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The birth of Scotland’s eighth city

18 min

In 2020, John Alexander and his eight-person team at the Scottish Cities Alliance (SCA) want to lead the country’s digital reputation to international success. That’s no small feat, of course, but with the wide array of smart-city projects planned across Scotland’s seven cities this year, this ambition might just prove to be realistic

Just before John Alexander was nominated chair of the SCA in 2017, he led his political group to success in that year’s local government election, subsequently taking the wheel at Dundee City Council. In the five years prior, he had exercised a number of senior roles at the local authority, from convener of housing to convener of neighbourhood services – an amalgamation of the housing, environment, and communities departments.

Asked by Cityscape about what jobs he held before joining the council in 2012, John admitted: “Well, I was 23 years old at the time, so I didn’t have an extensive background before then,” he laughed. “I was very young – although I like to think that I’m still clinging on to my youth. I’m not too old yet!”

Of course, it is certainly easier to cling to youth when you’ve only just left your twenties: now aged just 31, John made history as the youngest-ever councillor to take the reins at Dundee City Council.

In fact, while he was exercising leadership roles in the city, John was also still busy studying for a degree in Politics and International Relations at Dundee University, where he had previously undertaken an LLB in Scots Law a couple of years earlier (a fitting institution of choice for a man who is contagiously passionate about Dundee, the city where he was born and raised).

Asked how he felt about having become both leader of the council and chair of the SCA at the impressively young age of 28, he was openly proud. “I hope it’s based on my ability and the fact that I give 110% of myself in everything that I do,” he said. “I’m not being big-headed in any way, shape, or form, but people often comment about how much of a hard worker I am, because I genuinely believe you have to graft in order to reap the rewards for the city that I now represent. I put everything that I have into everything that I do.

“I’m sure you know about the old adage of politicians being ‘old, pale, and stale.’ I might be pale, but I’m certainly not old, and I would hope I’m not stale. I think it’s great to have people representing local authorities that are all different ages and from different backgrounds; after all, how can politicians claim to represent people if they aren’t representative of people?”

John was put forward as the sole choice for leadership of the SCA, despite the group being represented by all stripes of Scotland’s political spectrum – a testament to his collective appeal. But the chairman knows that such cross-partisan trust cannot be taken for granted: “I’m conscious of the fact that I could be unelected any day,” he pointed out, “so I work very hard to make sure that their faith isn’t wasted.”

Stronger together

Like John, the SCA is itself a relatively young endeavour. Formed in 2011, the alliance represents a unique collaboration of Scotland’s seven cities – Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth, and Stirling – and the Scottish Government, which all work together to encourage widespread socioeconomic prosperity through capital investment and innovative policymaking. At the heart of this partnership sits the smart cities agenda: the SCA has secured £24m from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) – match-funded by the seven local authorities – to progress on the programme now dubbed ‘Scotland’s 8th City – the Smart City.’

“We’ve only managed to unlock that ERDF funding because we’re an alliance,” John argued. “We’re always looking at ways that we can innovate. Even at a local level, we’ll be looking at partnerships and collaboration with other organisations. It’s a really unique collaboration, because it isn’t just the cities: it’s also the Scottish Government sitting round that table, jointly working with us on a strategy to develop the Scottish economy and its particular sectors. And beyond that, it’s a really integrated way of working, which I think works well on a European level.

“For example, Dundee City Council could have easily put in a bid to the ERDF for funding to do some work in this realm – but it wouldn’t have had the scale to deliver the major results that they would like to see. The alliance, on the other hand, represents over 65% of the Scottish economy, so it’s a powerful unit; the ERDF can see that there’s a material benefit there, because we can deliver the results they want. It also gives them a bit more security, because we’re matching their funding with our own resources. We can scale up that ambition and deliver results across a whole geography – a whole nation.”

