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Tech in the Town

This report explores the role that Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies can play in improving the UK’s urban areas and local public services. It is the third in a series of SMF reports on 4IR, following our 2018 reports on the use of 4IR in the home and the workplace.

Many communities find themselves in a challenging set of circumstances in 21st century Britain. While local government finances remain under strain after years of fiscal austerity, local authorities are under significant pressure to address a wide range of issues. This includes air pollution, light pollution, congestion, waste and other local-level environmental issues.

Analysis in this report shows that:

  • Local government finances remain under pressure. Local government has been running a fiscal deficit almost constantly for the past two decades.
  • Local transport infrastructure will struggle as the number of cars on the road is set to increase. Across England and Wales, the proportion of roads that are heavily congested in the morning peak is set to increase from 11% in 2015 to 17% by 2050.
  • UK roads are in poor shape. 905,000 potholes were reported on UK roads in the 2017/18 fiscal year, costing councils on average £169 each to address.
  • Local government is struggling to address environmental concerns, including the need to improve household recycling rates. While 64.5% of household waste was recycled, reused or composted in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 2017/18, just 14.1% of waste in the London borough of Newham was.
  • Growing populations will place pressure on local community infrastructure, to a varying degree across the country.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution can address a number of the challenges outlined above. Benefits described in this report include:

  • Saving money and reducing light pollution with smart street lighting. Smart street lighting is currently being explored as a way of reducing light pollution, generating financial savings and offering other benefits to local government.
  • A recycling revolution with smart bins. This includes bins fitted with fill-sensors, identifying when they require emptying. Smart bins have also been developed which automatically sort recyclable and unrecyclable waste.
  • Improved road quality via the use of road-repairing drones which can detect potholes and are fitted with 3D printers which are able to spray asphalt into potholes. In addition, telematic boxes and cameras fitted to cars can detect potholes and notify highway maintenance authorities about repair needs.
  • Autonomous public transport. In Singapore, there are plans to introduce driverless buses on its public roads by 2022.
  • Smarter road pricing and parking charges which encourage individuals to travel into urban areas when traffic is less congested.
  • The ability to rethink planning and urban spaces. For example, increasing proportions of inner-city land can be devoted to housing as retail increasingly shifts from being store-based to web-based. Shared smart town/city data (for example on footfall) can help businesses decide where to locate, as well as their opening hours.

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