Microsoft CityNext: Grasping the digital age

This story was written by Heather Jameson and originally ran in the print edition of The Municipal Journal

Much has been made of the technological age – as the use of technology becomes ubiquitous and infiltrates every aspect of our daily life. But we are also entering the age of the city.

We now have 50% of the world’s population living in cities for the first time in history, and that is set to rise to 70% by 2050.

So are our cities geared up for an influx of technology-hungry residents? Are we in a position to imagine how we will live in the future, and put in place the infrastructure to support it?

These were some of the issues faced when The MJ and Microsoft gathered senior local authority figures together in Bristol, as part of the global launch of Microsoft CityNext, a people-based approach to meeting the challenges of the shift towards urbanisation.

The managing director of Microsoft UK, Michel van der Bel, explains that it’s not just about having the right infrastructure. ‘There has been a lot of talk about smart cities. For us, it’s a people-first programme.’

The two big challenges for UK cities are ‘growth in a rapidly changing economy and dealing with austerity’.

For growth, city centres have to make themselves attractive for businesses. ‘Austerity is an agenda we will face for years to come. It will be at least 10 years. It must mean doing not just more with less but different with less.’

One debater explains: ‘I feel very strongly that local government is challenged. We have to cut beyond anyone’s expectations. We have to be really clever about it. But we have to change the attitude that we have to do things for people and to empower people to do things for themselves.’

Without money coming from central government, it is increasingly more important for local authorities to build the prosperity of their own cities to become more self-sufficient.

The key building blocks for economic growth are skills and connections. Cities need to be connected to both each other and within cities. And as the world changes, ensuring a skilled local workforce is vital.

Learning more about the local demographics, using data to plan, to create connections and to offer the right skills will be crucial to cities to secure their future.

A chief executive explains: ‘We lack the intelligence about how people live there lives. We make gross generalisations. Because we make public policy on gross generalisations we make ***-ups about what enables people to live their lives.

‘How do we make use of technology to inform our decision-making? The outcomes have to be about truly understanding how constituents live their lives and how to help them live their lives.’

Another adds: ‘The problem is us. When faced with the evidence that is not conventional, we discard the evidence.’

And we are failing to keep up with the changes that are happening in society.

‘Most of the post-war generation would still recognise how we deliver public services but it wouldn’t recognise how we live.’

Someone else raises the spectre of competitiveness in our cities, and the lack of a diverse economy across the country as a whole.

‘My fear for UK cities is that they are not competing in the way cities around the world are. We are completely dominated by London.

‘The UK is seen as London and a couple of suburbs and then we have Glasgow. It’s important to have strong technology, with wifi across the city – without changing as you travel. Then it’s easier to crack growth.’

We hear about Denmark, where Copenhagen competes for business directly with Stockholm. It is a negative competition – pitting one against the other – but it is an ambition to grow and ultimately they are competing in a worldwide economy.

It is not trade or heavy industries that we must build our cities on anymore, but ideas and the knowledge economy – and technology is key to that.

It’s not just cities that will need technology. ‘UK planning policy will be biased for cities. Hotspots and new buildings – these are both urban. In terms of digital inclusion and bandwidth it’s the non-city areas we are in danger of leaving behind,’ says one participant.

And the non-city areas tend to be where older people are – the heavy users of services. One debater asks if we could better use the technology to deliver services to the elderly, using iPads to talk to people for 15 minutes, rather than 15 minute care visits.

‘We seem to think technology is a solution and actually it is an enabler,’ we are told.

And there is always the risk of alienating or excluding some people through too much reliance on technology – it is just not right for some people who need support.

Money is not the only constraint – there are other barriers that need to be overcome. ‘We are far more centralised than any other places in the developed world. We do need a shift on centralisation.’

Another adds: ‘We are not in control of our own governance or our own destiny.’

However, City Deals are mentioned as a way to overcome some of the difficulties local authorities are facing. It allows you to ‘create something that’s right for that place rather than something dictated by government’.

It is about taking the initiative to boost your place. ‘I’m in the mindset the cities need to be visionary. You have to consider place. You have to take people along with you. You have to be ambitious.’

That will require local government to take risks on behalf of its place. Ultimately, it is a long term vision that will be important.

‘Its not what it will look like in 10 years time. It’s about what it will look like in 50 or 100 years time.’

For further details of Microsoft CityNext, e-mail or follow us on Twitter at @MSUKINGOV.

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