The birthplace of stainless steel, Sheffield has long held worldwide recognition for its large-scale manufacturing industry, technical innovation and craft fabrication. With the decline of UK heavy engineering and associated rise in unemployment from the late 1970s, the public sector became an influential employer in Sheffield, and from the 1980s, a vibrant creative and digital scene has arisen across the city (as presented in the recent ‘DIGITAL’ report, Creative Sheffield, 2017). The positive momentum gathering in Sheffield and its City Region was recognised in the 2015 UK Budget, when the city received £3.5m for technical incubation initiatives housed within a dedicated Maker Hub. And in May 2016, Sheffield was acknowledged as a ‘challenger’ city (number 10) in the UK’s smart city index.

This combination of formal (local authority, national government, corporate responses), and informal (community, civic hacking, fabrication, alternative) forms of ‘smart urbanism’ produce a dynamic, yet somewhat fragmented, landscape of experimentation through the pursuit and adoption of smart ideas, products, technologies and infrastructures. The Urban Institute’s three-year Open Research Area (ORA): The KNOWledge politics of experimentING with smart urbanism (KNOWING) project is undertaking comparative work over eight European cities – focusing on Sheffield (together with Barcelona (Spain), Berlin & Hamburg (Germany), Eindhoven and Den Haag (The Netherlands), Toulouse and Lyon (France)) – to better understand how this experimentation is (re)shaping urban knowledge politics. The project aims to understand how digital technologies are developing new interfaces between business, city administration and citizen initiatives, and how this affects decision-making processes and outcomes for our cities and society.

In seeking to understand the Sheffield landscape of smart urbanism through theoretical and empirical research, Prof. Simon Marvin and Dr. Rachel Macrorie are exploring formal, informal and hybrid forms of experimentation across Sheffield city.

As a formal attempt to establish a smart city vision, Sheffield Executive board and Sheffield First established an initial vision for Sheffield’s evolution into a smart city, and the Sheffield City Region Growth Plan outlines some of the digital and technical innovations needed to support these objectives. There is a clear opportunity for the city to develop stronger links between its broader strategy, the city’s digital communities, and the potential for smart city innovations to encourage transformative change and growth across the city. An example of such an initiative, developed by Sheffield City Council together with partners (Ferrovial Services, Amey and the city Universities) is Sheffield Smart Lab, an incubation and acceleration programme designed to help startups and SMEs develop and pilot their products in a live city environment. In 2015, entrepreneurs were invited to tackle one of two challenges: ‘Energising Sheffield City Centre’ and ‘Supporting people to live independently’ with nine winning teams being supported. This initiative was an attempt to position Sheffield as the place to go for urban innovation. However, it has been suggested that without clearer leadership and coordination across Sheffield’s smart city activities, a fragmented landscape of experimentation will remain (Tech City UK and Nesta, 2016).

A community of digital startups facilitated through the new industry association Sheffield Digital led productivity of the Sheffield digital economy to increase by 19% between 2010-14 particularly across the sectors of: e-commerce and marketplace; hardware, devices and open source hardware, app and software development, and enterprise software and cloud computing, and this trend continues to build. Notable corporate digital technology firms located in Sheffield include: HSBC bank, Plusnet (British Telecom) and Wandisco, with high-growth entrepreneurial firms including; the automobile telematics and data management company – The Floow, the innovative sustainable housing developer – Citu, and the electronics education company – Pimoroni. Success of these innovative organisations has been encouraged by digital and scientific innovation research at the two city universities. For instance, the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing supports world-leading research into advanced machining, manufacturing and materials. The KNOWING project will undertake in depth research into selected case studies from this ‘hybrid’ smart urbanism experimentation set of initiatives.

Maker and hack culture is now prominent in Sheffield with initiatives such as Access Space and Sheffield Hardware Hackers and Makers (SHHM) revitalising centuries-old heritage of fabrication and craft through digital technologies, enabled by schemes designed to create social and economic value from vacant buildings (such as The Meanwhile Foundation). As an international node of the Open Data Institute (ODI), Sheffield has also committed to explore how open data can drive innovation and boost transparency. For instance, Better with Data has held regular city hackathon events intended to tap into publicly available ‘big data’ and use data analytics to generate contextualized ‘solutions’ to contemporary urban challenges. The KNOWING project will examine how these citizen-led and alternative forms of knowledge and expertise are being produced, circulated, and used to inform urban governance.

In September 2017, the Urban Institute is hosting a two-day meeting and site visits, to collaboratively explore smart urban experiments being undertaken in Sheffield and further afield, with European partners of the ORA Knowing project.