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Future City Glasgow: the jewel in the crown

19 min

The leaders of Glasgow City Council’s digital team talk to Cityscape about what makes one of the UK’s most advanced smart cities truly smart

Six years ago, in 2013, Glasgow outbid other cities in the race to win a £24m grant funding from the body now known as Innovate UK. The money, which has so far yielded a significant return on investment, was earmarked for digital infrastructure and data initiatives as part of the government’s Future Cities Demonstrator programme.

Glasgow’s digital and smart-city ambition is now encapsulated within its flagship vision, the Digital Glasgow Strategy. Partners from all sectors in the city – public, voluntary, private and academic – contributed to the development of the strategy, which draws heavily from the experience gained through the Demonstrator.

The strategy was launched in November 2018 by council leader Susan Aitken. “The Glasgow Digital Strategy is our blueprint for the city to make that transformative leap we need to make,” she explained. “It’s not just about the economy, about inclusion or social justice, or about skills and employment or delivering modern, high-quality public services. It’s about all of these things, how they are connected, and how they impact upon each other.”

This digital and smart-city ambition has now, for the first time, been elevated as a policy driver for elected members. It’s no longer a back-office consideration for officers; it is front and centre to the vision for the city. Angus Millar became the council’s first-ever Digital Champion at the start of 2018 and oversaw the development of the strategy through the Digital Glasgow Board, which he chairs. “In recent decades, digital technology has changed the way we live, the way we work, and the way our cities are run,” he told me. “And we know that as the pace of technological change accelerates exponentially, the implications for Glasgow’s economy and public services will only increase. The Digital Glasgow Strategy sets out our plans to embrace the opportunities of the digital age, and acknowledges too the challenges we face as a city as a result of the disruption technology can bring to our economy.”

It’s no longer about optimising our processes; it’s about redesigning our services, challenging why we do things the way we do, and it’s about having the permission to innovate

What’s most eye-catching about the strategy is the breadth and scale of its ambition: it sets out goals for Glasgow to be a top 20 global digital economy, and for it to be recognised as one of the most innovative smart cities in the world.

“Our aim is to build from Glasgow’s existing strengths in digital and innovation, and to strive to be recognised as a leader in our efforts to use technology to improve our public services and the way the city works for its people,” noted Angus. “Our strengths and achievements are by no means limited to the Future Cities Demonstrator. Our digital sector is the fastest-growing in our economy.”

He’s not wrong: highlighting the recent growth of Glasgow’s digital cluster, the 2018 Tech Nation report pointed out that the city no longer “plays second fiddle” to Edinburgh. “Glasgow’s lower saturation and cost of living have now placed it firmly on the digital tech map,” the major annual report found. “Tech is transforming the city’s traditional industries like oil, gas and finance.” Factors in this include the vibrancy of the city’s tech meetup scene, its excellent quality of life, and access to a broad range of good-quality digital skills. In fact, Glasgow produces more computer science and digital graduates than any of the major UK cities outside of London. It’s also seeking to foster innovation through the creation of innovation districts and is already seeing a surge of top-tier companies – such as Barclays and BBC – moving their digital hubs into the city.

The leaders of the future
The Centre for Civic Innovation

Key to delivering all of these strategic ambitions is a shift in leadership style and approach to delivering technology programmes. Glasgow City Council’s chief digital officer, Colin Birchenall, who coordinated the development of the Digital Glasgow Strategy and who was previously a key member of the Future City Glasgow programme team, explained: “The role of technology has fundamentally changed. It’s no longer just a tool for improving the efficiency of our processes or migrating paper-based forms to online services. The Future Cities Demonstrator taught us that we can use digital and smart technology to improve outcomes for the city and for its citizens, and by doing so reduce the cost to the public sector.

“It’s no longer about optimising our processes; it’s about redesigning our services, challenging why we do things the way we do, and it’s about having the permission to innovate, and the permission to fail now and again. The strategy recognises this and includes actions to build upon our experience to date in areas such as service design, data analytics, agile development, and open data and open innovation.”

