Smart cities in the UK: Where are they?

A CGI render of a smart city, shown at night from above. Each skyscraper is connected to others by glowing blue lines representing data.
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The phrase ‘smart city’ means many things to many people, but it’s been nearly 20 years since the term was first used by IBM and Cisco to recognize how connected sensors can be used to monitor urban issues. Smart cities in the UK were a hot topic just a few years ago, but in the time since progress has been divided between regions.

Local authorities, regional mayors, as well as companies from across the private sector are focused on collaborating to deploy smart networks. The hope is these will transform how people, vehicles, and businesses benefit from positive interactions with technology.

Gradually, this work is cutting through to business customers and the general public. Technologies such as 5G, AI, and the Internet of Things (IoT) were identified by 54%, 42%, and 37% of Brits respectively as being used right now within their own cities according to a recent survey by software and services marketplace Capterra.

While this doesn’t automatically make those cities ‘smart’, experts say such increased public awareness is important to the overall goal of collecting and analyzing data from a wide range of sources to boost automation, security, safety, and communication at a local level. Capterra suggests this could include using AI and predictive analytics to schedule road maintenance or leveraging IoT sensors to spot issues with waste management. 

Smart cities in the UK: What and where are they?

Smart cities are urban environments in which connected devices are used to collect real-time data and feed this into systems that can improve public and private services. For example, digitization of urban transport such as bus services can provide passengers with live arrival information and also signal to a transportation department if there are any inefficiencies present within the transport system. The benefits of smart cities include:

  • Better, more responsive public services for citizens.
  • Improved accessibility at the public and private level, alongside better digital experience through which business can increase revenue. This applies to businesses that have not formerly had as visible a digital presence.
  • A streamlined path to sustainable transformation.
  • Greater quality and depth of information for data-driven decision-making at the public and private level.

According to Dr Robert Johns, engineer and data analyst at programming language and DevOps tutorial site Hackr, the smart city concept has evolved rapidly over the past five years. Johns has analyzed petabytes of urban data on transportation, resource usage, and public service access in his research.

The initial focus of smart cities in the UK was around edge sensors and connectivity infrastructure, but Johns says advancements in Dublin and Copenhagen have shown “the critical role data plays in powering innovative, sustainable solutions”. 

“One study I led in Dublin using IoT feeds from traffic cams and public transit usage revealed optimization opportunities that reduced commute times by an average of 15 minutes – a lesson well learned,” Johns tells ITPro

Newcastle’s open data successes are cited as another example by Johns. “Their portal spawned over 300 community solutions like one helping at-risk youth find activities I advised on,” he explains.

To date, the fragmented landscape for smart cities in the UK has driven regional divides. While some urban areas lag behind, Leeds City Council is digitizing to provide a city-wide network layer for businesses, while Edinburgh aims to become a cutting-edge smart city to improve its traffic, security, and social housing infrastructure.

Cities such as London and Bristol are achieving faster travel times and slashing energy bills through the use of smart tech.

“Looking ahead, strategic data-driven partnerships unlocking urban potential will define smarter development,” Johns adds. 

“Early leaders provide a solid starting point, but widespread change demands sustained cross-sector collaboration and policies maximizing social good. The future, from where I stand, looks bright for evidence-based communities worldwide.”

Smart cities in the UK: Accelerating progress

Dennis Dokter, smart cities lead at the University of Leeds’ innovation hub Nexus, believes the creation of smart cities should not be defined by set deadlines. Instead, the core challenge is determining what to digitize first with the path being “iterative and ongoing”. 

“We may never witness a ‘smart city’ in its complete form as the term implies,” he says. “Cities should ideally become ‘smarter’, continuously evolving alongside advancements in technology and society. 

“Redefining ‘smart’ in the context of urban development should emphasize not only the technological push towards digitization and automation but also a city where those systems are used for citizen engagement, inclusive growth, and democratization.”

The need for this positive messaging around smart cities is clear, with those surveyed in Capterra’s research admitting to fears surrounding the technology associated with UK smart city projects. Half (49%) pointed to the potential for “increased surveillance” and six in 10 (62%) worried about the lack of data protection. These fears aren’t entirely without merit, as the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has previously warned smart cities in the UK could be vulnerable to foreign influence, or enable cyber attacks on critical national infrastructure.


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“As smart cities depend on the use of large volumes of data from various sources, companies and other urban authorities need to do everything they can to reassure residents their data is being collected in a responsible and legal manner,” Capterra analyst Eduardo Garcia Rodriguez warns.

Politics also has a pivotal role to play to ensure faster progress. Bob Driver, lead for adoption at the UK Telecoms Innovation Network (UKTIN), suggests the Smart Infrastructure Pilots Programme (SIPP) – which enables the procurement and testing of multi-purpose columns for connectivity services – and the 5G Innovation Regions Programme are a good example of successful policy choices so far.

However, before organizations and sectors across the UK can “truly label themselves as connected communities”, Driver adds: “The next step in the UK’s journey must involve collaboration between local and regional authorities and the telco supply chain to navigate the complexities surrounding the successful deployment of these technologies in places and key regional industries.”

Smart cities in the UK: Driving value

Unnecessary government intervention can also be problematic, experts warn. Kevin Curran, senior Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) member and professor of cybersecurity at Ulster University,  suggests where any smart city implementation is driven by government wishes and motivation, “you must question whether the government understands what it is requiring and whether it is of any practical value to the citizen”.

“When implemented correctly, smart city technologies allow growing populations to be serviced more efficiently. Some argue the future growth of the planet’s population can only be sustained through scalable smart city technology.”

Transport is one area where much smart city success is being achieved. Edoardo Bevilacqua, of Mia-Platform, points to Greater Manchester’s Bee Network, an integrated sustainable transport network composed of bus, tram, cycling, and walking routes, due to be fully operational by 2025. Birmingham also has a similar plan to be operational by 2031. 

This ongoing and increasing drive to make pockets of infrastructure ‘smart’ can be held back or delayed by incompatible legacy technology and systems with the exchange of data needing stringent standards and interoperability.

Bevilacqua tells ITPro that this is an area the UK should target for improvement. “Issues such as discoverability, security, legal and contractual barriers, lack of investment, the quality of data available, and low rates of digital literacy and technical skills all need addressing,” he says.

However, Sam Jackman, chief development officer at Shared Access, the owner and operator of shared telecommunications infrastructure, believes the future for smart cities is bright – even if he concedes no city will be torn down and rebuilt from scratch.

Retrofitting, he suggests, can ultimately be achieved by partners and providers working together through pooling assets, standardizing processes and legal approaches, and developing a holistic understanding of which smart city elements a particular location is pushing for.

Jackman is seeing a greater understanding of what’s possible alongside acknowledgment of the benefits stemming from investments already made. Jackman says this has “turbocharged progress” and he predicts that "the next five years should see significantly more rapid growth than the previous five”.

Jonathan Weinberg is a freelance journalist and writer who specialises in technology and business, with a particular interest in the social and economic impact on the future of work and wider society. His passion is for telling stories that show how technology and digital improves our lives for the better, while keeping one eye on the emerging security and privacy dangers. A former national newspaper technology, gadgets and gaming editor for a decade, Jonathan has been bylined in national, consumer and trade publications across print and online, in the UK and the US.