Britain’s business and technology media regularly examine the latest developments in London’s Tech City. But Inner East London’s position as the UK’s most celebrated start-up cluster should not blind us to the exciting developments in many other cities across our islands.
A number of UK and Irish cities have drawn on today’s growing interest in the ‘smarter cities’ agenda, where fostering local technology innovations is creating the conditions in which urban communities can make better life choices and use local resources in a more sustainable way in the future.
In these communities, councils, academic institutions and big software firms are coming together to support local entrepreneurship, build exciting technology clusters and attract crucial support such as access to advice networks and venture capital. They are doing this in four ‘breakthrough’ ways: providing more innovation-focused public-private partnerships; updating communications infrastructures; creating open government and transactional data for innovation purposes; encouraging big firms’ sponsorship both of start-up technology innovations and their longer term commercial realisation.
1. Partnership and collaboration
First, faced with years of reduced funding, councils are thinking more imaginatively, setting up different partnerships and collaborations to boost economic growth locally. Instead of simply giving money to individual technology start-ups, they and their partner institutions are setting up smarter city initiatives, local technology hubs and collaborative innovation programmes to attract and support start-ups over time.
Birmingham City Council has invited leading firms and academic institutions to join its Smart City Commission which will examine and address the community’s future needs. The council hopes to team up with technology specialists and start-ups to harness data analytics and drive technology innovations for smarter living.
In Scotland, Edinburgh University has such as strong record over the years of nurturing technology spin-off companies from its research & development activity that venture capital firms are now considering setting up offices in the Scottish capital.
2. Infrastructures for innovation
Second, global firms and city councils are joining forces to make new supply chains, wireless networks and fast broadband infrastructures available. In the North East, Sunderland City Council has joined forces with IBM to build a city-wide Cloud computing infrastructure and a joint programme of start-ups support through the Sunderland Software City incubation facility.
3. Open government
Third, councils are pursuing more ‘open government’ to inspire technology innovations. City halls are opening up the “big data” from cities’ economic activity, citizens’ interactions with the local amenities and local authorities’ delivery of services, allowing entrepreneurs, researchers and developers to design better local community services making targeted use of resources.
This open approach is helping councils to rethink local services or finding ways for start-up innovations to co-produce services. New app-based services can help meet growing demands on local services, since citizens will increasingly use digital platforms to access business support, parking, street cleaning or community support.
In Ireland, “Dublinked” is a smarter city living involving all the public authorities serving the capital and its environs. Its “open data portal” for the city region has made transactional and local service information available to the local universities’ research community as well as start-ups and established businesses to help identify local demands and promote the “apps” economy that will help meet them.
4. Big firms support start-up accelerators
Where it was once generally assumed that large firms alone drove meaningful innovation, there is now a greater realisation of the different roles that city governments, large firms and start-ups can play in building lasting innovation and with it, smarter, more sustainable cities.
Global firms are sponsoring bigger and longer-term entrepreneurship programmes that look beyond ‘one-off’ technology boot camps to fund strategic infrastructure developments and start-up mentoring programmes based around Britain and Ireland’s technology clusters. These initiatives can help entrepreneurs through years of development.
By these sponsorships, global technology firms can provide the IT infrastructures and informal networking skills that many small firms struggle to develop for themselves including: providing the management resources to work with city councils’ senior executives over time; supplying the in-company commercial expertise and wider contacts to mentor technology start-ups; and opening the door to technology industry business angels and venture capital that might once have been limited to much larger cities like London.
London-based start-ups and accelerator programmes have long had access to sponsors, venture capital and expert guidance. The rise of smarter city projects around Britain and Ireland is showing that collaboration between town halls, global technology firms and start-ups is boosting our regional cities’ scope for innovation, renewed economic development and ultimately, better life choices.