Smart Cities

According to the UN, 68% of people will live in an urban area by 2050—so it’s essential that those cities can withstand population growth. Osborne Clarke has put its efforts into researching infrastructure, working trends, transport systems and energy in the urban environment, to forecast how businesses and individuals will proceed.

  • Last updated Dec 20, 2018 11:00:16 AM
  • Written by Becky Kells. Contributed by Osborne Clarke.
Image: Freepik

People all over the world gravitate towards urban areas, for a number of reasons. Cities are the hosts of universities and major employers. Metropolitan areas are granted ample investment, and have a wide range of facilities, from leisure to healthcare. The appeal of the city has taken over the world: so much so, that in 2050, we can expect 68% of the global population to live in just 2% of the world’s surface. 

The problem with this gravitation towards heavily-populated areas is that it intensifies existing issues within cities, and creates new ones. Cities across the global are struggling with air pollution and in some of the worst cities, citizens are breathing air particles that are 17 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s safe limit. In Latin America, the world’s most urbanised region, 25% of the urban population is living in slums. The city with the highest level of traffic congestion in the world is Los Angeles, and other major US cities are similar: Americans spend an average of 41 hours a year stuck in traffic jams. Many urban areas suffer from a combination of these problems, and more.

While the modern era brings the challenge of a constantly-growing population, it also brings technological advancements. We’re already using technology to stay connected on a personal level, via smartphones, internet access and online networks. Research by Osborne Clarke confirms that extrapolating this idea of connectivity, and applying into to our rapidly-growing cities, is one way to build functional, future-ready urban areas.

The built environment

There are many initiatives in place to improve the built environment—many of which are technology-based. O2 released a new report earlier this year, stating that the introduction of 5G wireless technology to the UK’s cities could generate as much as £6bn in productivity savings across those cities. O2’s research suggests that 5G-enabled smart grids will give consumers more of a choice in their energy provider, as well as improving efficiency through the sharing of data. 

O2’s chief executive, Mark Evans, said that 5G will provide “unprecedented benefits for consumers, councils and cities alike”. Successfully implemented 5G would relieve strain on the NHS, aid local councils, as well as relieving pressure on the pockets of citizens. Data sharing is also having a positive effect on the efficiency of transport in London. Transport for London (TFL) has released open data on London’s transport systems, allowing realtime public access to timetables, service status and disruption information. This data is picked up and utilised by more than 600 transport-focused apps across the city.

Not only does this increase journey efficiency for London’s commuters, tourists and citizens, it also benefits the economy. A report by Deloitte indicates that TFL’s release of open data boosts London’s economy by up to £130m per year. “data is becoming as important as other types of infrastructure, such as roads and electricity, which means building strong data infrastructure is vital to economic growth and wellbeing”, said Jeni Tennison, CEO at the Open Data Institute. Such developments point towards one solution to inefficiency in urban spaces: building a stronger relationship between the built environment and the data that it produces.

Future living

Creating a smart city is not just a case of reforming infrastructure, usage and delivery: the most efficient urban environments will also have smart workplaces, sustained by a combination of innovative technology and changed attitude towards working style.

Workforces have changed significantly in recent years, with people less enthused by traditional, nine-to-five employment, and more drawn to flexible working. While many have highlighted the drawbacks of the gig economy, it has given the world a taste of a different working style.

A surprising new addition to the gig economy is PwC. Known for world-class accountancy and consulting, the firm has recently introduced a Flexible Talent Network. Rather than applying for a specific job, applicants to the Network will declare their skills and a working pattern that works for them, and PwC will match them with a relevant project. PwC also has a six-month paid internship programme, Back to Business, which helps professionals to restart their career after an extended break.

The introduction of different routes into the firm demonstrates sensitivity to the different circumstances of 21st century professionals. It’s a trend reflected by employers as a whole: research by freelancing website Upwork shows that 63% of firms now have remote workers, with respondents predicting that in the next ten years, 38% of permanent full-time employees will be based remotely. 

Intelligent transport systems 

Creating a cost-effective, efficient, environmentally-friendly transport system is one of the most significant current challenges faced by cities worldwide. It’s a difficult issue to master: many cities have struggled to create a low-carbon transport network that does not decrease mobility, runs on time, and meets the population’s demands. 

App-based technology has fuelled the global expansion of on-demand transport and ride-sharing. Bike-sharing services have proven to be profitable, due to the low levels of investment required, and they are also environmentally-friendly. However, as with traditional modes of transport, it’s important for cities to regulate bike share services. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) has stressed the importance of dockless bikes being integrated within the mass transit network of the city and capable of sharing data. Responding to consequences of dockless bikes being left in unsuitable locations and cluttering the streetscape, the ITDP also said that it’s important for bike share operators to respond to poorly parked cycles in a timely manner, and have a dedicated staff on hand in the city of operation.

eScooters, motorised electric skateboards and other forms of personal transport are taking off on the West Coast of America; something which may become a global phenomenon. While bike-sharing is one environmentally friendly way to increase mobility around cities, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s also essential that existing modes of transport address their contribution to congestion and air quality in their cities of operation. Research has shown that ride-hailing drivers could save thousands per year by embracing electric vehicles, in a move that would also reduce the carbon footprint of their vehicles. 

Smart energy

The final, crucial area covered in Osborne Clarke’s smart cities research is energy. Energy has long been at the centre of efforts to improve our impact on the environment, whether renewable energy, energy efficiency or more recently smart energy technologies. Smart meters are part of the wider digitisation of the energy sector, and provide a way for consumers to better understand their energy usage, leading to behaviour and money savings. The collection of data from smart meters will also benefit energy on a wider scale: distribution companies can use the data to understand network losses and meet the demand for power. Although the programme has suffered setbacks, smart meters are already starting to spread across the UK, and all households should have one by 2020.

Other smart energy projects are aimed at incorporating renewable energy sources into cities on a wider scale. London has planned one of the first “virtual power plants”, using electricity generated by household solar panels and battery storage. Existing household storage panels will be equipped with batteries, which can in turn be discharged on a local level to relieve pressure when energy demand is particularly high. When it comes to solving existing problems, and preventing new ones, cities must collaborate on how to use smart technology. Lawyers will be integral to this collaborative process, in the advice that they give, the clients with which they work, and the changes they are able to recommend. With this in mind, an understanding of smart cities and their capabilities from a legal perspective is of paramount importance.

This article is derived in part from Osborne Clarke’s Smart Cities research. You can view the full research at 

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