Ed Craig: SMEs must be included in innovation

'The term "smart city" is often spoken about but rarely achieved'. Picture: Kerry Salmond
'The term "smart city" is often spoken about but rarely achieved'. Picture: Kerry Salmond
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THE term “smart city” is often spoken about and regularly aspired to but rarely achieved.

Whilst we have seen a revolution in information and communication technology over the past 30 years, the practicalities of applying this technology to improve outcomes of complex, overlapping social issues – such as energy and resource use and mobility – have proved much more difficult. This often reflects the challenge of bringing together multiple public and private sector stakeholders, with different languages, agendas and timescales, around a common challenge.

Cities are key engines for economic growth, both for the cities themselves, their local regions and their citizens. However, it is also important not to focus solely on cities and lose the opportunity to create a legacy of sustainable economic development in our rural, peripheral regions and island communities.

In Scotland there are numerous stalled or potential projects that can be defined as “smart city region” or “smart island” initiatives. Terminology aside, it is considered a priority area internationally for regional authorities, as well as development and enterprise agencies. Significant public and private funding is available to develop and implement well-planned projects, ranging from Scottish Government and public sector initiatives to large corporations and specialist investment agencies such as the Green Investment Bank (GIB).

In addition, international development agencies such as the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) are seeking expertise and good practices to accelerate the development of up to 100 “smart and sustainable cities and communities” in the Caribbean, Central and Southern America. The EU have prioritised smart and sustainable cities funding through its prestigious Horizon 2020 funding (€80 billion in funding to innovative projects between 2014-2020). Accessing funding is not therefore the key barrier to progressing successful smart projects in Scotland.

Evidence suggests that successful smart projects need to be underpinned by a clear, compelling vision, be owned by the relevant stakeholders and be specifically “citizen-centric”. All too often, projects do not take full advantage of the good and bad experiences and knowledge available from other international and UK projects..

Project designers and partners must consider not only the key outcomes, intended impacts and the financial scale to enable project funding but also the appropriate shape and size of the partnership. It is curious that despite the key role of SMEs in Scotland’s sustainable economic development, it is rare for these enterprises to be integrated into the development of smart project partnerships. The engagement of SMEs is challenging due to the complexity and time commitment required but essential in building effective and truly innovative projects. A similar argument can be made for our world-class academic institutions, whose role as both knowledge owner and knowledge broker should be exploited more effectively.

In Scotland, multiple public sector agencies and stakeholders have come together under the banner of the Smart Accelerator initiative to support the identification, development and acceleration of large-scale “smart” projects with the aim of improving the wellbeing of Scottish citizens and supporting Scotland’s transition to a low-carbon economy. These projects aim to create more resource-efficient, low-carbon, “smart” city regions and islands, drawing on international good practice and integrating the knowledge and expertise of Scottish companies and universities. This partnership is led by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI), and funded and supported by the Scottish Government, Transport Scotland, the Cities Alliance, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

The partnership will prioritise a list of preferred projects over the coming three months, whilst also supporting our business sector to offer new project ideas. Emerging proposals include the integration of energy data from increasingly instrumented and interconnected city regions, sustainable port infrastructure, innovative fuels, mobility, and food and waste/water provision to support more effective products and services. The partnership will then provide the drive, co-ordination, staff and expert resources to accelerate the project proposals to the point where they are independently investable. Supported projects will have access to examples of international good practice and will work with local companies.

• Ed Craig is head of enterprise and innovation at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation

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