Devolution and sustainability - laws need updating if cities to become Smarter

by Simon Hobday. Published Tue 23 Jun 2015 10:43

What do you call a smart city that isn’t sustainable? A city.

Smart cities that aren’t sustainable won’t be smart cities. Every progressive planning project from Port Sunlight to the garden cities of the mid-twentieth century has had sustainability at its heart, and the smart cities that are currently the focus of so much debate are no different.

But you only have to look at the jumble of regulation and practices relating to sustainability currently to realise that the developers of smart cities are going to have their work cut out. It feels a little too obvious to say that we need a consistent, well-thought-out approach that enables and links both sustainability and smart cities - but that’s exactly what we haven’t got.

Of course, a lot of things are happening around smart cities and sustainability more widely but the issue is that much of the approach to smart sustainability in new developments is happening despite the regulatory framework rather than because of it. For example, we all know that when it comes to technology, the law is playing catch-up. Even recently made laws can age very quickly compared to the rapid development of today’s technology. But the biggest problem is the huge statute book of laws which were passed before anyone had even thought of computers being able to communicate seamlessly with each other in real time, let alone anything approaching an Internet of Things. That puts a huge brake on the implementation of the technology and the business models and approaches that will underpin sustainability in smart cities.

As if that wasn’t enough, we also have to contend with the fact that many governments don’t really understand disruptive technologies or how to encourage their use. Dan Byles of Living PlanIT, made this exact point at one of our recent smart cities events, when he highlighted that governments often ask the very businesses that will be affected by disruptive technologies to roll them out.

Last but not least, we can’t even get agreement on how to incentivise sustainable developments. The power of the near zero marginal cost transaction to change business models and approaches is enormous - but while it is embraced by some, many are struggling or unwilling to understand the power of the new dynamic and the threats and opportunities it will give rise to.

But if those are the problems, what is the solution? Clearly, we need a more thoughtful approach. The good news is that people are starting to take a step back and think about sustainability in an intelligent and smart way when looking at how to redevelop new districts and cities. The right solution for a particular city or district should be driven by the conditions relevant to that city or district and its citizens.

In short, what we need is smart regulation for smart cities. That means setting up regulatory frameworks that enable new technology or sustainable approaches to the world of smart, rather than prescribing what must happen. If you have an enabling framework, it allows new things to develop. It naturally flows. If you prescribe, you're going to block innovation and quite rapidly be out of date on the technology created with a sustainability approach.

In the world of smart cities nothing happens in isolation. There is a huge need right now for governments to work with the developers of sustainable and smart city technologies and citizens to build a common understanding.

Simon Hobday is a partner specialising in the commercial and regulatory energy sector at Osborne Clarke

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