Technology & Tools
Smart Cities: Opportunity for Procurement Innovation and a Bright Future for Lamp-posts

At the Wales Procurement Week in March, one of the main themes which took up all of the Wednesday session was Smart Cities. Not just the future of technology in smart cities, the sensors, servers and RFID chips all networked to tell you where the nearest free parking space is, or what the quality of the water is you are drinking, but the potential of ICT to address each city’s own social, environmental, economic and cultural challenges. Cities that can intelligently accommodate the rising urban population and make them better places to live, work and visit through harnessing the information that will be used to improve the economic and environmental health of a city, the working conditions and therefore productivity. Cities that can ‘talk’ and engage directly with citizens and react to their transport, energy, health care, water, waste needs through smart devices.

Not particularly a hot procurement topic you might think. In fact, some of the delegates we spoke to were also asking that question – what’s it got to do with procurement?  How does this help me do my procurement job better?  So after his keynote on the subject, we had a chat with Peter Fatelnig, Deputy Head of Unit for ‘Net Innovation’ and DG for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, European Commission.

In his speech he told us how the financial crisis has forced us to look at the evolution of the social economy for the next 30-40 years. He told us about the hundreds of million euros invested in future internet services in Europe and how Europe has undergone massive economic transformation in very recent years – “from a time when banks would bail out states, to states bailing out banks.”

And he explained that the ‘game changers’ of the future will not be technology-driven, but culture-driven; a rich bank of education, knowledge, culture, entrepreneurialism, skills, already exists in society and we need to tap into that and apply knowledge transfer to generate a common knowledge and innovation space. We don’t have to generate it – it already exists. Innovation, upon which the cities of the future rely, is already around every corner. Countries like France are already investing heavily in ICT and cities like Santander in northern Spain, with its 20,000 sensors connecting buildings, infrastructure, transport, networks and utilities, are leading the way.

But, he says, it’s not enough. We need to invest more in R&D in Europe, and see every procurement as an opportunity to “buy innovation.” Every company will have the opportunity to share and sell its wares through “vendor-independent open platforms.” The concern is not just to deliver a service but to be inspirational and innovative.

Data is key – but how can it benefit the citizen? Well, Vienna may have 268 public toilets, but they are all open at different times, so the App developed doesn’t just tell you the location, but also when it is open, provides a route, and so on.

But does public procurement in Europe have the capability to support these developments and the “cities of the future”? And are the supply markets there to provide what is needed, to innovate, develop and apply technology? Or will we end up going to China to source our sensors and smart devices?

There are a number of angles to this, Fatelnig says: there is no overall European public procurement strategy because it’s a complex issue, but the ingredients are already there: the technology is already there; the platforms and hardware are already there; the people and knowledge are already there. It’s not about bringing anything in, it’s about developing what we’ve got, and investing in our SMEs.

The digital revolution for cities will be based on what the majority of people want — their requirements — whether it’s a smart traffic system or an intelligent port. The job is to develop around that demand. You start with the sector, then add the tech. There will be lots of opportunity for software development, so lots of opportunities for SMEs to shine. And there will be more focus on sourcing locally.

Take public lamp-posts for example. Believe it or not they are a key product of the future – they are perfect hosts for the perfect infrastructure to host other infrastructures. They are spaced very conveniently at 50 metres apart; they are robust; they are tall (good for signals); and they are easily locally procured. You can put sensors, wireless, 5G technology in there – they are the perfect platform to house the networking technology.

So, if you’re wondering where your innovation, manufacturing, sourcing, buying strengths might sit in the digital city, get yourself into the lamp-post business. You’re going to be in great demand!