Five ways to maximise the impact of your smart city project

Joanne Horrigan, Head of Renewables and Smart Cities at Enzen, a global knowledge enterprise which specialises in making energy and water more accessible, affordable and sustainable for all.

Change is coming. Smart cities are the future. How do we ensure a collective approach to smart cities that does the best by UK citizens and their tax pounds? Here are five essential steps you must take:

1. Understand ’smart’

Everyone’s definition of a smart city is different. As such, it can’t be quantified. It’s perhaps more useful to look at is as a progression; a journey to improve urban experiences for citizens through the use of technology, and to limit our carbon footprint by being intelligent about how we use the environment.

It’s therefore more accurate to say a smart city is an ethos. However, this ethos still requires direction if it is to become a reality.

From the start, you need to be specific. Smart is an ambition, but what does that exactly mean in your project’s context? What are the goals you’re working towards? For example, do you wish to:

  • improve local air quality
  • ease congestion with smart traffic routing
  • facilitate the Electric Vehicle (EV) revolution
  • increase uptake of green heating systems and renewable energy
  • monitor flood threats?

These often overlap. For example, EVs can contribute to cleaner air, but so can easing congestion. Being clear on your goals from the outset can prevent enthusiastic project managers jumping in too fast and allow them to align all relevant stakeholders as required.

If you’re looking to solve air quality with EV charging, you’ll need the local power Distribution Network Operator (DNO) on board. If you’re focusing on cycling, this isn’t so critical.  

Any smart project requires a measured, integrated approach to deliver the best outcomes and most sustainable solution. This is especially critical if you’re incorporating renewables to support the generation of clean energy.

2. Create an achievable Roadmap

As with any project, you can achieve greater impact by breaking the task down into smaller work packages. It may seem like a paradox: the whole point of a smart city is to benefit from joined-up thinking and systems using planning that sees the big picture, but to get where you want to be, you need to break down your ambitions.

Instead of smart cities, we advocate planners start by thinking about smart districts. It’s easy for a city-scale project to get bogged down by disparate and diffuse projects dotted around a city, but a district is more manageable. A smart district looks at major developments happening in one place and considers how to take a smart, joined-up approach at that scale.

Once several such districts have been completed, then it’s time to start thinking about aligning them at town or city-scale. The key to this approach is to remain independent, choosing technology and platforms that will enable future integration with open protocols. 

There is also a need to think big picture and allow for the future development of core infrastructure. The development of the EV market is a good example for this approach.  Investing in future-proof city solutions is key.

 3. Identify the greatest impact opportunity

What sort of scenarios are suitable for smart district projects? Transforming half a town or city is too big to be manageable, while smart street lighting on a handful of residential roads is probably too small to yield noteworthy benefits.

Look for spots where major change is already being scoped. Good examples are where a new transport hub is being proposed or in the early stages of planning, such as a new train station or motorway. Other good opportunities are major projects such as stadia, which by virtue of their size, can’t help but effect the surrounding area.

When there are already large-scale works in the pipeline or planned, it’s easier to incorporate smart district ambitions and secure agreement from different stakeholder groups. For example, if a new arena is already set to be built, the added disruption of upgrading the local power grid for EVs may be negligible. The same may apply for upgrading street lighting and adding solar assets.

4. Clearly articulate the benefits

Communication is key. If you can articulate and sell the benefits to affected stakeholders then you can reap multiple rewards. It allows stakeholders, whether they be local decision makers or the general public, to understand the path you’re taking and help them realise benefits of their own.

A good example of this is the post-Covid recovery. The pandemic has caused everyone to take a step back and re-examine how we can build a more sustainable, fairer future – one that holistically tackles issues of climate change, transport, local food, circular economy and inequalities of all types.

Smart projects have an integral role to play in this and it’s important to communicate their advantages to local authorities. Make it a priority to engage with those leading the recovery and show them how your contribution can help achieve their ambitions and create a more sustainable future for communities.

5. What to do next

The four steps above can go a long way to de-risking and getting the best return from a smart district project. But they’re not easy, and the fact remains these projects are complex and difficult by nature.

The fifth and final step is to work with a partner to achieve smart districts success. By collaborating with independent, impartial experts in this space, you’ll develop a customised, end-to-end solution to map your net zero journey.

Ultimately, any successful venture or project needs passion. At Enzen, we’re passionate about the power of collaboration and innovation to improve quality of life for local communities and leave a cleaner planet for future generations. These, more than anything, are the ultimate benchmarks of smart districts success.

If you’d like to know more about how we can help you achieve long-term value, discuss your project today.