Challenges of the political and regulatory landscape

Written by Niki May Young on 2 November 2012

Smart cities are hampered by politics and age-old regulation, according to leaders in the planning and development sectors from both the UK and the US. At a roundtable discussion with World Cities Network, a select group of city planners, legal representatives and engineers discussed opportunities and barriers in policy and regulation on both sides of the Atlantic, recognising a consensus in these areas.


Most cities first erupted as centres of industry. Vertiginous billowing chimneys, trail upon trail of dissecting residences, early morning and late afternoon swarms of workers black with well-earned sweat from the factories that breathed life through the cities' veins. It was the same on both sides of the Atlantic, where people moved to cities in search of education and work, to make a living.

Most cities remain so. Cities like London and New York maintain a daily tide of workers, albeit more likely dressed in a suit and tie, than overalls these days. And these cities continue to expand. Those present at the World Cities Network roundtable acknowledged a tremendous migration into urban living that looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile other cities, whose very existence is a result of the industrial revolution, have witnessed their own sorry demise after too heavy a reliance on a solitary source of finance. Both scenarios present significant challenges for city planners, which were addressed from both the American and the British perspective.

One observation is true in both the swelling and the shrinking city: while our diligent predecessors chose cities predominantly as a place to forge an income, the impetus in recent days has changed. While work will always remain a factor, people now live in cities because they want to. It's about creating a place that people want to live, or “place-making”, rather than just “space-providing”, said one observer. Cities need to invest in culture as an engine of economic development. There are also quality of life issues such as clean streets and living 10 minutes away from parks. 

commuters in london

Meanwhile small and medium enterprises are becoming increasingly prevalent. The kinds of spaces provided for commerce therefore must change to accommodate, moving away from vast conglomerate offices to flexible collaborative spaces, more like 'corporate coffee houses' where similar businesses can bump heads together and smaller organisations can expand at their desire. In this essence, cities are becoming smaller, more community-focused. An American example, however, combats this theory, realising that big business still remains a draw for many. Post 9-11, one participant reminisced, there was a lot of talk about New York not recovering, driving business away. But Goldman Sachs built a monolithic office block right in the centre in order to pull people back to the city, and it worked.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, however, comparisons were drawn between the US city of Detroit and UK's Liverpool. Both cities lost their lifeblood when their industrial hearts stopped pumping. But while Liverpool reinvented itself through investment in the arts to become European Capital of Culture 2008, albeit retaining a significant hangover of social deprivation, Detroit is facing the unenviable circumstance of considering downsizing, as an exodus of population and finance has left the city's infrastructure unviable.

But why has Liverpool succeeded where Detroit has failed? Around the table American participants spoke in strong terms of a paralysis in decision making and leadership on planning at federal level, restricted by the Constitution. They advised that the three-tier system of government in the US, with federal, state and city-level politics, made it all but impossible to progress planning for resilience. This has prompted recent discussion over a return to home-rule, where each county is run distinctly from the next. In current reality, cities bear the burden of planning already, however one speaker advised that America is too 'hyper-political' to take forward necessary changes. Upon being asked if, in the scenario of downsizing, it would even be possible to move residents in Detroit to other areas of the city, the speaker said, “Sure, it can be done, but do you want to get elected next time around?”

The three-level structure of politics in the US is topped with a federal government that “has no interest in planning”, discussions continued, and when it does provide funding, cities would rather refuse because it “comes with too many strings”. Those around the table discussed how a lack of civic vision meant that there could be little progress towards the implementation of smart systems. Political blinkering is combined with social detachment to create a block for integrating technology. “Before political will you have to have political understanding, and electoral understanding”, said one speaker, who was one of several to suggest that development “is not popular”. Systems have been devised in some cities to integrate emergency services more intelligently, but implementation has been a long process, with social barriers providing unnecessary resistance to change - police, fire and ambulance services not working in unison for the bigger picture.

Back in the UK resistance to change is not only echoed in the population, but from the 'establishment'. Planners often struggle to create a shared understanding with de-nationalised infrastructure providers - water, electricity, rail companies etc. But the two-tier political system was also criticised. In a constantly revolving political structure where local government can  change more often than central, projects previously approved by the incumbent leader may be dismissed in a battle of wills as the new leader steps up to the plate. Both sides of the pond agreed that cities with a strong mayoral presence can benefit from the additional time that resilience projects require, and stand to make bigger shifts towards a smarter approach to planning.

In any city, however, political will often has to be teased out by financial impetus. If you can create conditions for the private sector to thrive, formulating your civic vision along the way, and then involve the public sector, investment will follow and a development platform is built, one speaker advised.

Providing financial impetus where technology is implemented, however, can have its difficulties, it was agreed, with return on investment seen as too long for some niche technologies, such as energy-generating sidewalks. There is room for integrating technology throughout infrastructure, however, for instance in bus systems, creating smoother commuter journeys. But until technology companies themselves make their services more accessible, said one participant, the widespread integration is unlikely. It is currently a long way from lab to the high street, they said.

What are the examples of leadership in the built environment where a balance has been achieved between civic interests, shareholder value, and consumer need?  Perhaps other cities around the world have succeeded in fostering this and are willing to share their experiences?

Categories: People, Living, Governance, Technology, London, New York