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Supporting Smart Cities: an Interview with Iain Stewart MP

7 min

Iain Stewart - UK Parliament official portraits 2017

In 2018 the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smart Cities, led by Milton Keynes South MP Iain Stewart, published a comprehensive report looking at how the UK Government can support the expansion of the smart city agenda. We’re now just over one year on from when these recommendations first came out – but what has really changed on the ground?

What does the phrase ‘smart city’ mean to you?

There are different people with different interpretations [of smart cities]. It’s very easy to think of smart cities as fancy thetraffic lights and autonomous vehicles that take you into a futuristic, space-age environment. Yes, the new tech and transport are going to be part of it, but equally it’s about how we can most efficiently and holistically deliver public services.

It’s getting that thinking into the minds of both business and the public sector, but the general public as well for them to be able to understand it.

The other big conversation that has to be had is the balance between sharing data and individual privacy. At one level it’s perfectly fine to be collecting data about traffic flows and everything else, but when you come down to the individual movements or public services, there’s still a debate to be had about where that balance of privacy and data sharing lives.

I don’t think that we’ve reached the conclusion of that debate. I would say that with general data that doesn’t identify an individual, that’s fine – but if someone is able to say that I drove from point A to point B, went to the doctor’s and my blood pressure was too high, it then becomes a question about who can use that data. What are the restrictions of sharing that need to be out in place? I don’t think we’ve resolved that yet.

Last June in an APPG report, you called for a ‘smart cities concept’ to underpin the way government works at all levels – all the way down to local government. One year on, has this improved? Where would you like to see progress?

I think that the UK is one of the global leaders in this space, but that doesn’t mean we can become complacent and rest on our laurels. There are other countries also doing an incredible amount of development on this. The UK has done a lot of good things, but there is potential for a huge amount more.

When I chaired the APPG, one of the things I did was hold a series of roundtable discussions and came up with a publication that made some recommendations about the balance of work that both central and local government and the private sector had to do to make sure that all the work that’s going on is properly channelled and the maximum potential can be realised.

There have been some positive developments. One of the recommendations that we’ve made – that hasn’t happened yet and I’m still really keen to see it – is to have almost a virtual library of what different local initiatives are taking place; even as much of the failures, so users can see ‘we tried this but it didn’t work because of X.’ And then somebody else can pick that up and try it in a slightly different form or use it in one sector as opposed to another.

The UK is seen as one of the industry leaders in cyber security, yet national firms were hit by an average of almost 120,000 cyber-attacks in the first quarter of 2019. The growth of 5G and IoT infrastructure means that there could be even more opportunities for attacks in the future. What plans does the government have to ensure businesses and local governments are not susceptible to digital threats?

So much of our life is becoming dependent on electronic communications, transfers, and all of these things that one of the biggest vulnerabilities we have is to ensure it’s all secure. I know at one level – and it’s an announcement that we’ve had locally – one of the government institutes of coding is going to based at Bletchley Park, here in Milton Keynes.

That’s to train up the next generation of not just coders, but those who will become the protectors of data. It’s one of these things that is going to be a constant race to keep ahead of others, whoever they are – whether it be individual hackers or state-sponsored from North Korea or Russia, we’ve constantly got to be on our toes – and that’s something that I know the government has made a priority.

One of the biggest areas of opportunity for smart cities is its work in sustainable transport. Milton Keynes has one of the only Electric Vehicle Experience Centres in the UK following government funding – but does the private sector need to do more to encourage residents to travel sustainably?

It’s a bit of both. As the main motor manufacturers increase their range of electric vehicles, I think they would be willing to do a lot of financial support for these types of centres. In Milton Keynes, we have the HQ of Volkswagen. Next summer they are coming out with their latest electric vehicles, which according to them will be a game-changer because they will be priced comparably to the petrol or diesel equivalent. They will have a range in the 250/300 miles between charges, which will take away a lot of the range anxieties that people might have with some cars in the 100-mile range.

I think when you get up to that sort of range, the public’s appetite will increase significantly. So when these cars are ready to go onto the general market, I hope that the Volkswagens and the Vauxhalls of the world would be willing to help finance.

It might be that government has to pump-prime that. As with a lot of these things, it could require a public-private partnership to get it done.

Milton Keynes is also creating its first university in the city, MK:U, focused on giving students digital and STEM skills for a changing working world. How important is it for cities around the UK to adapt their courses around the smart cities of the future?

I think it’s one of the big national challenges. Actually, not just national but in any developed economy: as technology evolves and artificial intelligence develops, that will take over a lot of the employment that’s currently done by humans. They are going to have to have the ability to not just train up new people, but also to have the existing workers do the jobs of the future.

As technology evolves and artificial intelligence develops, that will take over a lot of the employment that’s currently done by humans

It’s hugely exciting that the planned MK:U will be very focused on those sorts of skills; it’s not just going to be like any other university where you can do whatever, from dentistry to performing arts. It’s going to be primarily focused on STEM subjects, on working with businesses to allow different types of courses that will retrain people and encourage those leaving school to go into that side of things.

Again, that’s another classic example of the private and public sectors working together to address the challenge that is coming. The more institutions, the more places that are able to do that, the better.

What local authority innovations are jumping out to you at the minute?

It’s partly the devolution agenda – what’s the balance between incentivising local authorities to go down that route as opposed to then developing it themselves. I know in the West Midlands, for example, mayor Andy Street is looking at transport in the round; using HS2 as the facilitator for revamping the whole public transport network, extending the tramway, looking at electric bus routes, and all of that agenda has some very exciting developments.

When I was part of the Transport Select Committee in Parliament we also looked at Mobility as a Service, which has lots of interesting developments and will hopefully reduce the amount of single-occupant, carbon-powered motor vehicles, and move into a demand-responsive transit which has been piloting – I think Arriva is trialling it in Kent – that might be able to supplement local bus networks.

So there’s lots of different ideas there. Private sector will come up with a lot of the solutions; it’s about making sure that government, both local and national, is able to incorporate that into its future planning – and some local authorities are better than others at doing that.

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