Smart City Thinking

Smart City Thinking
Published: 13 March 2018

It’s been a couple of years since I was last at MIPIM. Standing in snowy Kent last week at Ashford International with other intrepid travellers wondering if I would get home, I reflected on the conversations I have had with a number of local authorities and what they hope to get out of MIPIM. It has been apparent that in recent years, these councils and their partners – across the public and private sectors have altered the narrative and focus of their respective pitches.

Looking at this week’s MIPIM agenda you can see how increasingly thought as well as place leadership plays into a location’s narrative. The pitch is different; we’re doing something really different here, we want something different from our investors and you should be interested in us and our communities for the long term and not just because of the return you might make on particular sites and schemes. 

This is a new take on what it means to be a Smart City. They are becoming smarter, not just in how they pitch for investment, - but smarter about the type of investment and terms under which they want that investment. 

Are these authorities responding to a changing market and shaping their “product” to it, or are they making the market, looking to the longer term and more sustainable investments where the returns for both sides are better and more entwined for longer? It’s probably a bit of both but it is clear that these locations are becoming better at their proposition development and associated sales strategies.

Strategic sales and business development is not an activity local authorities have been renowned for, but in a future where business rate retention, new homes and longer term management of assets will need to cross subsidise for social care, it is an area they are having to get better at and develop the skills required to do so. Having already appointed a Business Development Director for one forward thinking unitary authority, this model is being considered by others we are working with. Often, arm’s–length vehicles provide a platform to bring these types of commercial skillsets on board and to enable out of sector hires to land well.

With this sector convergence and commercial skills transfer there are two critical issues for public sector bodies. The first is to ensure that local authorities can bring in individuals with the skills, experience and expertise that they need and that both parties can translate and understand respective messages and aspirations into action. 

In some places, this is no mean feat when the target skills are rare, are often found in other sectors and the public sector still carries an element of stigma around Byzantine decision- making, and the Political commitment to really deliver on potential.

The second, which is no less important, is to ensure local authorities put in place the structures, resources, freedom and support  to enable those individuals to deploy their expertise most effectively and deliver.

Investors are responding to this landscape too; institutional investors, wealth funds and leading developers -ready and able to invest in any part of the globe. They want to understand and shape the economic eco-system which will underpin their potential investment now, and in the future. 

Major investors are adopting their own Place-Making strategies and are keen to invest not just in real estate, but the infrastructure and technology which will affect the physical and social mobility, health and wellness of a place.

Whilst some authorities still need to react to this, others are starting to shape their offer to maximise the impact of such major investment. They are looking at how these investments can augment their own modern and preventative models of Local Government. They are asking not just what skills the private sector can bring, but what skills can you help us develop, how can we access and benefit from your supply chain and how we can realise outcomes from the technology we use in schools to improve the life opportunities for our young people.

What will be interesting for me this week will be to understand how many cities and regions, as part of their pitch, expand on their ability to deliver for the longer term – and that’s really smart thinking!

Marek Dobrowolski specialises in Regeneration, Economic Development appointments in Local Government.

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