Smarter Cities: Royal Docks charrette

Numerous smart city schemes are underway in London across town centres, infrastructure and housing. Through presentations and workshops, Future of London’s Smarter Cities project has delved into practical aspects of delivering smart initiatives in these areas. At our final event on 10 April, we invited participants to a charrette at The Crystal to develop smart city ideas for the Royal Docks. As one of London’s largest development sites, it’s ripe for innovation.

Dan Bridge gives a presentation about development at Royal DocksDan Bridge, Royal Docks Programme Manager, provided context for the session. Set up as an enterprise zone, the Royal Docks will bring 15,000 homes and 40,000 jobs across numerous development sites. New DLR trains will add capacity for connections to the City and Woolwich, while Crossrail at Custom House will provide a direct link to central London and Heathrow.

As freeholder for much of the estate, the GLA has a real opportunity to deliver an innovative new London district. The GLA’s business plan requires £250m of investment in the next five years, which is likely to come from a tax increment financing model – that is, funding development through future business rate income.

royal docks development areas
Key development sites focus on commercial space with some residential. They include Royal Albert Basin (20 ha, incorporating a new shipyard and high-end industrial space), Royal Albert Dock (a 14 ha business district) and Silvertown Quays (24 ha, a hub for creative business, retail, leisure, and housing).

For the charrette, participants rotated between different topics (housing, local economy, transport, infrastructure, public realm and data) to suggest smart city ideas for each one. Facilitators guided participants to discuss barriers to delivery and ways to overcome these. Rather than suggest high-tech ideas, many groups focused on working more efficiently. Recurring discussion points are summarised below.

Smart City ideas for Royal Docks

Move goods efficiently and sustainably

  • Use water for freight and build consolidation and local pickup centres for deliveries, reducing the number of trucks on the roads
  • Feed consolidation/pickup centres into a robust supply chain management strategy with smart booking systems and night-time servicing
  • Pending agreement with London City Airport, use drones for delivery; chutes in buildings could help with delivery intake and waste disposal
  • Use automated refuse collection

Move people sustainably

  • Improve last-mile journeys from Crossrail and DLR; walking and cycling are the link
  • Roll out a bike share system which integrates satnav, dockless infrastructure and electric-supported cycling
  • Develop a Royal Docks app and digital information posts to help with wayfinding and highlighting points of interest
  • Construct responsive infrastructure that can shield cyclists and pedestrians from inclement weather

Support smart lifestyles and housing

  • Link ‘smart’ outdoor gyms to people’s exercise with incentives such as discounts on health/life insurance
  • Install sensors in homes to support ageing residents and track energy use
  • Build pop-up modular housing as infill or on challenging sites for a five- to 10-year period

Use the docks and river

  • Use boats for freight/logistics (e.g. modular housing units, waste, deliveries)
  • Run water taxis as public transport, which could be autonomous or hailed through an app
  • Enhance dockside spaces as a leisure attraction to complement existing water sports
  • Construct ