13 December 2018 Courier Dec/Jan 2019

Small is beautiful – and smart

Why the shape and size of smaller cities makes them ideal testing grounds for futuristic tech.

East London workers waiting for an excruciatingly slow download to complete is not an uncommon occurence. Internet speeds in this part of London are among the UK’s slowest – a source of much frustration for those trying to reinvent the banking, property or logistics industries.

At the same time in Tallinn, the tiny capital of Estonia with a population of just over 425,000, commuters are strolling to work alongside robots. In June, the city became among the world’s first to get super-fast 5G internet. It’s a big deal: 5G is said to be the key to unlocking driverless cars and other technologies that rely on instant communication to work safely.

As Brexit looms, there’s been plenty of speculation over where London’s best-in class startups will (or won’t) relocate to. But are the expected choices – Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris – really the smartest?

It’s often the smallest names on the map that get their hands on future unlocking technology first. If a big telecoms provider like Verizon or T-Mobile plans to get 5G up and running in London or Los Angeles – where consumers are far less forgiving of operational hiccups – they better make sure it can be implemented properly on a smaller scale first. In more compact cities there’s less infrastructure to replace and office space is cheaper. Governments are also happy for their cities to become tech petri dishes in an attempt to reposition themselves as startup hubs.

So which cities will get smart next? Riga in Latvia and Tampere in Finland have both been granted 5G connectivity – the latter has for a while been busy building its reputation as a startup hub, hosting events and opening workspaces for its blossoming tech community. Nokia and Microsoft previously had big offices in the town; when those closed, hundreds of workers were left without jobs. Many have gone on to launch their own businesses, including Piceasoft, a startup which can transfer data from old to new mobile phones, and meeting ‘cube’ provider Framery.

Kongsberg in Norway (population 25,000) is hoping to have 5G available by 2020 and intends to test out selfdriving bus fleets and drones. In the UK, the government has committed £25m to develop rural 5G testbeds and granted £75m to the West Midlands for a regional 5G connection. And tiny San Marino, surrounded by Italy, is set to be the first country with nationwide 5G coverage by the end of 2018.

It’s unlikely any of these cities will become tech capitals. But it will be interesting to watch how businesses use them to hone their services elsewhere. Having launched its roaming robots in Tallinn in 2014, Starship Technologies (pictured) has since raised over £32m in venture funding and in January 2018 relocated to San Francisco.