Is Cambridge a ‘Smart City’? – if not, does it want to be?


Some thoughts from a big debate on current and future visions for Cambridge

Puffles and I rocked up to the Cambridge Union for another Cambridge Festival of Ideas event recently. This was a debate featuring some of the great & the good arguing whether Cambridge was a ‘Smart City’ or not.

“What is a smart city? Is it one where people wear suits with polished shoes, or somewhere where people are brainy??”

If you look at how some of the brightest minds in social and digital media dress, probably not the former. I can imagine one or two being barred from a couple of old school Whitehall departments because of giving the appearance of slovenliness.

Actually the broad model I’ve picked out is this one. It covers:

  • Governance
  • People
  • Environment
  • Mobility
  • Living
  • Economy

My Teacambs co-organiser, Liz Stephenson of Cambridgeshire County Council was one of the people that set the county-wide scene. (See her slides here). It’s all to easy for those that don’t live in or around Cambridge that we have a two, sometimes three-tier levels of local government in and around the city. We have the county council (mentioned above), along with Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council, the latter a sea of Conservative blue surrounding an island of the former that is a combination of Liberal Democrat orange and Labour red.

The political divide


One of the complaints from both Liberal Democrats and Labour councillors in Cambridge is that Conservative and UKIP county councillors that live far away from Cambridge are able to influence and veto policies (especially on transport) even though the latter parties between the two of them only have one councillor in the city council. Thus arguing Cambridge has a ‘structurally dysfunctional’ system of governance. I agree. Having three different institutions within local government all having decision-making powers over Cambridge doesn’t help structurally. Combine that with very different political cultures makes things even harder to get agreement on some of the really ‘big picture’ things. David Cleevely, who was also at the event, commented on this earlier this year.

One of the political divides between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Cambridge is whether there is a town-gown divide. Labour says there is, the Liberal Democrats say there is not – or rather, if there is, it’s over-stated by Labour. Interestingly at the debate, there was a third factor – the ‘countyside’ – the surrounding rural areas. Thus we have a gown-town-countryside fragmentation. I’ve seen various sides of this both in my childhood growing up here (where, if you were not a member of Cambridge University then it really did not want to know you. You were about as welcome as The Plague).

Communities within a community

Behind the stereotypes of the city, Cambridge is better viewed as a conglomeration of smaller distinct communities with their own micro-cultures. For example in my neck of the woods, Queen Ediths is very distinct compared to Romsey, which is just as distinct when compared with the Abbey ward where Cambridge United play. Arbury and Kings Hedges to the north of the city are different themselves – so much so that people like me who grew up ‘south of the river’ seldom ventured to the latter two wards. As for Newnham, that’s where we assumed all the rich people and university types lived – even though since then (ie the early 1990s) the house prices in South Cambridge have shot through the roof and have prices to match. Understandably, the Cambridge City Council over the years has focussed its community engagement work in those wards suffering greater levels of economic deprivation. Cambridge suffers from ‘micro-pockets’ of poverty that is often at sub-ward level that makes it harder for institutions to pick up and intervene in. (Especially trying to get support from central government).

Some of these communities historically have been self-sustaining, quietly going about their lives without feeling the need to self-publicise anything. I saw a recent example of this at a talk by former Treasury Minister Melanie Johnson.

Cambridge as a brand

In a recent blogpost I describe Cambridge as a city with an international brand with the infrastructure of a market town. (See here). I am still of that view. Compared to other similar-sized district councils, Cambridge has a fairly talented bunch of councillors serving it. But no other district councils have a brand as big as Cambridge. Remember we’ve got not just the brand of Cambridge University, but also the brand of the ducal family whether we like them or not.

Cambridge as an offshoot of London

One of the case studies we were introduced to by Honor Harger of the Brighton Lighthouse was that of my old university stomping ground of Brighton. I lived there for three years. Culturally the two places are incredibly different. When I left Cambridge in the late 1990s, city life was very boring, bland and ‘safe’. The cultural mindset (certainly on the south side) was that children should be at school & when not, should be doing their music practice to pass exams. Homosexuality did not exist and heterosexuality should only be practiced within the confines of a marriage and then only in the missionary position for the purposes of procreation and under no circumstances was it to be enjoyed. Alcohol was the devil’s drink unless it was red wine drunk at Sunday lunch by responsible adults. (The result being that efforts to clamp down on teenage drinkers had the impact of driving teenagers into the hands of drug dealers that did not ask for ID as young people sought other more accessible ways of getting intoxicated).

So you can imagine when I got to Brighton & wandered around it for the first time I was like: “Yeah – is this all legal?”

Both Brighton and Cambridge have fast rail links to London. As a result over the past 15 years more people have moved to both cities as they’ve been priced out of the capital. With Brighton you got the ‘bohemian coolness’ of the place as a radical hotbed, while still working in the capital, while in Cambridge you got the ‘university city’ brand and the easy link to the alumni dinners once lampooned by Sir Humphrey in ‘Yes Minister’. Want to know why there are 2 rail lines and one motorway to Cambridge? It’s because a past permanent secretary at the Department for Transport went to Cambridge and got frustrated that it took so long to get back there for dinners with the masters. Allegedly.

