Matthew Farrow

How smart are smart cities?

EIC executive director Matthew Farrow has instigated a project to find out if IT led smart cities are also addressing issues like air quality and recycling fatigue.

When I took over at the Environmental Industries Commission, nearly a year ago, it was clear that we were good at technical lobbying on the detail of environmental policies.  We continue to do this, but I wanted EIC to also spend time thinking and talking about some of the broader trends and issues that the environmental and business world is talking about.  

So in 2014 alongside our standard work on issues such as Category 4 Screening Levels for contaminated land and the HMRC definition of materials qualifying for lower rate Landfill Tax (more exciting than they sound, believe me!) we’ve undertaken a number of broader ‘thought leadership type reports.

Our current one is on the concept of ‘smart cities’ and the environment.  Barely a day goes past without me being invited to a seminar on smart cities or receiving some glossy literature from a global technology company about how they are helping to realise the potential of one global city or another through the ‘internet of things’ or ‘real time city dashboards’.   

Most of the discussion and marketing material around smart cities makes the assumption that these wired-up (or wireless-ed up) conurbations will be clean and pure, with sweet air to breathe, no recognisable ‘waste’, and a few discreet turbines flicking round in the breeze.  

But I know from our work here at EIC both in the UK and with our partners in countries like China that in reality most cities are grappling with deep seated and intractable environmental problems.  In most UK cities for example, urban air quality is outside EU limits and not getting much better, recycling rates have stagnated well below the national average, and CO2 emissions are still too high if we are to meet the Climate Change Act.

“The majority of smart city initiatives are not environment related.  Only about one in six of the examples we found were directed at environmental goals such as reducing carbon emissions.”

I decided it would be good to understand in depth whether ‘smart city’ initiatives were likely to provide new ways to tackle these problems and what could be done to encourage this.  And given the UK has a lot of business strength in environmental technology and in areas such as city planning and data visualisation, we also wanted to see if enough was being done to promote opportunities for UK companies in this sphere.

The project is steered by a task force made up of EIC members such as WSP Group, URS, Schneider Electric, Veolia, AECOM, Landmark Information Services, Honeywell Building Solutions and others (We also have representatives of cities and academia on the group).

As the work has progressed some interesting issues have come to light.  It is clear there are a number of cities doing some innovative things.  The city of Utrecht, for example, has explored using smart technology to route freight road traffic in real time to try to manage air pollution hot spots.

Equally, the majority of smart city initiatives are not environment related.  Only about one in six of the examples we found were directed at environmental goals such as reducing carbon emissions.  And in other cases the enthusiasm of city administrators is not matched by the public.  For example the environment page of the GLA ‘dashboard’ – an open data portal making available large amounts of London data to citizens – only received 55 page views in July.

So, plenty of potential but also some challenges.  Our Task Force will report in the Autumn, and then at our Annual Conference on 2 December ( there will be a session on cities to explore this agenda, at which Mark Watts, CEO of global cities network C40, will be one of the speakers.

Matthew Farrow is Director General of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms.

Find out about the political parties views on air pollution at the EIC conference “Establishing a Green Agenda” on 2 December. For details go to