There’s the right number of people in the room, who have the right skillset to deliver results and make the right decisions. It just works

He compared this to the model in place in Estonia, which boasts one of the most innovative and forward-thinking ‘e-governments’ in Europe. The country has successfully connected all public databases over the internet, allowing free flows of data between all Estonian cities beyond just digital frontrunner Tallinn. And much like Estonia, Scotland is also home to a relatively small population, giving it an acute advantage over countries like Germany, France, or even England: rather than having the leaders of 30 or 40 cities sat round the same table, hopelessly trying to have a focused and productive conversation, the SCA only needs eight figureheads. “As a direct result of that more focused conversation, action follows very quickly,” explained John. “There’s the right number of people in the room, who have the right skillset to deliver results and make the right decisions. It just works.”

Lessons from 2019

As expected, the SCA works across a number of workstreams: from open data and innovation labs to smart energy, mobility, waste, safety, and water management services, the alliance is spearheading a range of projects distributed equally amongst the seven cities. A handy interactive map on their website allows citizens to break this down into specifics. Inverness, for example, is active across rural connectivity, assisted living, education, healthcare, tourism, and transport, with schemes including City Wireless, Digital Highlands, and the Open Data Portal; down south, Glasgow is prioritising infrastructure investment and the built environment, participating in the Future Cities Demonstrator programme, investing in a City Management Operations Centre, and delivering free public WiFi (as readers of Cityscape’s first-ever edition will remember).

Reflecting on the achievements of 2019, John said that the seven cities completed 26 smart-city projects across the whole of Scotland that are now beginning to bear fruit in terms of data collection. “That’s everything from Aberdeen’s intelligent streetlighting to Dundee’s launch of our open data website,” he added. “Seeing those results coming forward over 26 phased projects is quite important – and quite exciting, too.

“We have become a lot more focused over the last year in particular,” he continued. “All of the cities have collaborated really well. We have a core group here who are really determined, willing, and able to make some significant inroads across the entire SCA agenda, particularly around smart cities.

“Even though we’ve been doing this since 2011, it isn’t always easy; it depends on the people in the room and on the agendas of each city. The seven cities are all really different: you have everything from the rural Highlands, a beautiful setting far up north, to Glasgow and Edinburgh, both really historic and large cities – and then some of us in between, like Dundee and Perth, who work on a smaller scale but are nonetheless just as determined. We have quite a mixed bag. That inevitably leads to some challenges, but it also represents opportunity.”

One of the key improvements made during 2019 was the way this mixed bag of cities inspires investment. Rather than speaking as individuals, they have banded together to promote the ‘Team Scotland’ approach, a banner which has also been mimicked in other industries, such as by the rail sector. According to John, speaking with a unified voice will be paramount to attracting global investors: he remembers, during an event last year, being told by a private financier that they don’t consider investing in anything that doesn’t cost between £100m and £2bn. “That just blew my mind! Those numbers are staggering to me,” John exclaimed. “That’s the kind of calibre that we’re working with. The only way you can attract that investment is if you have an offering of scale.

“This is still a work in progress, but we’ve started to look at how to jointly promote all of our cities. For example, let’s say that a developer wants a specific proposal to go forward in in the hospitality industry – but there is no one location for that investment. We would like to be in a position where we could package that as part of the SCA, so that we can tell the investor: ‘Here’s what your return on investment will be if you build multiple hotels across Aberdeen, Inverness, and Perth, and these are the people you need to connect with to facilitate that conversation.’ It’s about trying to join things up a bit more.”

The SCA ethos has also helped the cities move beyond the ‘competition’ rhetoric and into a more cooperative framework. While they have to be realistic about the fact that they are, to some extent, competing against each other for funding and job creation, there’s no reason why they should nurture animosity as a result. “It should be more of a conversation,” said the chairman. “It’s not tension that ever results in arguments or disagreements. We all feel that we can have an honest conversation about these things. In essence, the SCA is a group of councils focused exclusively on attracting investment and delivering results. Sure, I’m there to advocate Dundee, but I’m also there to promote the whole of Scotland.”

