Treating citizens as customers of a city

I’ve been fortunate to have attended ‘Smart Cities’ events for a number of years now. In the past, there have been lots of good ideas generated from the discussions, and while it was encouraging to know that the solutions we came to were technically possible, there was no end user demand or local authority buy-in to drive them forwards. Since then, the discussions have grown exponentially. There has been an unmistakable shift in the rhetoric used when talking about smart cities.

Smart Cities revolution

Moving from technology, to people

The historical focus on technology and technical solutions unfortunately did more harm than good for the Smart Cities agenda. It alienated our most vital stakeholders; the general public. There was no client or public demand, nothing for people to engage in. People don’t fear change, they fear not knowing and being forced to do something they might not have bought in to. 

At the recent Telegraph Britain’s Smart Cities Conference, the big theme of the day was end-user focus. It was refreshing to hear the conversations - real examples of client need, less of the ‘wouldn’t it be good if we could…’ conversations and more of the ‘this is what we have done, how can we expand…?’

It was interesting to hear city leaders talk about their citizens as customers. They have a choice on where to live/work and having a connected and fluid environment was seen as part of that decision-making process. This will become increasingly important as the battle for talent and growth between UK cities and globally intensifies.


Take Estonia’s e-residency programme. This revolutionary scheme enables anyone to set up an EU-based business and use the country’s digitally enhanced infrastructure to manage it from anywhere in the world. This makes it easy for a person to be part of the system. It affects how people interact with the city and their society and offers a new way of using technology to help people in their day-to-day life. 

There is a huge opportunity for other countries to join this movement and compete to provide the best digital public services to attract ‘e-residents’. With people all over the world having better access to information and knowledge, the same online tools and better digital infrastructure, revolutionary projects could come from anywhere. With the fear of a Brexit ‘brain drain’, the opportunities e-residency brings need to be considered carefully in the UK – it is vital we do not fall behind the curve.

Smart Cities revolution 

It’s an exciting time to be part of the Smart Cities revolution. Companies are finally confident that change is going to happen. They are willing to do pilots for free and, most importantly, are customer centric. This can be seen particularly in 5G infrastructure. The emergence of the 5G infrastructure / network will enable the ‘Internet of Things’; acts that would have been difficult to achieve, such as linking devices and sensors to a system will very quickly be made a lot easier. These network providers are looking to co-create and work with cities / customers to learn about what the opportunity is.

If the UK truly wants to be a digital leader, having a consumer centric approach to being a digital citizen is vital. This enables us to play in other spaces, creating cities moulded around technology – making it a personal decision and part of everyday life for citizens. This isn’t about ‘come on a digital journey and we will change your world’; these are real technical advances and the changes are happening right now. The UK needs to be a part of it. 

David Glennon

Head of Digital Ask me a question