Guest writer Alex Aurigi – Professor of Urban Design, University of Plymouth – explores what being a smart city could mean for Plymouth

The expression ‘smart city’ is becoming popularised, even if few – if at all – really agree on what a smart city is or should be. What most people understand is that high tech, from internet and mobile apps, to sensing and automation through algorithms/AI, offers new possibilities to manage cities.

However, most if not all attention goes towards the ‘smart’ – what new tech products can do – whilst the key question of what the ‘city’ is, and should become, is overlooked. This has led some commentators to describe smart city efforts as ‘solutions’ looking for problems. The ultimate goal is not technology, but the city. And cities are different. What can be ‘smart’ in the largest world centres would make no sense in a small town.

So, what about Plymouth? It is a coastal city with big ambitions towards an inclusive model of development. It has unique strengths, a key one being its social enterprise sector, punching above weight. And it now has three universities providing a rich intellectual and creative capital.

In this short article I am highlighting three – interconnected – themes for Plymouth to work on, towards becoming smart and inclusive, improving its long-term resilience.

Holistic partnering

Large metropoles in Asia or the Global South – think of Chongqing in China, unknown to many yet already counting over thirty million inhabitants – face problems generated by rapid urbanisation and steep migratory fluxes. It can make sense for them to conceive smart innovation geared towards control and management, to cope with those pressures. Plymouth however needs to re-invent and re-vitalise itself. It can also become more externally attractive, but only through new and unique ideas.

This suggests a model of innovation known as a ‘quadruple-helix’ one, relying not just on the collaboration of industry and government, but on a strategic partnership involving research/education as well as ‘civil society’, featuring social enterprise as a key actor. Such strategic and more inclusive approach is needed to define the problems – before solutions – and creatively shape a shared approach.

Open and participated platform

Plymouth does not need the ready-made smart ‘products’ thought for Singapore or Shanghai. It needs to develop its own smart ideas in a context-driven mode, reflexive of where the city’s assets and energies are. This can be practically enabled by providing an open platform for both the sharing of vital data and the facilitated development of bespoke technological solutions.

The themes to address? It is not up to me to dictate, but relevant examples from ‘Hackable City’ literature include systems for borrowing objects and tools from nearby residents, urban agriculture-enabling platforms where vacant spaces can be offered or shared for cultivation, sustainable mobility clubs and apps (e.g. cycling etc) and repair and making shops, FabLab-like.

Let me throw in also the very local need to boost our fishing sector as well as creative ways to make the Marine Park and the sea help the city socially as well as economically. Most of this might not be new, but can become smarter, easier to use and manage, and with more citizens contributing to its success.

It is the concept of a ‘platform’ or ‘open source’ smart city, where the means – and the sharing of data – to encourage, construct and run such smart initiatives are publicly available. Social enterprise can have a pivotal role in this, in both generating initiatives and ideas, but also in participating in producing and maintaining the platform itself. This can generate local jobs, make it Plymouth-owned and, ideally with a local authority participation and overview, ensure a degree of public scrutiny, control, and being true to a shared strategy.

Recombined space

Cities are physical places. They were born out of the advantages of exploiting proximities and density to boost production, trade, culture and innovation. Digital technologies re-define place, distances, presence. They can allow different locations to functionally merge into one, as well as one location to broadcast itself and become many. We can link public spaces and communities that would not normally relate; we can generate real-time awareness of events, businesses or the ocean itself. We can make ‘portals’, collaborate, pool facilities and functions.

Think of representing food producers in Devon within a shop in Plymstock, the Devonport Markethall or the Fish Market reaching out through presence and interaction elsewhere in Plymouth, or a library providing digital books available to peripheral or countryside reading ‘pods’. Re-combining through technology can lead to innovating the way we shape and use the city. In an era of scarcity, where environmental resilience and new socially-progressive business models are increasingly pressing needs, we need to find ways to creatively boost the ways we use space.

What’s next – Partnership, Research and Development

How could Plymouth take steps towards being smart in a place-sensitive and inclusive way? The first and most important move is to start forming a steering partnership on a ‘quadruple-helix’ basis. My research experience suggests that a main entrepreneur or champion is needed to pull this together, and the social enterprise sector could well be central to this.

We also need research, to understand the issues before launching into ‘solutionism’. What are the big themes/issues Plymouth needs to face to increase resilience? How are these perceived within the city, and what does this suggest for setting priorities and lines of work? How does the social enterprise arena map against these themes? How does it physically map in the city, and how able is it to reach out and offer its benefits? How can space be used in smarter ways? Universities are good at doing this, beyond being part of the wider strategic group.

And we need development. A Plymouth open data and API (Application Programming Interface) would provide the technological platform for different actors and enterprises to build local smart projects, coherently with the civic strategy. This could be driven jointly by private social enterprise and university partners as an R&D programme. The local authority should also participate, both as a public ‘guardian’ and patron, and as an interested actor as far as planning and other activities are concerned. More could be offered of course in terms of the hardware and software to implement smart locally, and local companies/industry should be involved.

Plymouth has the ingredients to be inclusive, and shaping smart developments around these can be an important opportunity to lead on urban innovation.

Plymouth Social Enterprise Network