It’s this same philosophy that ensures cities like Stirling and Perth don’t fall by the wayside next to the larger, more dominant cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. An alliance framework guarantees mutual respect between all parties involved and upholds a shared understanding that each individual city can bring an invaluable skillset to the table which cannot be relegated to the sidelines.1

“Our strengths do not all sit in Glasgow or Edinburgh; there’s expertise in each of our cities. We want every city to be involved, because if they don’t feel involved, then the alliance stops working,” claimed John. “That’s why, when you look across the projects that we have going on, there is something in there for everyone.

“It’s all done on a voluntary basis, too: when we’re looking at the development of new programmes, we’ll ask what each city can contribute, since they don’t all have the same ability, expertise, or financial resource to be able to do things. The cities will do what they can with what they’ve got. You could argue that it should all be in Glasgow or Edinburgh, or split between the two, but even they wouldn’t want that – they see the value in other cities taking a little piece of the burden, as well as a piece of the opportunity. This way, they’re not having to do it all themselves. It just works.”

Sometimes, smaller is better

Breaking up Scotland’s already small geography into further urban segments also allows cities to act as ‘live test labs’ for fresh ideas. Using Dundee’s compact, 24-square-mile geography as a pilot site for electric vehicles has catapulted the city into becoming a pilot demonstrator for the potential of EV technology. In 2018, it was named the most visionary European city for electric vehicles at a prestigious ceremony in Kobe, Japan, held annually by the World Electric Vehicle Association.

“We operate the largest-percentage council fleet of EVs of any council in the UK. EVs make up most of our vehicles; I myself got rid of two petrol cars and replaced them with one electric,” said EV convert John, who now insists he could never go back to dirty diesel. “We’ve developed a significant amount in terms of the infrastructure as well; in Dundee, you’re never more than 0.45km away from your nearest charging point. We’ve also recently given permission to go forward with purchasing two electric bin collection vehicles.”

Data pulled from these EV pilots is all collated in the city’s own open data website, data.dundeecity.gov.uk, where it is made publicly available to citizens, businesses, and other local authorities. The decision to buy electric refuse collection vehicles, for example, was made based on analysis derived from that open data – in much the same way that the council chooses where to install charging points or which areas to designate as low-emission zones.

In Dundee, you’re never more than 0.45km away from your nearest charging point

“We need to use data as a way of ensuring that we’re making the right decisions, otherwise you’re doing it a little bit blind,” commented John. “You might think you’re doing the right thing, and then it might not work in practice. We’re seeing how it all works at the moment, analysing the intelligent data from the collection of information that we already have, and then deploying that as we purchase more things and come up with new strategies.

“We’ll be looking at the smart data all the time, because it delivers real benefits – not only in terms of a better service for the citizens who I represent, but also in terms of savings, making councils leaner and more efficient.”

Something to look forward to

Much of 2020 will revolve around the continued phasing of schemes that were already in place last year, including by rolling them out in other cities (the Smart Waste project, for example, has already been deployed in Glasgow and Dundee, and will now be rolled out across Edinburgh and Inverness). In effect, this year marks the start of Phase Two of the SCA’s 8th City programme, following straight on from Phase One in 2019 – but, in practice, the group behaves completely flexibly.

The new decade will also be marked by a string of exciting new initiatives. In Perth and Kinross, they will be taking the lead on smart public safety operations through the development of a City Operations Centre which will – amongst other things – digitise existing analogue CCTV cameras and integrate the control rooms currently managed in separate locations by the council and Police Scotland. In time, the centre is expected to provide a coordinated, real-time, intelligence-led response to public safety events in the city.

In Dundee, Abertay University will be leading on a new £12m project to create a world-class cyber security research and development centre based within its campus. The new ‘cyberQuarter’ will house a cluster of academic and industry activity, offering both expertise in applied research and access to a range of council support for local businesses. The initiative comes as no surprise for a university that made history as the world’s first to offer an accredited degree in ethical hacking, where students are trained in offensive cyber security and are taught to think like hackers.