The Future Cities Demonstrator taught us that we can use digital and smart technology to improve outcomes for the city and for its citizens

Innovate now

Since the Future Cities Demonstrator, Glasgow has continued to attract funding for smart city innovation. One example of this is RUGGEDISED project, which is funded through the EU’s 2020 Horizon research programme. Glasgow is a lighthouse city for the project and is working with six European cities, including Parma and Rotterdam, to accelerate the smart city model across Europe. The Glasgow programme, called the ‘Smart Street,’ demonstrates a range of energy-efficient smart-city technology along a section of George Street and Duke Street in the city centre – an area of mixed residential, academic, community, retail, and industrial buildings. It seeks to address the challenges the Scottish city faces from ageing infrastructure, fuel poverty, and air pollution by integrating planned regeneration and development with smart-city capabilities. Projects include district heating, an innovative roof-mounted solar PV canopy, ducted wind turbines, energy arbitrage, power storage, EV charging, and smart grid controls.

Another pioneering project is the Glaswegian ‘Smart Canal,’ Europe’s first-ever pioneering digital surface water drainage system. The project marries the 250-year-old Forth & Clyde Canal to 21st-century technology in order to mitigate flood risk in the region, as well as enable regeneration in surrounding areas.

Unveiled as part of the city deal, the North Glasgow Integrated Water Management System uses digital technology to unlock land that is prone to flooding for development purposes. Rather than putting in more drainage – which is expensive, hard to maintain, and can hit maximum capacity – the council, working in partnership with Scottish Canals and Scottish Water, chose to think outside the box and develop a concept known as the ‘sponge city.’ By using sensors and predictive weather technology, the smart canal can provide an early warning of rainfall and empty itself in areas that are prone to flooding in order to create capacity for floodwater to run off. There is a feedback mechanism to the sluice gates of the canal that feeds into the rivers, simulating a closed loop of canal management. To put it into perspective, by moving excess rainfall from residential and business areas into stretches of the canal where water levels have been lowered by as much as 10cm, the infrastructure can create 22 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of extra capacity for floodwater.

Innovate tomorrow

But Glasgow’s approach doesn’t stop at implementing a few innovative projects here and there: the team have been putting in the foundations for creating a sustainable model for stimulating innovation in the future. The Future Cities Demonstrator ran ‘hackathon’ events in an attempt to facilitate innovation with students and small businesses using open data as an enabler. These have inspired a lot of people to recognise the value of tapping into the city’s talent to stimulate innovation. Since then, Glasgow City Council has sought to embed sustainable open-innovation processes and to seek new ways of encouraging innovation, as well as of co-designing and co-producing solutions to complex city challenges with public sector and voluntary sector partners, communities, businesses, and universities.

Glasgow City Chambers

As part of this, it has established what is called the Centre for Civic Innovation – co-located in the city’s Tontine Business Growth Accelerator in the City Centre Innovation District – to act as a focal point for public-sector innovation in the city. Already, the Centre has been used to host successful open innovation challenges relating to digital telecare, public transport, and smart-city infrastructure in collaboration with partners such as Scottish Government’s CivTech programme, Scottish Enterprise’s ‘Can Do’ programme, and private sector company Itron’s ‘Smart City Challenge.’ The idea behind it is to increase the capacity for innovation to address city challenges at the same time as providing new opportunities to businesses that could spur further economic growth.

“We undertake a completely innovative procurement process where you effectively don’t know what you’re buying,” explained Jenny O’Hagan, who is responsible for the Centre. “Instead, you are essentially buying research and development and then working together to co-design and co-develop a solution to that idea using an iterative process which allows the necessary changes to be made as we go.”

Opening up data

Albeit an accountant by background, Jenny saw an opportunity – building on the Future Cities Demonstrator – to make better use of the vast amounts of data within the council that was largely managed in silos. Now, her small multidisciplinary team is combining datasets to develop tools, apps, and other digital products to assist with evidence-based decision-making under the banner of the Centre of Excellence for Data Analytics and Visualisation.

At first, there was a reluctance to open up and share data even across the council

“When we first kicked off the council’s Centre of Excellence for Data Analytics and Visualisation, the focus was very much on data, and I thought it was all about filling the team with data analysts and data scientists,” she told me. “But what I discovered early on was that we needed to introduce a more creative side to the team. We now have designers and people trained in UX and service design onboard. We also introduced a design-led methodology that we apply to all of our projects. We put a lot of emphasis at the beginning of the process, where we run innovative creative workshops to make sure that we are addressing the right problem that we are trying to solve using data.

