Tim Cowen spoke at the ICF Global Summit Smart Cities event on Tuesday 5th June which was organised by the Digital Policy Alliance. In addition to the All Party Parliamentary Select Committee report on issues to be addressed, three main issues also appear to be important when cities are looking to become smarter.
The first is the focus on defining scope in technology contracts. Government and local authorities traditionally specify their goals, rather than the process by which those goals are achieved. Moreover, politicians can then place themselves under unwanted public scrutiny if they define precise and tight goals in terms of deliverables, such as are typical in tech contracts. To avoid this risk they may then be tempted to avoid tight scope and deliverable definition in contracts in order to avoid the public opprobrium that could arise if the deliverables are missed. This political risk encourages vaguer definitions, which causes contractual problems and then failure of delivery of contracts as miscommunication ensues. In order to address this issue, the political risk can be mitigated if an iterative process is adopted, taking the politics out of the procurement process. Using a “Requirements Specification Process” (“RSP”), rather than a simple contracting process, can help solve this problem.
The second is the overlapping issue that local authorities and city organisations are not experts in what technology can provide and what the cost and benefits could be. This is a perennial issue as the current process of working and approach to solving local authority or government delivery of services is often grounded in existing ways of working based on old technology. The delivery of smarter cities may then challenge existing working practices and culture. For example, a solution to administrative activity for smart cities could involve authorities taking on smarter or more agile working practices. This may require greater home working underpinned by a different technology mix – something that may be welcomed by those wanting more time on non-work activity such as childcare or family time – but which can also be controversial and needs to be thought through and the project carefully managed.
Another example could be the potential service improvements and cost-savings which can be brought about by cloud computing – but cloud computing solutions may in turn require higher-speed connections that are in the wrong budget or controlled by a different department from the lead for the authority’s service/tech solutions. Where the benefits of innovation are not known, or the cost and risk not understood, the need for the new solutions and the proper infrastructure needed to run them may not be recognised in different places in the government departments involved.
Common practical hurdles to such innovation include:
• Outputs and deliverables in contracts are often defined by reference to history; the question asked is often “what do we do today?” where it should be “what could be done?”.
• Lack of knowledge about what is technically possible from a range of different suppliers.
• Risk of technology lock-in to a particular generation of technology and type of system that can quickly become outdated.
• Knowledge of technical capability and cost and risk of delivery and implementation may be mis defined.
• Budget cycle; authorities budget definitions may undermine new technology that is difficult to pigeon-hole.
• Moreover, in approaching contracting for use of assets, many government bodies put an unnecessarily high level of risk onto suppliers. This discourages private-sector suppliers from entering into such contracts, which negatively impacts upon the likelihood of smarter cities being developed.
To address all of the above a RSP can be used as a first step. A RSP would enable political risk to be avoided, ensure the practical difficulties identified are taken care of, allow more knowledgeable solutions to be identified, and communicate more fully the benefits across different departmental or authority internal boundaries through an iterative approach, allowing truly smart and future-proofed solutions to be deployed.
The third issue Tim suggested is current limitations on the use of assets. Increasingly the government has assets but doesn’t appreciate them as such. For example it may have rooftops or ducts that are very useful for 5G roll out and which may be vital for the wider adoption of multiple Internet of Things solutions. Such assets are critical to next generation wireless and fixed operators in their deployment of solutions to meet smarter city needs. How they can be used needs to be thoughy through. At one end of the list of alternatives would be pricing to market today – getting a high short-term return. At the other end would be long-term leasing allowing for a longer term revenue stream, but one that has greater assurance and one that would, potentially over time, be able to facilitate smarter solutions more generally and be worth more in terms of smarter cities and benefits to local communities than a short-term approach. Much depends on choices that are made by government bodies before contracts are let. For example, local authorities could encourage more widespread use of Internet of Things applications across a city from broad uses for the rooftops on authority-owned buildings by offering them on long-term leases at low cost, which allow for better investment certainty, lower short term returns but greater usage and higher overall income rather than taking a short-term pricing approach for the stand alone rooftop asset.
A combination of short- and longer-term requirements can be identified today without too much crystal ball gazing. Many varieties of contract are probably needed with long-term infrastructure such as fibre being something that can be contracted on a long-term basis, and, similarly, government bodies could also have a short-term contracting approach toward applications that are likely to go out of date more swiftly.
Tim will be speaking at Connected Britain on technology regulatory policy on Tuesday 19 June 2018.