Future City Glasgow: successes, challenges and legacy

In 2013, Glasgow City Council won £24 million worth of funding from Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) that would see the city become a ‘living lab’ for smart city projects.

Although Glasgow has been more synonymous with low life expectancies (the so called ‘Glasgow Effect’) and urban deprivation, the funding was intended to transform Glasgow into a world leading smart city, with the technologies piloted by Glasgow eventually being used in other cities.

The projects proposed by Glasgow City Council were designed to explore innovative ways to use technology and data to make the city ‘safer, smarter and more sustainable’.

However, three years on, with the majority of the work complete, has the programme been a success?

Managing a future city

From the beginning, Future City Glasgow set out an ambitious programme for change. However, it wasn’t just the experimental nature of the technologies or implementing them in such a short space of time which caused challenges. The programme also had an important role to play in the security of the 2014 Commonwealth Games – a major international event for the city.

Just under half of the programme’s funding was spent on a new state-of-the-art Operations Centre,  integrating traffic and public safety management systems, and bringing together public space CCTV, security for the city council’s museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence.

Although this has required significant investment, the centre has enabled Glasgow to take a ‘proactive’ approach to traffic management and public safety. Video analytics tools, for example, provide operation centre operators with better information to help respond to emerging events. And traffic operators have control over the city’s signalling, allowing them to prioritise late-running public transport. CCTV cameras have also been upgraded to full HD, providing better images for operators and an important source of evidence for Police Scotland.

Demonstrator projects

A major part of Future City Glasgow’s work has been introducing a number of demonstrator projects. According to Gary Walker, programme director at Future City Glasgow, these focus on four main themes: energy; active travel (encouraging people to walk and cycle); public safety; and transport. Some of the most notable projects, include:

  • Intelligent street lighting – the Riverside Walkway has lighting which switches on when people walk by, and Gordon Street has lighting which provides real time data on noise levels, footfall, and air pollution.
  • Sensor technology in retrofitting – low cost sensors (the BuildAx and the Eltek GC-05) have been deployed in buildings throughout Glasgow to evaluate the impact of insulation projects.
  • The Glasgow Cycling App – an easy to use platform has been created to encourage cyclists to share their experiences of cycling and to generate data that could help citizens plan journeys or highlight areas the council should target for improvement.

The challenge of data

Much of Future City Glasgow has been underpinned by data sharing – including traffic data gathered by the Operations Centre and citizen-generated data from the Glasgow Cycling App.

However, ‘freeing’ this data proved challenging, as sharing data went against the traditional working culture of local government. As Gary Walker explained to the Guardian newspaper:

“Change can be challenging – especially when you are driving something that appears to contradict everything you’ve had drummed into you for years. Initially, organisations were nervous when we asked them to release their data because people know they must protect it. But once they realised that we were not asking for sensitive or personal data they began to relax a little and appreciate the value in creating a data hub.”

After some awareness raising and reassurance, the Glasgow Data Launchpad, a publicly available repository for the city’s data, now has over 400 datasets from 60 organisations, including Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Life (which delivers cultural, sporting and learning activities on behalf of Glasgow City Council), and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Looking to the future

As Gary Walker noted at a recent Smart Cities event, Future City Glasgow has received a lot of international interest. The programme has also won a number of awards, including:

  • Winner – Geospatial World Excellence Awards 2015
  • Winner – NextGen Digital Challenge (Digital Innovation) 2015
  • Winner – Holyrood Connect ICT (Innovation) 2015

However, it’s important that the city doesn’t become complacent and continues to progress with smart city initiatives. Alan Robertson, in an article for Holyrood magazine, suggests that financial pressures facing local councils may put initiatives in jeopardy. For instance, he highlights that Glasgow City Council leader Frank McAveety has warned that the city faces “impossible budget cuts”.

There are, however, some positive signs that work will continue. Last year, the Scottish Government introduced Smart Cities Scotland, a new programme which aims to make Scotland’s cities more efficient and greener, and more attractive to potential investors. The programme received £10 million in European funding and will involve a collaboration between Scotland’s seven cities and the Scottish Government.

Final thoughts

Future City Glasgow has had many successes since it was launched three years ago. Although Smart Cities Scotland promises less funding, Future Cities Glasgow has provided the smart city infrastructure capable of supporting new projects.

In terms of driving growth, it will also be interesting to see how Glasgow City Council responds to new forces within future cities, including disruptive business models and technologies, such as controversial tech companies Uber and Airbnb.

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