SAP’s global vice president of Urban Matters Sean O’Brien believes the UK’s cities are falling behind their global peers as austerity stifles innovation in the development of smart city applications, which could be of benefit to millions of citizens across the country.

O’Brien also claimed at an SAP event in London this week that the UK government does not recognise that the majority of growth is driven out of its cities, which should propel increased investment in making them smarter, more efficient and easier to live in.

But Joe Dignan, chief public sector analyst at Ovum, said that the UK is “pretty bloody good” at smart city initiatives when compared to other cities globally.

Dignan said: “Scandinavia has obviously been doing this for years, and they’re pretty good at it, but the UK can catch up pretty quickly and it’s a pretty innovative area. I would say we are way ahead of the US.”

SAP’s O’Brien picked up on this point and adamantly disagreed, saying that he doesn’t hear anyone in any of the global cities talking about the UK’s innovation.

HANA analytics

“The US gets it – San Francisco, Boston, New York are all driving innovation. That sort of drive around innovation isn’t something you see in the UK. I don’t think people recognise the value of cities and urban settlements in driving the economy the way they do in the US, in India, and in China,” said O’Brien.

“OK, cities have more power in the US than they do outside London in the UK, but what I don’t hear in the UK is the same focus around innovation that I do in the US, that I do in China, that I do in Australia.”

He added: “I don’t want to get political, but when I used to travel around I used to hear about the UK as an icon for e-government policy, for transformation, for online services – even some of the guys that used to work in the UK went to Australia as gurus. That’s not there anymore.”

SAP’s Urban Matters initiative draws on using its cloud, mobile and in-memory HANA analytics technologies to drive smarter use of applications in cities. For example, O’Brien described how an urban area could use mobile to conduct real-time polling in a city on any issues that were up for debate, or how alerts could be driven out to citizens in real-time on issues that could impact them.

“If we want to innovate out of austerity and out of the challenges that Europe and the west has, it has to be through the cities. It’s through the urban settlements, it’s through innovation and it’s through technology,” said O’Brien.

“I travel a lot outside of Europe and they get it. I think the innovation mentality is being restrained by austerity in the UK. It’s really frustrating, I go out there and I wonder where all the innovation in Europe has gone.”

Ovum’s Dignan agreed that more could be done by government to create demand from the cities for smart urban applications, such as those offered by SAP. He warned that if cities don’t start purchasing these products, the vendors will stop offering them, and opportunities will be lost.

“If the private sector is not making any money, then they are going to walk away, it’s as simple as that. Because of this, the national governments have to build the demand side of the equation. You’ve got organisations such as SAP going through the door with offerings and nobody who sits on the other side of the table that has got the responsibility, budget and ability to sign things off,” said Dignan.

Dignan said that the Technology Strategy Board’s (TSB) recent demonstrator project, which gave 30 cities in the UK £50,000 each to come up with a ‘smart city’ plan, was a recent example of this attempt to create demand. The 30 cities were then shortlisted to four cities, and Glasgow recently won the £25 million fund to develop a large scale demonstration of its plan.

Central government drive

“This was really TSBs attempt to try and create the demand side – the right people on the other side of the table who can have a useful conversation. You now have 30 cities that have started that process. Even better than that, they have actually put all of the feasibility studies into the public domain, so that any other city can pick up and see if they can adopt some of the thinking,” he said.

However, Dignan argued that even more demand needs to be created, and this needs to be done from within central government, where it needs thought leaders to drive the agenda – something he believes is currently missing.

“No one is punting this, no one is pushing it. Do you know who the minister for cities in the UK is? Greg Clark. I couldn’t imagine a more anonymous person if I tried. They need to put a hell of a lot more power behind who they have got leading on the cities. As I said, has anyone heard of Greg Clark?” said Dignan.

“We sort of need a tsar for cities in the UK so that we can start developing some of this stuff. You need to create a group that can sit there and say we can do this, we have the resources, and we have the authority.”