International investors come first

Earlier this summer I blogged about Cambridge becoming a clone town. (See here). The area around Cambridge railway station has been redeveloped to meet the desires of such investors – who if they actually lived in Cambridge probably wouldn’t want the architectural horror-shows that have since been built here. See here for some shocking examples of bland. The impact of these buildings has been to destabilise what was previously a settled – perhaps even stale community. Rather than a vibrant addition to the city, we’ve ended up with a series of box-like apartments serving short-stay London commuters (as opposed to family-friendly homes that the city needs badly) or student accommodation/serviced flats. With the regular turnover of renters (and there’s an economic incentive for landlords or their agents to do this with all the fees that come with it), there’s little opportunity for tenants to put down strong roots and strengthen civic society.

Cambridge’s future in the hands of cabinet ministers in Whitehall

Such is the political party funding structure in Westminster and Whitehall that the incentive for all political parties is to come up with policies that suit the desires of big donors. The problem Cambridge faces is that our destiny in the grand scheme of things is out of the control of local people and local institutions. It’s in the control of Whitehall and Westminster. How so?

The London housing bubble is poisoning communities far beyond greater London

As I’ve mentioned before, if one estate agent boasts on its website that it sells 30% of new homes in Cambridge to international investors, what hope does anyone wanting to settle here have? Especially when on top of that, buy-to-let investors know that the language schools provide an ample supply of prospective tenants with wealthy parents all trying to buy into the international brand that is Cambridge. Local councils have no powers to stop developers and financiers from gaming the system to suit their desire for profits at the expense of the local community

Dysfunctional structure of local government

Cambridge needs to be a unitary authority, getting rid of the fragmented set up that we currently have – exacerbated by the political divisions across the county. But achieving this change requires an Act of Parliament – something that simply is not on the agenda at the moment. Also, would a Conservative-led government be willing to surrender powers from a Conservative-led county council to a Labour or Lib-Dem-led city unitary?

Dysfunctional transport links to more economically deprived towns and villages across Cambridgeshire and beyond.

Improved transport (esp rail) links whether all the way through to Oxford in the west, or to Ipswich and Norwich in the east would make a huge difference – as the East Anglia rail prospectus shows us here. Labour supporters, your leader Ed Miliband has also publicly backed Oxford-Cambridge rail – see here. Personally I’d like to see Wisbech, Cambourne, Haverhill and Saffron Walden (Audley End doesn’t count as it’s out of town) considered for new rail links.

Do we want to be a smart city?

Usman Haque, arguing against the motion asked whether we wanted Cambridge to become a sterile predictable city that some other high-tech cities across the world had become. He lampooned the techo-centric vision of future cities coming from big brands, bringing in the theme of people-centred future cities. Sterile ‘cleansed’ cities don’t give you the colour and diversity of Mill Road in Cambridge or North Laine in Brighton. They give you clone towns. Again this comes back to my point about how we use the technology that is there. Usman’s point was we wanted to have technology to help us make more informed decisions, rather than making those decisions for us.

My vision for Cambridge

I wrote about it in some recent blogpost – see here first, then see here second. The bullet points at the end of that blogpost point to what a nightmare vision could also be. For me, it’s just as important that we the people are clear about what we don’t want Cambridge to become just as we are about what we do want Cambridge to become.

What’s your vision for Cambridge?

This is why I’m pushing for a community action summit in early spring 2014. (See here for what I mean by this). A handful of town and university student societies have already expressed interest in helping organise this, including (but not limited to) Transition Cambridge and the Cambridge Student Hub (that covers both Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin). A handful of local councillors and politicians have also expressed their support too – including local MP Julian Huppert.

The aims? 

To bring together a large enough group of people who are/would like to be active in our communities to share their ideas of what Cambridge and the surrounding area can become. Then secondly kicking off a series of much smaller actions to help make this happen. By that I mean inviting everyone attending to commit to changing a single existing behaviour, and committing to a single standalone action. So for example changing one behaviour might involve signing up to an email list from a community group (such as this one by Transition Cambridge) and committing to reading its contents as a behaviour change, and committing to going to a community event that you have never been to as a one-off action. Let’s say we have 100 people coming to such a summit. Having 100 people all doing something small, of their choice but across the city could be enough to get the ball rolling for other events and activities such as:

A community hackathon informed by the results of such a summit. (Creative Front Cambridgeshire already organises such things, so is it possible to link the two?)

A Cambridge societies fair – similar to what the students have, but for community groups in and around Cambridge. Invite them all into a big sportshall with all their wares (such as Cambridge Regional College or Kelsey Kerridge) & invite everyone to come and meet them


If so, please email me at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com as I’m looking to get a few of us together before Christmas to sketch out what a community action summit might involve.


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