Universities can reap the benefits of the growing 'smart cities' movement, experts say

Out-Law Analysis | 04 Dec 2015 | 12:41 pm | 4 min. read

FOCUS: Local authorities across the UK are investing in new technologies allowing them to improve transport infrastructure, save energy and build better communications networks, and universities have an important role to play in ensuring the success of so-called 'smart cities'.

The 'smart city' agenda refers to the growing use of digital technology to improve city life. Globally these developments could be worth more than $400 billion by 2020 according to Arup, the engineering consultancy.

The role of universities as hubs for research and development, as well as in educating the individuals that will lead the projects of the future, is clear – but the size and scale of most university campuses also makes them ideal candidates to take advantage of smart city-style solutions to their own transport, communications, energy efficiency and budgeting issues too.

Universities have always had an important role to play in support of the cities in which they are located, and planned devolution in English cities will only make that role more important. In its first major piece of research on smart cities, published in October 2013, the UK government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) placed universities at the heart of the smart cities agenda, highlighting examples at both the UK and international level of "the links between 'town and gown' ... in the drive towards smart cities".

Based on the UK's share of OECD tradable services, Arup believes that it should aim to secure 10% of the anticipated future global market for smart city systems. However, as the BIS research made clear, global competition is increasing steadily and cities such as Boston, Chicago, Stockholm, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong are already reaping the benefits.

Universities facilitators

Universities can play an integral role as facilitators in the creation of the smart city. Some UK universities are already partnering with local councils and the private sector to collaborate on projects, engage in research and development and share data; and representatives from academia, cities, business and governments came together to form the UK's 'Smart Cities Forum' in late 2013. This group was established to identify opportunities for investment in smart cities initiatives, and to identify and address potential barriers to growth.

The BIS paper pitches UK cities as "innovative and demanding customers" of smart cities technology, in collaboration with universities and the private sector. The Smart Cities Forum allows cities, universities and businesses to develop a shared perspective, identify barriers to progress and influence central government policy on smart cities.

According to the paper, universities will be required to take the lead on research in areas vital to the success of the smart cities programme: the 'internet of things'; secure technologies; intelligent search; supercomputing, and systems modelling and analysis. Several universities, including Nottingham, Bradford and Bristol, are already playing central roles in this research. Other examples of universities' research and development projects are Oxbotica, the Oxford University spin-out researching driverless cars, and the 5G innovation centre created by the University of Surrey.

In its March 2015 Budget, the government announced £138 million in funding for a national infrastructure research capability network, to be based at the Olympic Park in London but with centres in Nottingham, Sheffield and Birmingham. The UK Collaboration for Research in Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC) will be shared between 14 university partners including Newcastle, Cambridge, UCL, Bristol and Southampton. The work will aim to ensure that the UK's infrastructure is resilient and responsive to environmental and economic change, with plans for lots of collaboration between cities and industrial partners including energy companies and water companies. Key project starts in 2015-16 and 2016-17 will include “construction work on UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure and Cities hubs”, according to the chancellor’s Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015.

University Enterprise Zones

University Enterprise Zones are specific geographical areas where universities and business work together to promote business growth and innovation. The UK government re-launched the Enterprise Zone programme in the 2011 Budget and there are now 25 such zones across the country. They offer tax breaks, relaxed planning rules and government-supported superfast broadband to incentivise development focused on specific sectors, such as advanced manufacturing or technology.

The government has now committed to providing £15m in capital funding from 2014-17 to support four pilot University Enterprise Zones at Bradford (Leeds City Region), Liverpool, Nottingham and Bristol. The aim is to encourage universities to strengthen their roles in local growth through engagement with Local Enterprise Partnerships and through engagement with small businesses on innovative projects.

Universities as recipients

Universities may also play an active role in the smart cities ecosystem through their use of smart technologies. Universities may implement technologies such as superfast broadband and Wi-Fi for student accommodation, enriching students' lives and enabling them to embrace the internet of things and enhancing their ability to research and study.

Universities may also use technology on campuses such as through the use of smart lamp posts which incorporate monitoring devices to monitor traffic lights and parking spaces and incorporate sensors which can detect changes in noise levels that might indicate incidences of civil unrest or crime. LED lamp posts also tend to use less energy, creating a more sustainable city and campus.

As university campuses can be both vast and numerous, universities may also implement smart energy solutions such as smart meters and automated demand reduction technologies which ensure that buildings use less energy at peak times.

Universities as educators

Collaborations between universities, local authorities and the private sector on smart cities projects are in evidence throughout the UK. Universities are also growing the number of courses that they offer which deal with related topics, such as urbanism and city planning: Huddersfield University's innovative MA in urban design opens to students this coming academic year, while University College London has recently launched an MSc in smart cities.


Smart cities have the potential to contribute to the economic growth of cities, as well as their safety and efficiency. Universities have the opportunity to play a big part in that, by working with businesses on innovative approaches to city life and by researching and developing the technologies that underpin smart cities and putting them into practice on campuses.

Martin Priestley is an education and social infrastructure expert and Scott Oxley is a universities and IT expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.