Smart city, dumb ERP

Smart City - Levelling up

There’s a thing in the UK known as Levelling Up, which focuses on closing the gap between the better off and worse off. There’s even a central government department for it called the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).

The DLUHC describes its work as “investing in local areas to drive growth and create jobs, delivering the homes our country needs, supporting our community and faith groups and overseeing local government, planning and building safety.”

The Levelling Up agenda mainly alludes to the gap between London and either poorer Northern towns or rural areas. With an annual budget of £28bn it should be able to make a serious impact on the lives of people in more provincial local areas.

Trouble is, it isn’t very effective or visible. People in those areas don’t really feel the budget burndown in their day-to-day lives.

I remember first reading about smart cities in around 2009 when I worked for a large consulting firm which was doing a lot of work in the public sector. We used to quote Gartner research in proposals and extolled the virtues of a bright new future, indistinguishable from life in The Jetsons where everything was connected and kids commuted to school on hoverboards.

Contrast that to today’s UK towns and it feels like we’ve regressed – both in time and in the quality of the environments around us.

After the 2008 crash, Brexit, COVID and follow-on cost-of-living crises, the average British town’s high street comprises 50 percent vacant shops and 30 percent homogeneous cafes and shops that you would see in any town – same logos, different location. The churn of new businesses is fast, with high rents and low footfall burning the business plans of enthusiastic entrepreneurs. Out-of-town retail parks act as an additional invisible force field, stopping shoppers venturing into traditional town centers.

Cities are different. There are no out-of-town alternatives. People live and work centrally, driving footfall, spend, success and investment.

Thinking back to those early smart cityscapes almost 15 years ago – those innovations which sounded fantastic (a word coming from the Greek phantosmeaning visible) but which never materialized before our eyes, I can’t help but mourn how badly wrong we got our vision of the future.

What if?

Retro-futuristic art fascinates me. It focuses on how we imagined the future in the past. I love it so much that most of the imagery we use in Resulting’s corporate branding is retro-futuristic. We do this because as a consulting metaphor, it’s useful to think of how things could turn out differently if you make different decisions and choose different roadmaps.

Let’s imagine instead of focusing on smart cities last decade we instead concentrated on smart towns – but with a different interpretation of the word smart.

Smart – having or showing a quick-witted intelligence

Smart – (of a person) clean, tidy, and well dressed.

What if we had invested in removing pot holes, regenerating dilapidated buildings and revamping town centers rather than building homogeneous out-of-town alternatives?

What if we had quickly repurposed underutilized CBD offices space as central living accommodation with industrial undertones?

What if we had built cycle and bus infrastructure that reduced traffic, pollution and carbon?

What if we had just generally tidied up town centres to be nice places, more city-like and less dystopian in nature?

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with ERP.

Nothing really. Other than metaphorically.

As we speak, businesses and public sector bodies (including DLUHC) are considering new ERP investments with high-tech ‘smart’ additions – in-memory databases, AI, ML, IoT, you name it.

But they all suffer from the same problem today – they haven’t managed to smarten up the ERP technology they have. Dodgy data, inefficient processes, scratchy UI, substandard reporting and the like.

If you want a smart ERP, heed a lesson from city planners and focus on smartening up what you have today before chasing some Jetsons-inspired future.

It may save you from a Stone Age scenario where the high streets to success are paved with nothing but cavernous holes.