HRD's pocket guide to... smart cities

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The HRD’s pocket guide series offers an explanation of areas outside day-to-day HR that business-savvy HRDs need to have a handle on

Why do I need to know about it?

You have a smartphone, a smart TV… you might even consider Alexa a member of the family. All of these devices operate on the Internet of Things (IoT); a system of interrelated computing devices that transfer data across a network. It’s a technology we’ve come to rely on to make our personal lives easier and more efficient. Yet mention the term ‘smart cities’ and few are able to define the concept.

In basic terms a smart city is an urban area that uses data collected via the IoT to improve the efficiency of its services and infrastructure, and ultimately improve the lives of its citizens. You might have rubbish bins with sensors detecting when they’re full or live in a town that collects traffic data to forecast air quality.

With the UN predicting that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 how we operate our cities will become increasingly important if we are to cope with the increased numbers of residents and workers.

What do I need to know?

According to the most recent Smart City Index the number of cities with a ‘smart’ strategy has almost doubled in the past two years, rising from 87 in 2017 to 153 in 2019. London currently ranks as the second-smartest city in the world behind Vienna, with Birmingham occupying seventh place.

Both London and Birmingham have put digital transformation at the heart of future investment. Birmingham set out its Smart City Roadmap as far back as 2012, while the capital appointed its first chief digital officer – Theo Blackwell – in 2017.

While digitisation of services might seem like a silver bullet for the problems created by increased urbanisation (congestion, air pollution, mobility to name a few), any successful ‘smart’ strategy must be integrated properly if it is to achieve its overarching aim of improving the lives of citizens.

“A smart city is a very blended but holistic ecosystem,” says Jacqui Taylor, CEO and founder of FlyingBinary and smart cities advisor to the government. “It has public organisations, private companies and a third sector presence and its citizens are actively involved. It’s very much a collaborative environment as opposed to a competitive one. If an organisation already has initiatives that improve the health and wellbeing of its employees then sharing those as part of the wider community through collaboration is key to making a smart city work.”

However, 90% of the 153 cities analysed by the Smart City Index currently do not have an integrated strategy, explains Taylor: “What’s gone wrong is technology has been the outcome, not the enabler. We need to reboot the whole smart agenda.”

Where can HR add value?

Taylor believes that HR is perfectly positioned to help reboot that agenda. “HR should lead the board on the future of smart cities, because that future is much more of a partnership model and HR directors already have that focus,” she says.

Mirroring Taylor’s view on the collaborative nature of smart cities, Carolyn Moore, global HR lead for digital transformation at Arcadis and former director of HR and corporate services at Future Cities Catapult, tells HR magazine that it’s important for HR to keep the internal workforce’s capabilities up to speed with the external digital transformation of smart cities.

“Our core [digital transformation] programme, Expedition DNA, builds digital capability at all levels of the business, and engages employees directly in learning about digitisation and human-centred design,” explains Moore.

As the infrastructure of smart cities changes there will be an obvious impact on the ways people work, she adds: “To address congestion issues cities may take a variety of approaches that provide more flexible options to travel or provide services in a way that does not require people to travel at all.

“This has implications for employment – from the location of your office, to the changing expectations of the workforce, and the need to provide a frictionless employee experience to attract and retain a more mobile and digitally-networked workforce.”

Anything else?

HR can also benefit from the development of smart infrastructure by using it to leverage its internal working environment, adds Graeme Rees, UK&I digital energy marketing manager at Schneider Electric.

“Employee attendance, sickness, productivity, wellbeing and engagement are affected by the working environment,” he says, highlighting that the ability to measure and improve air quality can affect employee wellbeing.

Smart building technology can also be used to monitor the use of office space in real time, leading to better office layouts and more comfortable conditions, which in turn lead to enhanced productivity.

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