Sim Cities: The Future of the Connected City

This article originally appeared in the March edition of our quarterly magazine. To get the full experience, you can read the issue online here, or subscribe to receive a physical copy here.

Aspire Imaging - Loka Bus Ads Norwich-00027The idea of the smart city has been increasingly in the news in the past few years, as the same principles that enable us to connect to our homes and cars are applied across large areas, and NFC tags and Bluetooth beacons are deployed in ever larger numbers to create a web of sensors covering our cities.

But while a retailer, restaurant chain or car manufacturer can decide to deploy technology like this relatively easily, creating a smart city means balancing the concerns of citizens, multiple businesses, local authorities and technology providers, all while working within what are often much tighter budget controls, and with much stricter oversight.

While it’s easy to think of London as the be-all and end-all of tech development in England, the size of the capital means that putting this kind of city-wide endeavour in place is challenging to say the least. Instead, some of Britain’s smaller cities have led the way in establishing smart city initiatives, serving as testing grounds for tomorrow’s technology.

Cities including Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester have all been supported by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ Smart City initiative, aimed at ensuring the UK is at the front of the pack in what is predicted to be a $40bn (£26.4bn) industry by 2020.

The Technology Strategy Board has invested £50m in supporting businesses developing smart city technologies, and a further £24m in turning Glasgow into a ‘future cities demonstrator’ that integrates services across health, transport, energy and public safety to improve the local economy and quality of life for residents.

Massive opportunity

“The opportunity to develop new technologies for smart cities in the UK is massive,” says MP David Willetts, former chair of the UK’s Smart Cities Forum. “We want to make sure that we are at the forefront of this digital revolution so we can stay ahead in the global race designing new innovations in the UK and exporting them across the world. With around 80 per cent of the UK’s population living in cities, we need to ensure that they are fit for purpose in the digital age.”

Smaller, more commerce-focused smart city schemes have also been springing up. Liverpool deployed a series of Bluetooth beacons and launched a dedicated app aimed at enriching visitors’ experience of the city’s cultural and arts offerings, while the City of York Council teamed up with personalised entertainment company Appeartome to create an NFC-triggered app that brought the city’s rich history to life at 20 locations spread across a walking tour.

Norwich is another city taking the smart city route. Here, the Business Improvement District (BID) has partnered with proximity marketing firm Proxama to create a beacon and app system designed to enrich the shopping experience for residents and visitors, and drive footfall for local businesses.

“Over the last 10 years, we have seen the decline of the high street nationwide, although less so in Norwich than in other places,” says Stefan Gurney, executive director of the Norwich BID. “We have to work harder to get people out of their homes and into physical shops. Something like the Connected High Street project – it’s the way the city has to be now.”

The Norwich BID was formed just over two years ago by local businesses, with the aim of enhancing and promoting the local trading environment. It worked with Proxama to create a vision of a smart city solution that would aid its efforts, winning funding from the Technology Strategy Board as part of its ‘Re-imagine the High Street’ competition.

The solution uses a wide range of proximity technologies, including Bluetooth beacons, NFC and QR codes, to connect to the free Loka app, developed by Proxama. The app, which works in conjunction with the Norwich BID’s existing Discover Norwich app, interacts with the various proximity sensors to deliver updates, offers and notifications to residents and visitors.

The project is the first of its kind to use beacons on buses, enabling the app to detect when users are travelling into the city centre, and provide them with information to better plan their trip and take advantage of events within the city centre.

norwich high streetSurprise and delight

“The aim of the solution is to connect physical and digital assets in a way that will surprise and delight people,” said Miles Quitmann, chief commercial officer for Proxama. “It’s about delivering the right message to people at the right time.”

Establishing networks of sensors in this way, that can combine methods like beacons, geo-fencing and NFC, creates a trail of information that businesses and local authorities can use to plan strategy and even inform policy. While many of these technologies have existed for several years, it’s only now that smart city initiatives are joining up the information they produce at greater scale.

“Working with mobile technology is essential now,” says Gurney. “It’s the way we consume information, and we want the platform we’ve created to be able to support that conversation. Both businesses and consumers can benefit from a scheme like this – it adds value to both sides of the equation. People still want the experience, they want the city, but they also want the convenience that comes from a mobile phone.”

There’s a lot of research to support the idea that in the future, shoppers will want to combine the digital and physical worlds in this way. A study by Webtrends found that 42 per cent of Britons want to receive real-time information and offers from retailers when they are in the vicinity, and of those, 11 per cent would like real-time reminders that direct them to items they previously searched for online.

Turning point

“Retail is at a turning point in terms of the convergence of on and off-line shopping experiences,” says Mike Potts, chief data officer at Havas Media, which ran its own smart city project in Oxford to manage traffic and parking issues. “This is going to bring significant change to the make-up and use of cities. Expect more to be made of the road transport network in getting shopping to out-of-city parks and park and rides, and less cars in towns as shoppers make use of ‘browse in-store, buy online’ technology.”
20 businesses in Norwich have so far signed up to the Loka solution. These include local retailers Castle Mall, Jarrolds and Pilch Sport, tourist attractions like Norwich Castle, the Forum and Cinema City, and restaurants including The Library and Pinocchios.

“I was very keen to trial the whole process,” says Jayne Raffles, director of Raffles Group, which runs several restaurants in Norwich. “Mobile gives us a way to reach a younger demographic who tend to use their smartphones to inform their decisions, and also enables us to promote to someone from out of town in a way other advertising can’t.

“As a small business, we don’t have the income or expertise to set up a solution like this on our own. By working together as part of the BID, with support from Proxama, we’ve been able to deploy this new technology. It’s great to see Norwich embracing this sort of change, and I think thanks to schemes like this, there’s a vibrancy to the area that there wasn’t 10 years ago.”

The funding provided by the Technology Strategy Board only allows for a six-month long pilot project, after which the scheme may move on to Phase Two, covering a much wider area of the city, and connecting more businesses from a wider variety of sectors, including Norwich City Football Club, galleries, theatres and the local authority.

Big plans

Within the pilot period, the Norwich BID has big plans for how the solution can be used to engage both residents and visitors. The system was used as part of a Christmas tree trail over the festive period, with similar deployments planned for Norwich’s City of Ale festival, Easter egg hunts and the ‘GoGoDragons’ event, which will see 80 large painted sculptures of dragons, all equipped with beacons, placed around the city.

The team behind the solution is confident that even if the smart city doesn’t receive the funding from Re-imagine the High Street, it represents a permanent shift in how we operate within our city centres.

“There’s a real appetite from retailers for this sort of technology,” says Gurney. “People are excited by the opportunities it offers. When we went to the businesses with the idea, it wasn’t a hard sell. Businesses are aware you need to be as smart as possible because the city is changing. I think it reflects the ethos of the city – bringing various vested interests together, drawn by a common goal that improves the lives of everyone.”

The initiative in Norwich is just one of many taking place across the country at the moment, as businesses, councils, developers and technology specialists work together to create a blueprint for the city of the future. The power that mobile phones have to connect and engage people is undeniable, and those responsible for our cities are waking up to the fact that if they want to reach people in the most effective manner, they need to build mobile into the core of how they operate.