid according to the outcomes they deliver, rather than the means with which they reach such outcomes. In the case of waste collection, for example, service providers could be paid to ensure that bins are never overfull. Under outcomes-based contracts, waste collecting firms might be incentivised to roll out bin-fill sensors and only empty bins on an as-needed basis, as a way of saving money.
- Dynamic road and parking charges, and new smart bin collection charges, should either operate on a largely revenue-neutral basis, or in a way that generates clear, tangible benefits to households and businesses. A carrot rather than a stick-based approach to dynamic pricing might be most acceptable to the public. For example, households that produce less waste or recycle more could be awarded some form of Council Tax rebate.