Image Source: The Resident
Twelve months ago, my typical working week changed. Instead of the twenty-mile drive from home into the city of Manchester, I began a weekly train commute to another city, the city of London.
There are lots of benefits of taking the train but I particularly enjoy the quality time to both work and reflect as we hurtle through the English countryside. It was on this week’s commute in a moment of reflection gazing out of the window, that I was drawn to the memory of my first ever trip to London. It was back in 1987.
I was one of four primary school children from my North East school and we were on a trip from Newcastle to London. We were part of a delegation of teachers, parents and pupils (including our local MP) who were visiting the House of Commons – to champion the jobs being created in the North East at the new Nissan plant in Sunderland.
As you imagine, at that age it was quite an exciting day and I remember being handed my train ticket and told to look after it carefully. Everything was planned meticulously with a detailed itinerary, laid out with approximate timings and locations for each important milestone on the day. I had a bag full of clothing to cover all weather eventualities. We took the long train journey to London and as the choices were limited (we were unfamiliar with how to navigate around the City), we took taxis from the station to the House of Commons.
It was a day of contrasts. I remember how my jaw dropped when I saw the magnificence of the House of Commons both from outside and inside and also meeting Tony Benn, who was patient and gracious in taking time to talk with us, in a coffee shop. At the other end of the spectrum, I also remember the stress of coping with events that weren’t on the itinerary, like trying to find somewhere for us all to eat lunch and then wondering how we were going to get ourselves back to the station. Without a thoroughly detailed plan, we would have been lost. Even with this in place, there were still unplanned events that we struggled to find the necessary information we required.
30 years later, and I’m travelling into London again but this time from the North West. Have I become empowered with more information and choice? Well the experience is certainly different to my school trip.
The day starts with a weather alert from an app called If This Then That (IFTTT) giving me a heads up on what weather I can expect to face on my commute.
As I leave the house, there’s a message from Trainline telling me that the train is on time and informing me which platform to head to at the station. Plenty of time for coffee and breakfast on the way! No need to collect or print tickets, it’s all on my phone. I don’t need to check the screens as I’m notified again on my phone if there are any delays or platform changes.
Once sitting on the train, I can access a wealth of data on the city I’m going to via London Datastore. I can see environmental KPIs such as NO2 and PM2.5 levels as well as reading up on how collaborators will use this open data source to solve challenges posted by the City.
I can plan ahead via City Mapper to look at the best way to get from Euston to my final destination, regardless of whether I’m new to the City or a regular traveler. There are a variety of choices such as tube, taxi, bus, bicycle or simply walking – if I choose one of the later two options I’m informed of the likely calories I’m going to burn. If I know it’s going to rain there are “rain safe” options to select from.
Taking the tube, entry and exit is now all enabled via contactless payment and for the final walk to my destination, Google Maps guides me from the tube station to the hotel.
Arriving at the hotel, I get a welcome text message from the hotel. I can reply to this text to root any requests, queries or room service back to reception.
No itinerary. No stress if unplanned events occur. Information at hand and easy to use as and when required.
This is part of the journey of London becoming a Smart City – but it is only scratching the surface of what Smart Cities can and could do. There have been major advancements in the last 30 years but all of the experiences above are only the changes visible on my weekly transport commute. In the background, developments in Smart Energy, Smart Buildings and Smart Transport Infrastructure are finding solutions to the urbanization and climate changes challenges. Most of these developments, particularly in Smart Energy and Smart Buildings are invisible to us, as commuters.
Smart Cities is a topic I’ve been interested over many years but it has become an even more exciting topic to explore in my new role. We all know the drivers: the megatrends of urbanization, demographic change and climate change, resulting in London alone projecting a 37% increase in its population by 2050. There are exciting initiatives being rolled out across the globe in cities like Chicago, New York, Brussels, Barcelona to name a few. In the UK, major initiatives are under way in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Peterborough and London itself.
But how best to get a clear picture of what’s going? So far, the most beneficial experience I’ve had to really understand the potential for Smart Cities has been during visits to the Crystal. Here you can see the full picture, including Smart Energy, Smart Transport Infrastructure and Smart Buildings. The exhibits at the Crystal help to add colour to the Smart London Plan and its vision to use the power of new technologies to serve London and improve the lives of its inhabitants.
Why become a Smart City? There are numerous compelling reasons to become a Smart City – (i) to deliver better, more reliable and connected services, (ii) to cope with the increased demand from urbanisation, (iii) to reduce demand on scarce resources, (iv) to reduce costs,(v) to provide a healthier environment and (vi) to gain efficiencies from our changing energy generation landscape & technologies – ultimately overall to enhance our quality of life.
But there is one compelling reason that is more visible to us than the others than the others: to empower the City’s visitors with more information and choice.
So when I look back and contrast my visit to London back in 1987 with my current weekly commute, do I feel empowered with information and choice? Absolutely yes!
Would I like more? Yes, please!
I’m excited by the future ahead and I’m personally looking forward to what’s coming in the next 30 years!