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Why Cities need a Digital Conscience


20 mph residential area speed limit warning
20 mph residential area speed limit warning (Photo credit: freefotouk)

There’s a 20 MPH zone outside my house, it arrived over the last few weeks in dribs and drabs. I’d seen the Planning Notices a few months ago, but of course hadn’t bothered to question or challenge the intentions. And I’ve not heard anyone in my street jumping up and down demanding a slow down to the traffic and since its arrival I’ve not heard anyone extoling its benefits either.

All that set me wondering: why is it there? How was it planned? Where’s the value for money?And I couldn’t find the answer to my questions until I happened to discuss it recently with a local authority Chief Executive who remembered that some work had been done in Southampton a while back that seemed to suggest that 20 MPH zones were “a good idea”.

So I asked him about the modelling of the changes and cheap web hosting. I asked him if it was likely that any data had been collected and then pumped into a simulation of the city-scape to assess the impact of change. The answer was “pretty unlikely”.

And that set me thinking: why is that in the private sector we plan and test changes whenever possible in sandpits and then model changes so that we can assess the impact and refine the changes before moving to a production environment? It’s so that we can get it as right as possible in a safe environment before we “push it to live”. And of course it’s cheaper to do it that way in the long run.

But that’s not the case with many changes in the public sector, here changes are piloted in the public, live domain, often at great cost and often with several iterations as lessons are learnt before a final solution is found. This is both an ineffective way of making change and is hugely wasteful of valuable resources.

We need to move to an environment where changes are planned and simulated offline, so that when planning proposals are put to the public they are already tried and tested using as much data as possible to generate a solution that is as optimal as possible.

The methodology of testing and the test results should be made publically available to generate confidence that the changes have been planned and will create benefit. All this will add to the planning process and will, undoubtedly, save money in the long run.

In the example of my reduction in speed limits, the test results would, if positive, demonstrate that there is no impact on bus journeys, no impact on journey times and of course at the interface from one zone to another, no impact as cars slow to join the lower limit.

If we can start to use modelling and simulation to test and visualise change before we effect that change we will move towards cities that are far more effective and efficient. And we will have created a digital conscience for decision making.

Then I won’t need to go the Planning meetings to object to the changes, because there will be clear and well tested evidence that shows the change is to our benefit.

I am now working on creating a National Living Laboratory that will provide a modelling and simulation environment for the creation of smarter cities. Let’s hope we can make it busy and that it will become the Digital Conscience for decision making.

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