Glasgow, which last month celebrated the first anniversary of its City Innovation District, will continue leading on water management. This is a hot-button topic for the country as a whole at present – especially given that Scotland is home to 90% of Great Britain’s surface freshwater – and comes at a particularly significant time for the nation, too: just a few months ago, Scottish Water banded together with partners to share the first-ever collective vision for the nation’s water sector. Some of these same partners, including Scottish Water itself, also participated in the development of Europe’s first smart canal scheme, which retrofitted intelligent sensors on Glasgow’s 150-year-old Forth & Clyde Canal in an effort to mitigate floods and enable regeneration (you can read more about it in Cityscape’s first issue, available online at quadrant-smart.com).

In Edinburgh, the city is strengthening its big data expertise by launching a brand-new business advisory service to accelerate data-driven innovation and collaboration as part of The Data Lab, Scotland’s Innovation Centre for data science and artificial intelligence. The service, named TORCH, will link businesses who are starting to use data with expert partners and advisors in a matchmaking programme that seeks to forge relationships between academia and the wider industry.

“That’s the thing: we’re always adding to the programme,” said John. “We’re always looking at what’s next, what’s exciting, what’s in the pipeline… Some cities might go first, and then other cities will join in later as they take on the learning and the experience that we’ve had. They will learn from our mistakes, as well as from what we’ve done well.”

Fail fast forward

Speaking of mistakes, where there is no way to dodge failure altogether, John prescribes a ‘fail-fast-forward’ entrepreneurial approach: the idea that missteps are inevitable, so we may as well learn from them along the way. “The reality is that you’re not going to get everything perfect every time – you’re going to fail sometimes,” he noted. “There is an attitude sometimes, in the public sector in particular, to be risk averse; personally, I think that’s wrong. Sometimes I think politicians like myself are the worst offenders for that, but my attitude is quite the opposite: I think we need to be a bit more commercial in how we approach these things. We need to underwrite some of that risk from a council perspective, because the private sector wouldn’t do it on their own.

We will be left behind if we take a really parochial approach and have our blinkers on

“And if we do fail, then we just have to own it and say: ‘Well, that didn’t work how we thought it would, but here are the learnings we took from it and here’s how we’ve now improved what we’re doing.’ Nothing improves unless you fail and learn from it.”

From these mistakes, he hopes that not only Scotland’s cities, but smart cities the world over, can learn and grow. “We hope that others can be informed by what we’re doing, whether that’s negatively or positively,” said the chairman. “It’s useful for other cities to learn from our mistakes, as well as from what we’re doing well – and the same applies to us. We will look at where best practice is already in place and then build on that. It’s the old adage about not having to reinvent the wheel.

“We’re not precious about who we engage with or how that engagement comes forward. We can’t be,” he continued. “We will be left behind if we take a really parochial approach and have our blinkers on. It’s all about what we develop in Scotland and how that feeds into an international project.”

As to what the future holds in a post-Brexit landscape, John was refreshingly honest: he doesn’t know. A large chunk of the SCA’s external funding came from Europe. The UK Government has suggested, in its Withdrawal Agreement, that funding contracts already in place will remain until the end of their respective programmes; whether these cash streams will be fully replaced by the domestic UK Shared Prosperity Fund once the transition period is over remains to be seen. In the meantime, businesses and local authorities up and down Scotland anxiously await the news of a possible safety net. Holyrood’s Finance and Constitution Committee has urged the government to move faster on the matter.

John, like most Scots, didn’t vote to leave – but, like many Remainers, he recognises the unavoidable importance of working within the parameters offered by this brave new world. For the SCA, that might prove to be a golden opportunity in disguise: with almost a decade of cross-partisan, cross-industry expertise under its belt, the alliance wields just enough authority to be able to inform, influence, and ultimately persuade the national conversation.

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