Members of the infrastructure community met earlier this month in London for the annual Australian British Infrastructure Catalyst (ABIC). The event brought together experts from both countries to discuss how technology can drive urban regeneration. In particular, it focused on how transport fits into long-term planning and place making.

Several sessions resonated with me, including one on Hear East, an incubation centre for innovation in what was the former Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park broadcast centre.  During the Olympics, the campus was a 24-hour media hub for over 30,000 journalists. It is now attractive to innovators because of its high speed connectivity. Projects like this emphasise how essential connectivity is to the new smart economy.

My top five takeaways from the conference are:

  1. Connectivity is essential to a smart city

The Mayor of London’s Smarter London Together Roadmap aims to make ‘London the smartest city in the world’. To achieve this goal, the Mayor has outlined five key areas of development to ensure the capital’s boroughs and services work effectively with tech businesses to use innovation to improve lives in the capital. The areas of focus include design, data sharing, connectivity, skills and collaboration.

We discussed the infrastructure necessary to enable the development of a smart city, as well as how to manage data collection in order to improve the lives of its citizens. The first is a question for private sector companies like BAI Communications, whilst the second is a matter for the public sector.

BAI has the capability to deliver part of the Mayor’s plan: connectivity. Our team builds the infrastructure for citizens to connect to each other, as well as the infrastructure for data sharing to improve efficiency and security on transport networks.

  1. Transport is about more than just travelling

Transport is a fundamental part of any city – and travel is about more than getting to a destination. A smart transport network contributes to the economy by enabling commuters to get to work and, importantly, spend their travel time productively, whether that’s checking emails or keeping in touch with friends and family. It also unlocks housing potential and gives residents the freedom to get on with their daily routines. The Mayor of London is aiming for 80% of all trips in the capital to be made on foot, by bicycle or on public transport by 2041. A crucial step to achieving this will be to improve the passenger experience.

This is something that we recognise through our own work. BAI helps to build transport systems that are about more than simply moving passengers from A to B. Our recent ‘Continuous Connectivity’ research report, which I presented on the conference, surveyed 2,538 people across five cities including London and Sydney. It found that improved connectivity on transport could help alleviate housing problems, improve passengers’ mental health and wellbeing and contribute to career progression.

  1. Future proofing infrastructure is important

Communications infrastructure is key to successful place making. Throughout the conference, it was clear that planners are increasingly understanding the need to incorporate wireless infrastructure into their plans at the outset. Technology moves at such a pace that it needs to be future proofed to avoid becoming outdated. While it might not yet be obvious what the next development will be, it’s necessary to accommodate the technology of the future when building smart cities. This is no easy task. Nonetheless, it is important to factor in space for equipment (such as poles, wires or fibre) that might be needed for system upgrades, as well as access to installation sites.

The City of London is currently embarking on an ambitious project to retroactively fit communications infrastructure. This is because many buildings and networks were designed and built when the idea of wireless connectivity was inconceivable. It is reassuring to see that such an important global city is taking connectivity so seriously.

  1. Sustainability is the foundation of the future

In light of recent events, we cannot lose sight of the importance of the environment. The sustainability theme was a recurring one at ABIC 2019. In addition to building a smart city, delegates agreed that creating a green economy was another top priority. In particular, sustainability is a key issue when it comes to Government procurement. Additionally, the private sector is becoming much more attune to this when it comes to delivering projects.

  1. Collaboration is vital to the success of cities

Government and the private sector must collaborate, not just in terms of funding, but also regarding the mechanisms to design and deliver key infrastructure programmes. To build a successful and harmonious partnership, the private sector needs to pay attention to the wider issues of the day that matter for the Government.

One example that we discussed was the current focus on inclusivity. Inclusion – digital, demographic, disability – is a good example of where public and private sector organisations need to be aligned on priorities. The outcome is a project that reflects the communities it stands to serve.

Final thoughts of ABIC 2019

Overall, I attended several sessions over the course of two days, in London and Birmingham. They covered various projects across different cities with common themes. Public transport innovation is becoming increasingly important, with users expecting connected, sustainable networks. It is clear that private and public sector collaboration is essential to building the high-quality smart cities of the future.