Smart cities: dealing with big data

Smart thinking

20 March 2018

Recent RICS research looked at how cities still have some way to go in dealing with big and open data before they can legitimately be called 'smart'. Tim Dixon, Jorn van de Wetering and Martin Sexton review the findings

The interconnected agendas of smart cities, big data and open data provide, on the face of it, bold and exciting opportunities for the built environment professions, including RICS members. But what will those opportunities be, and what are the challenges? Research conducted in 2015–16 for the RICS Research Trust sought to explore those questions by focusing on cities.

The aim was to examine the scope to develop city-level data platforms in the UK and internationally, and to determine how RICS, its members and other built environment professions, including architects, planners and engineers, can benefit. It looked at big data and open data – respectively, large, complex and rapidly-changing data sets, and data that can be freely shared and used by anyone, anywhere for any purpose – on the built environment. In particular, it examined:

  • the motives and barriers for big data platforms at city level, both in the UK and internationally
  • key trends in the development and opening up of big data in cities
  • the opportunities for advising clients and the potential for RICS members to use big data creatively and innovatively to add value to their work.

The project comprised an online scoping survey of UK smart cities, case studies of Bristol, Milton Keynes, Amsterdam and Taipei, and a UK expert workshop.

Headline findings

The research found that in the UK, there is an apparent lack of strategic thinking on smart cities, with the current focus appearing to be on open rather than big data. Only 47% of cities in the survey had an established definition for a smart city, with most using the BSI’s. Moreover, planning at city level is not common; only 22% of respondents had a smart city action plan and the same proportion a smart city framework (see Figure 1).

Although there is some evidence of big data projects such as DIMMER in Manchester and REPLICATE in Bristol now under way in the built environment, the main focus in the smart city case studies is open data. Currently, there is little or no evidence of real estate or construction engaging directly with the smart city agenda in a coherent and effective way, either. Other key issues included differences in the interpretation of the term 'big data', a lack of business engagement from the property and construction sectors, and the proliferation of data standards.

Smart cities big data

Figure 1: Key findings from the UK smart city survey

Next steps

There is some evidence to suggest that the real-estate and construction sectors do already hold big data, and are using it internally for client services and other activities. A key challenge, however, is to ascertain whether, and how, this data could be used in the context of smart cities, as well as in other potentially collaborative ways.

These sectors need to develop clear strategies for smart cities and data that ensure greater certainty for all stakeholders. There need to be better incentives for companies to provide open and big data, with the development of viable commercial business models.

Professional bodies in the built environment sector including RICS and the Royal Institute of British Architects need to determine what role they and their members should have in relation to data on smart cities. Having champions for change in the professional bodies to promote the agenda and enabling collaboration across the built environment professions are both critical issues.

Data and smart city skills, such as data analytics and management, are cross-cutting, and need to be embedded in, for example, RICS competencies. Built environment professionals generally also need a much better understanding of their clients’ data requirements, as well as the potential impacts of big and open data on professional advice in this area.

It will also be important for the professional bodies to be more closely aligned with technology companies, city authorities and other stakeholders to enable all stakeholders to work together to improve services for citizens.

Tim Dixon is Chair in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment and Martin Sexton is Professor in Construction Management and Innovation at the School of the Built Environment in the University of Reading

Jorn van de Wetering is Director of Studies for Real Estate and Planning at the Henley Business School, University of Reading

Further information