From Smart Cities to Rural Communities

I spend much of my time working on various Smart City programmes: anything from modelling need and opportunity to designing architectures for the fusion of large and diverse data sets with live sensor and device data (IoT) and the analytics needed to make the results coherent, timely and relevant. I also live in a very small community, one where was founder of a community company whose efforts have led to our little corner of the Scottish Highlands being in the top 1% of global broadband connectivity. We’re now starting to use that infrastructure to create opportunities for new services and means of service delivery, applying the principles of Smart City programmes to the needs of rural and remote communities, based on the tripod of providing the tools (in the form of the infrastructure), helping people acquire appropriate skills and then nurturing the ideas that then emerge.

Smart Cities use monitoring, analytic and communications technologies to improve services and create new classes of service, engaging citizens, enterprises and city governments, with the goal of making cities more responsive, efficient and sustainable. By definition, these initiatives ignore the potential benefits to rural areas of similar approaches. These areas can benefit from many of the same approaches as urban environments, albeit with a different but overlapping set of priorities. They also have their own specific needs and opportunities.

The World of the Smart City

Smart City initiatives integrate a wide range of data sources from both existing systems and emerging technologies, analyse the resulting data sets and use the feedback to engage, inform and enable citizens, enterprises and government. The notion of the Smart City has arisen with the rise of a new generation of technologies that enable the collection, analysis and visualisation of data from multiple sources in real time or near real time, using Internet of Things (IoT) devices, 5G networks, Building Management Systems (BMS) tools, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Blockchain services, autonomous and Ultra-Low Emission vehicles, ‘big data’, hyperlocal mapping or any combination of these and other technologies. In the UK, a number of Smart City programmes have been funded by the UK’s innovation funding agency, InnovateUK, and is a significant innovation element in the UK’s City Deal funding programme for regional growth initiatives. 

It is still early days for the Smart City concept but, as the outcome of trials help us to learn to separate real utility from the hype of new technologies (and their promoters), genuine gains are being identified in quality of service, efficiencies for all providers and users of service, as well as in overall sustainability.

Many existing Smart City initiatives are technology led: exploring the potential for any and all of the panoply of modern technologies to do particular things – to pick three diverse examples – personalised advertising on peoples’ phones as they walk past a shop to predictive energy management for urban lighting or the scheduling of public transport based on instantaneous demand. With much of the focus to date being about just getting things to work and understanding their individual and combined potential, the notion of then creating something that is genuinely and casually useful to any sector of the population has come a distant second.

That is changing: as the technology matures and as we improve our understanding of what actually works for people in different environments, we’re starting to be able to use our knowledge of the possible to solve real-world problems.

Smart Cities and the Urban/Rural Divide

’Smart City’ is however a self-limiting term: by definition, it excludes those living in rural areas from the same potential benefits, risking a further widening of the urban/rural divide in terms of access to services, employment and opportunity and the cost and sustainability of living. In rural communities, even the most basic of services available to most urban dwellers can be – at best – a challenge and, at worst, a complete impossibility. That covers everything from access to health and welfare services, public transport, shopping and entertainment.

The Smart City goals of reducing costs and resource consumption and increasing contact and responsiveness between citizens, enterprises and government are however universally applicable: everyone faces many common issues, albeit with a different set of priorities for those in rural and remote areas. For example, most people are concerned about pollution, but it’s a much lower priority in the Scottish Highlands than it is in central Edinburgh; more efficient public transport is a priority, wherever you live, but in town that might mean giving people better intelligence about when buses or trams will arrive whereas, in rural areas, it may be a question of knowing which on which days a bus will run. 

As a broad generalisation, people who live in rural communities:

  • spend more time travelling: it’s simply further to go to get anything
  • have less convenient access to both preventative and crisis healthcare and social services
  • have less choice of and access to education, at all levels
  • have poorer access to physical shops, entertainment and leisure facilities
  • have reduced access to employment, in terms of physical distance/time and in the diversity and value of jobs.
  • risk social isolation by reason of geography and/or reduced mobility.
  • a higher operational carbon footprint than characterises most urban environments.

Businesses operating in rural or remote areas face many of the same problems, plus specific challenges:

  • Restricted access to markets.
  • Ability to grow within an area, rather than moving out.
  • Extended and/or unreliable supply chains.
  • Poor physical and electronic communications inhibiting their ability to do business.
  • Higher costs of doing business, driven by any and all of the above.

None of that is to say that there are not very significant advantages to living and working in rural areas, which can have:

  • A higher perceived quality of life and environment.
  • Often, stronger communities and greater local activism and self-support.
  • A lower embodied carbon footprint than the more densely built environment of urban areas.
  • Often, lower travel times per distance travelled, due to lower congestion and less of a ‘rush hour’.
  • Better availability and lower cost of land and property.

Overall though, this means that, while rural areas are attractive as places to live and to bring up families, development and inward migration are often inhibited by higher unit and overall costs of living, a lesser degree of convenience, particularly for those of restricted income or mobility, poorer sustainability and – very often – poorer communications of all kinds.

The challenge for governments and public services with significant rural constituencies is the counterpart of these issues: of stimulating economic growth across their entire geography and of managing the costs of service delivery whilst ensuring equity of access and meeting commitments to increased sustainability across all their operations.

Smart Communities

So, what can – and should – we be doing to extend the potential of the Smart City model from the urban to the rural, allowing us to create, not just Smart Cities, but Smart Communities, wherever they happen to be? If the potential of ‘Smart’ here is the universal, timely and relevant provision of services enabled by ubiquitous communications and the collection, analysis and sharing of data, then we have an opportunity to improve the reach of and access to existing services, create new classes of service and enable communities and enterprises to come up with their own ideas. Whilst the model will differ for each area, the long-term outcomes can include:

  • Creating transformative opportunity for rural communities by reducing or removing the barriers of population density and difference.
  • Making services truly universal in access by removing barriers of cost, geography and mobility
  • Improving the diversity, resilience and sustainability of the rural economy

Process

In enabling any community to fulfil its potential, attempts to impose particular intents or outcomes are often foredoomed – these only see part of a picture and do not take into account the breadth and range of opportunity that any community is capable of creating for itself. That doesn’t however mean don’t do anything – we need to create a framework that copes with everything from enabling the already aware to helping others become aware of possibilities and helping them acquire the skills and knowledge to do their own thing.

Whether urban or rural, there is a degree of experimentation needed, to find out just what approaches work – technologically, socially and effectively. Beyond that though, service innovation comes not from the top-down imposition of fixed ideas that may or may not have relevance to a particular environment, but from a trifecta of activities, which include:

  1. Creating the tools: providing an enabling infrastructure common to service monitoring and delivery. As a start, that includes effective universal broadband and mobile communications.
  2. Acquiring the skills: help local and incoming individuals, companies and service providers to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to understand what is actually possible with the infrastructure and tools available to them.
  3. Supporting the ideas: given the infrastructure and the skills, the next level is to encourage, co-ordinate and support the ideas that will then emerge from the various constituencies in and around a community.

Taken together, these enable us to capitalise on the inherent qualities of communities, to enhance their existing capabilities and to unlock needs and solutions for innovative new capabilities. The bottom line here is that, with modern communications and an awareness of how to exploit them, there is no reason why any rural or remote area need be economically disadvantaged relative to urban areas, and plenty of opportunity to reverse the relative decline of rural communities.

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