by 2050, more than two thirds of the global population will be city dwellers


Cities are getting more and more crowded. One of the most widely quoted estimates is that by 2050, more than two-thirds of the global population will be city dwellers – a level of urbanisation already surpassed in the developed world – and obviously presents many challenges.

So the question government and local authorities now face is how to address these problems in a climate of budget cuts?

Enter “Smart Cities”.

This was the theme of the annual Civil Service Digital & Tech Conference that I attended in July. Speakers from UCL to Siemens, the Greater London Authority to Cisco brought life potential uses of sensors, energy management systems, autonomous cars, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, big data and much more – to improve cities and the quality of life of those who live in them.

The agenda included a mini-hackathon, encouraging us to come up with ideas on how we could harness “smart” technology to tackle some of the issues government faces. In groups of 6 we had 40 minutes to put together a pitch of our solution to one of the following problems:

  • Preventing and preparing for flooding
  • Supporting and solving homelessness
  • Collaboration across local government

(The last a nod to the lack of communication and collaboration across government that so often hinders effective use of technological advances.)

The groups were encouraged to focus on unmet needs and work together to consider how these might be solved. The groups then presented their ideas to a panel of judges. This exercise brought out some incredible ideas, for example:

  • Intelligent Drains
  • Need: drains need to effectively clear streets during high rainfall to avoid flooding
  • Solution: sensors monitor drains across cities allowing any issues, blockages or overflow, to be detected and managed in real time, preferably by a computer system that can determine the appropriate course of action based on data

2) Address as a Service

  • Need: homeless people need an address to access services and not having one perpetuates their problems
  • Solution: the homeless can sign up to a verified, state recognised the virtual address, which they can use when signing up to a whole host of things such as GP services, unemployment benefits, or a bank account

3) LoGov

  • Need: local authorities need to know what others are working on to share information, and reduce duplication of work
  • Solution: like departments in so many private sector companies, employ a project management tool that all government departments use allowing sight of each other’s projects and a central store of data

The success of this hackathon was in finding ways to harness the creativity of the individuals participating, starting from needs and encouraging groups to collaborate in producing new ideas  – something that should be replicated across government and business.

These inspirational ideas, of course, come with their own set of issues which must be addressed.

So much relies on high-quality, well-analysed data to power the “smart” technology and data privacy has long been the counter-argument to advances at the macro/governmental level. The emphasis should be on collecting, processing and sharing the absolute minimum personal data required for the service. The citizen should understand the ways their data is being used, give consent for its use, and have the ability to retract that consent at any time.

This is no easy task. It could take the form of an online personal data portal but this assumes an advanced level of digital literacy, and understanding of data privacy that will certainly exclude some people. Private sector adoption of technology to reduce costs may go some way to bridging the digital divide. Services might soon have no human element, for example, restaurants could use technology to replace the waiter, reducing labour costs and ultimately prices. Human interactions could even become a luxury item, reserved for those willing to pay extra for it.

In the meantime, the government must continue to serve the less savvy, the cautious, the reluctant (and the conspiracy theorist).  The government will increasingly find themselves offering improved, efficient services only to those digitally confident enough to use them. This might result in the disadvantaged using second-rate services, which could potentially worsen inequality. The government must avoid this and find ways to ensure that the people are as “smart” as their cities.


Alice is on secondment to Inzenka from the Civil Service Fast Stream, specialising in Digital and Technology. She has previously worked at the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice, and Department for Work and Pensions, with experience ranging from in cyber security, to digital strategy, and improving data sharing across government.