Smart City Expo World Congress 2018 — why is the UK absent from this global marketplace?

Sign welcoming visitors to the Smart City World Congress

Walking around the Smart City Expo floor last week, surrounded by pulsing lights and sound from vast booths populated by countries and cities from around the world, I am constantly aware of an absence… where is the UK? Where are the cities and regions that are doing so much to innovate and develop better places for people to live in? How can other parts of this global buying community find the amazing startups and SMEs that could generate trade with the UK? Surely this is something that we should all be thinking about this month — November 2018 — as Brexit deals are drafted and unravelled in real time before our eyes?!

It’s clear that China, the Nordics, the Netherlands, and many of the Middle Eastern countries see this as a significant opportunity — their stands sprawl for 100’s of square metres, cleverly constructed so that each city or region has a zone to showcase their projects and the companies who partnered to deliver them.

And then I found Leeds City Region — and enjoyed a great conversation with folks from the LEP and City Council. They flew the flag well, and had a really positive story to tell. Steven Blackburn and I were able to talk with a number of other global City CIOs about common problems and opportunities to learn from each other during the day, and I’m sure Leeds City Region companies were able to make new contacts and generate interest.

Of course we know how challenging these years of austerity have been for the UK since 2010. It’s very difficult to get approval for something that looks like a foreign “jolly” — but that’s surely a shortsighted view. The UK needs to establish new trading relationships we are told, and we know that the value of economic growth in our local areas far exceeds the savings we could ever make within councils — so why aren’t we looking for ways to construct a coalition of cities and the companies that work in and for them, to source the funding required to exhibit, and draw in the local business communities, incubators and investment partners who could make this happen?

I’m no expert, but I was acutely aware as I spoke to the folks in the Council of Global Cities CIOs that it felt different to be from the UK. It felt like we were separate, stood apart, unable to properly join in with the conversations about collaborative projects. As we met, news about the draft Brexit deal emerged, the Cabinet met, and we eventually heard they had reached a majority agreement — but then of course it only took one night for the resignations to begin… there’s a strong sense that none of us can talk about the future because we have no idea what it will be. Meanwhile the rest of the world plans, and develops and spreads the word about the amazing innovation and smart outcomes they have achieved.

Of course there are still many amazing projects in progress right now — it was a pleasure to represent Theo Blackwell at the CIO meetings, to meet people from the Smart London and Sharing Cities teams and cheer them on at the awards ceremony.

I also enjoyed meeting the folks from Umbrellium and hearing about their Starling Crossing product. Bristol was represented on the European projects stand for their work on REPLICATE. But I constantly wondered — what will happen once we have left the EU? (Assuming that we do ?)

Back in 2013 our own government department for business estimated the Smart City market to be a $408 billion opportunity in 2020… this year market analysts have forecast the market will grow to $2.57 trillion by 2025. Next year at Smart City Expo 2019, will we see a UK pavilion, confidently marketing our cities, regions and companies to the world? Maybe some of us should find a way to make this happen. To steal a phrase from Theo and Andrew Collinge what we need is a coalition of the willing and able…

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