Councils ‘need legal framework’ for smart places contracts

NLGN report says central government should create framework and support research, but local authorities have to take lead in policy principles and practical guidance in using smart technology

Local authorities need a stronger legal framework for contracts to support the development of smart places, according to a local government think tank.

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) has proposed the idea in a report, Tomorrow’s Places, that it has published in association with energy company Engie.

Illustration: pattern over picture of townWhile highlighting most of the frequently identified benefits of smart places, it makes the point that councils have generally been slow to invest because of the more immediate pressures to make ends meet when finances are very tight. In the current climate smart technologies are regarded as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a necessity, and most councils lack the time and expertise to make use of them.

There are also worries about the use of personal data, but the report says there has to be an effort to overcome the challenges for authorities to make better use of resources in the long term.

It throws some of the emphasis onto central government’s role, calling on it to create a legal framework to support public contracts to mandate the interoperability of hardware for smart places. This, it claims, would create an equal playing field for the creators and purchasers of the new technologies.

It also says central government should support research on giving people more control over their personal data history – an important factor as the array of devices used in smart places generates growing volumes of data – and resolve any tensions between the General Data Protection Regulation and the Digital Economy Bill. Some observers have argued that there is a contradiction between the two around the fundamental attitudes towards data sharing.

Local responsibilities

Local government also needs to take a share of the responsibility, the report says. Among its recommendations are that councils develop new relationships with providers and create incentives for the public to change behaviour.

It identifies a need for local authorities to join forces in establishing an inventory of the data available, and to work towards more openness in its collection and analysis. This can lead to the creation of platforms for people take part in making decisions about investment in smart places.

Councils should also establish a set of policy principles and practical guidance for the effort, with simplified language and processes, and taking in data management, privacy and interoperability.

All of this can give them the chance to deliver more with less while increasing public trust and engagement, the report says.

Abigail Gilbert, researcher at NLGN, said: “As social innovation has met technological innovation, the ‘smart cities’ market has changed.

“Technologies such as blockchain, sensors, apps and drones have the potential to go beyond glamour and efficiency rationales for new technology, and allow for genuinely radical outcomes: empowering service users, making them more independent; opening up decision making to make it more democratic; and building more connected communities, to reduce isolation.

“Councils can be in the driving seat, ensuring these benefits are delivered through their collaboration and commissioning practices.”

Image: Report cover (modified) from NLGN