“It took a long time to get the momentum growing, because as you can appreciate, this is a cultural change. But if we hadn’t had the Future Cities Demonstrator, we would never be where we are with opening and sharing data. At first, there was a reluctance to open up and share data even across the council – in fact, many quite vehemently defended the fact that it was THEIR data, and there was a fear culture about the integrity of some datasets that were very much managed in silos. Many have found this change difficult as it has meant a different way of working, but many more are now seeing the benefit and are working with us on a range of projects.”

Though there is still some way to go, this fearful attitude towards data-sharing is now well and truly changing. As a result, the city council has managed to develop a digital platform that consolidates various datasets across the organisation into simple, real-time interactive dashboards with ward-specific data so that a complete overview is available for each city area – with a range of information on everything that managers, elected members, and citizens might be interested in. This can include anything from missed bins and potholes to broken streetlights and planning applications at an operational level, coupled with demographic, housing, property, utilisation, and costing information to enable more informed decision-making.

Internet of Things

The city is no longer trialling smart city and IoT technology: it is very much being deployed at scale

Of course, no truly smart city would produce sufficient high-quality data without the help of Internet of Things (IoT) devices that allow an urban landscape to better understand itself. In Glasgow, the largest demonstration of IoT benefits in the Future Cities Demonstrator was a number of pilot projects of intelligent street lighting. Streetlights at three sites in the city centre were digitised so that they could dynamically respond to their environment based on sensor data and could be controlled and managed remotely.

The trials were hugely successful, delivering large energy savings, maintenance efficiencies, reduced customer contact, and improved public safety. They ultimately gave the council the confidence to invest in scaling the technology across the city centre and main arterial routes. Not only that, but it also provides the connectivity for other smart-city applications such as smart street bins that send alerts when they need to be emptied. The city is no longer trialling smart city and IoT technology: it is very much being deployed at scale.

Never enough fibre

Glasgow’s outstanding work in creating a digital city for everyone is exemplified in the Gigabit City project. An additional 300km of optical fibre is being installed across Glasgow to expand the existing council network to five time its size. Launched in 2016, the programme is expected to dramatically boost connectivity in public-sector estates, schools, libraries, leisure centres, arts venues, and council offices, as well as laying the groundwork for private fibre roll-out to homes and businesses. Anne McLister, head of digital economy at the city council, who was also a key member of the Future Cities Demonstrator programme, argued that while fibre roll-out isn’t as innovative as other parts of the programme, it is absolutely essential to the futureproofing of Glasgow and its attraction on a global scale. “Wherever we dig up a road or pavement, we will install spare fibre ducting,” she promised. “For two reasons: we don’t want to dig up the streets again, and avoiding another ‘dig’ also significantly lowers the cost of fibre deployment – therefore encouraging a wider footprint. Fibre ducting is an essential foundation; it will never lie there unused. There will always be a demand for fibre.”

Anne’s role at the council, which didn’t actually exist six months ago, came about as a direct result of the authority’s recognition of the fact that it must focus on strategic digital foundations – that is, having the right attributes in place to attract investment and grow an inclusive economy.

“My current focus is primarily on looking at how to maximise the amount of digital infrastructure we have across the city. We’re looking to attract any investment where we can. There is significant interest from industry in investing in digital infrastructure here; I’m trying to rally, support and maximise that interest,” she explained. “As a council, we don’t fund commercial connectivity [such as 4G and 5G]; what we need to do is make sure we have the optimum conditions for attracting those who do fund it.”

Working closely with private-sector companies has paid off so far, with both Vodafone and EE pledging to roll out 5G in the Scottish city this year (the first by July, and the second by the end of 2019.) This will make Glasgow one of the first places in the UK to get access to the much faster and more modern network.

Wherever we dig up a road or pavement, we will install spare fibre ducting

This more proactive relationship with the private sector is a concerted effort to think more commercially within the council itself, along with using technology and innovation to help meet the financial challenges faced by the public sector. All of this – the infrastructure, the leadership, the push towards stimulating innovation – has helped to create an environment where digital is truly transforming public services.

