Smart: not just for cities. But most councils 'lack skills to implement smart services'

Local Digital Smart Places TodayOverall, 'smart cities' strategies and techniques are just as applicable to suburban and rural areas and across whole regions, as to urban areas, finds Local Digital's Smart Places Today. However, most local authorities currently lack the skills and capacity to implement 'smart services' in their areas.

For example, states the report, Smart transport makes sense in a city area: but it also makes sense across remote areas where more responsive transport services might save long miles of wasted travel, or smart care dictate more cost-effective location of hospitals and clinics.

The research, which aimed to assess the benefits and potential for 'smart' places, not just 'smart cities', found that the capacity to implement smart technologies is only in place in 15.2% of local public service bodies, though 45.7% have plans to address the gap.

"Without the right skills to innovate, the public sector will be unable to take full advantage of the cost efficiencies available from better - and smarter - ways of delivering modern services," the report finds.

Any skills crisis could be exacerbated by the fact that the smart cities and smart services field is rapidly expanding, with the proportion of technology budget spending on smart services predicted to more than double over the next three years from 5% to 12%, according to the report.

When it comes to defining the elements constituting smart service design, key features cited include big data handling and analysis; embedded sensors; open data; and smart working within organisations. However in all these areas, further gaps appear between plans and live activity, the survey finds.

About three-quarters of respondents (75.8%) feel that big data handling to address complex challenges - from transport to social care - is a key part of smart services. However only about one in five (19.4%) report current activity, though half (46.8%) are working to introduce it.

The emerging creation of an 'Internet of Things' - the embedding of sensors in public infrastructure from utility pipes to driverless cars - was seen by almost all those we surveyed as essential for smart service development. However there is little implementation to date - just 11.6% report already having sensors embedded, while just under one third are working on it (30.2%) or at the planning stage (30.2%). There is more progress with creation or promotion of smart buildings however, with almost two-thirds (65.3%) either implementing (19.6%) or working on (45.7%) these.

When it comes to open data, current activity figures are far stronger. Some 68.2% of respondents say they either already publish (29.8%) or are working on publishing (38.3%) all possible data sets they hold, the survey finds.

There is also a fair amount of current activity in the field of smart working - application of flexible and live digital management techniques within organisations - the survey finds. Nearly four-fifths of respondents (78.7%) reported either having front and back office system integration already in place, or said that it was in development.

"Smart working inside local service organisations is needed to tie in with smart service provision to those outside: so this is an encouraging finding," states the report. "It is likely that progress levels are so high here because front and back office integration has been seen for some time now as a key way of generating budget efficiencies."

Another area of shortfall came in the area of engaging citizens in decision-making - an aspect of smart services seen as important to ensuring continuous improvement and citizen focus. Fewer than one in five of respondents (17.5%) say they have successfully engaged citizens in decision-making processes, though most (57.9%) say they are working on this.

"A figure of 17.5% is clearly too low: if citizens are not engaged in deciding how smart services are run, how can those services be designed to fully meet citizens' needs?" says the report.

'Smart Places Today' was commissioned by the Department for Communities & Local Government's Local Digital Campaign, researched, written and published by UKAuthority with support from Microsoft UK.

Follow the links below to read about our current series of discussion programmes on 'smart services':

'Smart cities' or just the future of services?
http://www.ukauthority.com/local-digital-news-blog/entry/5153/smart-cities-or-just-the-future-of-services

Behind the scenes, 'smart' services; day-to-day, people resolving issues
http://www.ukauthority.com/local-digital-news-blog/entry/5216/behind-the-scenes-smart-services-day-to-day-people-resolving-issues

Building the foundations for 'smart' services
http://www.ukauthority.com/local-digital-news-blog/entry/5220/building-the-foundations-for-smart-services

Copies of the report will be available w/c 23rd March. To pre-order your copy (free to the public sector) contact: research@localdigitalcampaign.com