"London is and works hard to remain a smart city." That's according to Mayor of London's office, which, in the same digital breath, boasts that "London's tech market is the largest in Europe. There are 40,000 digital businesses and 200,000 employees in London's technology sector."
Do those statistics help qualify London as a smart city?
According to the European Commission, smart cities are characterized by factors such as sustainability, economic development and a high quality of life. Enhancing these factors, it says, can be achieved through infrastructure (physical capital), human capital and social capital. For the Commission, ICT infrastructure is top of mind in delivering the right equation.
How much of a smart city is London?
Andrew Lee, head of market intelligence and analysis at insurance and automotive systems firm Octo Telematics, says: "By all accounts, London already has a number of smart city characteristics, through data storing and management, innovative transport, digital money, reuse of waste heat and other areas. The biggest challenge is related to sustainability, in which London has plans towards improving, with projects such as the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ)."
Andrew Lee at Octo Telematics believes London is lagging behind many other major European cities in terms of its smart city commitments.
The London Mayor and Transport for London have set out how the taxi and private hire trades will play their part in improving London's air quality when the world's first Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is introduced in the capital in 2020. From 1 January 2018, all taxis licensed for the first time must be zero emission capable, while new diesel taxis will not be allowed in London.
But, maintains Lee, London is still "lagging behind" cities such as Amsterdam, Brussels and Madrid on its smart city commitments.
Controlling the crowds
Digital consultancy IRM (Interactive Rights Management) is working with a number of European cities and cultural bodies on exploiting apps and other technology to manage tourist movements to control crowds and avoid crushes. It does this with the help of data from transport authorities, police, museums, retailers and other sources. It has its own ideas on the challenge London faces in becoming a true smart city.
Megan Goodwin, director of IRM, says: "London has massive challenges on the route to becoming truly 'smart': Its size; its complexity; the age of much of its historic centre; the crowds of tourists, commuters and Londoners; the traffic; and the competing demands of the different companies that operate in it.
"It would be a lot easier if it were a new city, like the ones being built out in the Middle East or the Far East, or if it were a smaller European city like Copenhagen or Barcelona – still historic, but compact."
London faces massive challenges on the route to becoming truly 'smart,' according to Interactive Rights Management (IRM) director Megan Goodwin.
So how can we make a city the size and complexity of London 'smart'? One way is to try and do it "bottom up rather than top down," says Goodwin. You therefore have to look for smaller problems that can be solved with the intelligent use of data, she says, and start building your smart city from lots of different elements.
Alternatively, you can crowdsource your ideas -- throw the challenge open to people who live in and use the city and ask them what's bugging them, Goodwin says, and look at how intelligent use of data can solve their problems.
Various cities and national governments have done just that, she says, including London. The winning idea in London's Venturespring Smart City Challenge last year was a smart sat-nav enabled bicycle bell, Blubel, that should be launching soon. Blubel collects information from other cycle users to build up a "living map" of how to get around the city, which non-cyclists would perhaps view as one of those smaller problems mentioned.
Goodwin adds: "If you really want to create a smart city, then you have to build apps and websites that deliver real value, not just for the companies that are based there, but also for the people who live and work there or who visit for fun."
IRM is also looking at how "nudge theory" can be used to get people to change their plans for the better by offering them incentives and rewards. For example, if you've got big queues to see a world-famous painting or sculpture, attendees could be sent a two-for-one deal on coffee to their mobiles so they spend a while in the café until the crowds die down.
Dealing with legacy systems
Andrew Lee says a big reason London is behind others on the smart front is having to deal with legacy systems.
"The key reason for hold-ups is linked to legacy technology," says Lee. "Unlike younger cities, London has already invested in infrastructure that is heavily utilised. This means the challenge behind re-investment in new updated systems and switching existing users is significant. But younger cities, like Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, are being built from the ground up with sustainability and efficient ICT infrastructure in mind, therefore avoiding the problems London has."
He does however applaud some progress made by the Smart London Board, a collective of technology companies, other corporates and academics, which works with the London mayor's office to make the capital's use of technology smarter.
Lee says: "The Smart London Board has made incremental steps towards advancing London's smart city status. For example, tech investments continue and the use of digital continues to grow throughout the capital." But he points out that as the board is mainly made up of large corporations, suggestions, investment and strategies will usually have to be in line with their own underlining strategy, which may or not be to everyone's liking.
Mapping London's progress
The Ordnance Survey (OS) organisation is rather more bullish about matters though. The OS is developing a planning tool for the roll-out of 5G mobile networks in London, is also the project lead in determining if connected automated vehicles can operate on British roads (and, if so, how) and is also contributing to the development of the European Union's Smart City standards.
An OS spokesman says: "You could argue that nobody knows Great Britain better than we do, so we are extremely well placed to comment on London's smart city ambitions. We disagree that London is lagging behind other countries in the world."
He says: "London has an integrated transport system, great tools like the infrastructure map [an interactive tool that lets users explore current and future infrastructure projects], and a thriving entrepreneur base which enables an accountable mayor to make a real difference for London. And from what we have learnt so far in developing our 5G mobile planning tool, dense urban areas like London are ideal for high frequency mmWave [millimetre wave] deployments, which will help improve things further."
The progress of London in becoming a truly smart city is clearly measured in different ways by different people and organisations. But if London wants to become a true world-beater, it will probably have to try quite a bit harder.
— Antony Savvas, contributing editor, TechX365