Learning and teaching

One example of a public service area that has widely benefitted from this digital focus is education. Developed over the last three years, the city’s Digital Learning Strategy for education boasts a relentless focus on innovative learning and teaching in playrooms and classrooms – that is, determining how these can be enriched by technologies in order to equip the next generation with the right skills to thrive in work and life.

Curriculum for Excellence is all about allowing pupils to lead their own learning, and that is exactly what we are seeing happen when children and young people work with digital

A key component of this (and arguably its biggest headline-grabber) is the largest Apple education programme in Europe: over 50,000 iPads are being issued to pupils and teachers over a two-year period across the full school estate. The modern tablets will empower all of Glasgow’s youth to enable and enhance digital communication, collaboration, and creation across all areas of learning – no matter the children’s backgrounds. To ensure learning takes place in a safe environment, the restrictions on the iPads when used in school are the same when used at home.

Claire Harvey, the council’s quality improvement officer with a remit for digital learning, said the roll-out is not just about technology but focuses on learning and teaching. “This is helping our children and young people adapt to a digital world. It’s been shown that 90% of jobs in Scotland involve digital work, so our pupils will be ready for the workplace,” she said. “Curriculum for Excellence is all about allowing pupils to lead their own learning, and that is exactly what we are seeing happen when children and young people work with digital.”

Health and care

Healthcare is another service area that stands out when it comes to digital innovation. Like all providers of telecare services, Glasgow is planning for the migration from analogue telephony to digital. It has established a programme to manage that migration but, rather than manage it as a risk mitigation, the city wants to pioneer digital telecare and digital health and care technology.


It has run an open innovation challenge at the Centre for Civic Innovation that has seen the council work with SMEs to explore the potential for using wearable technology, sensors, and artificial intelligence to help vulnerable people live more independent lives. This is now going to a second phase so that the concepts developed can begin to be productised.

Robots and automation

Considered by his colleagues to have the coolest job at the council, Brendan Murphy, its head of strategic innovation, was adamant that his role isn’t just about watching drones buzz about the city (although he admitted this is a definite plus.) They’re a part of the equation, definitely, but most of what he does is find ways to do the same things in a smarter way. “The main work in innovation is doing small, incremental changes – doing things a bit better. Around 70% of your work is about doing things better; 20% is in doing things a bit differently; and 10% is doing different things.”

A large chunk of this work relates to how the council works internally – that is, using automation to make jobs easier and do away with unnecessarily burdensome admin. While many consider automation to be a threat to jobs, Brendan stands by the idea that people will simply do different work in the future. “What automation does in the council is really allow people to do work that is a bit more enjoyable,” he noted. “At the moment, we’re very much about the basics: it’s about taking the current things we do and making them a bit better by freeing people up. It’s like saying: would you rather sit here and process 10,000 bits of paper, or would you rather look at what information has come out of that to see if we can change the way we deliver services?”

Internal automated processes have also been of help externally, particularly with regards to handling request backlogs. Every September, for example, Glasgow receives a large influx of students from around the world, many of whom apply for council tax discounts. That’s where robots can help. “Rather than people having to wait a potentially long time to see whether their application has been successful, we use robotics to speed things up. It takes away pressure points,” said Brendan. “It’s mainly about that: where there are big transactional blockers, or where things don’t work as quickly as they should do. It will hopefully mean better services and different work for the people doing the job.”

The main work in innovation is doing small, incremental changes – doing things a bit better. Around 70% of your work is about doing things better; 20% is in doing things a bit differently; and 10% is doing different things

Given what the city has achieved since the Future Cities Demonstrator and how much has already happened in the last 15 months since the CGI deal came into effect, it wouldn’t be risky to state that Glasgow’s digital future looks promising. If it’s up to Brendan, the charming Scottish port city will soon become one of the most innovative cities in the UK: a place where companies want to migrate to because it boasts all the right infrastructure, and the right support to make sure businesses of all sizes can thrive.

“I suppose that in five- or 10-years’ time, if we’ve done our job well, we should start to see Glasgow being a place of choice for the digital economy,” he decided. “And I fully believe we can do that.”

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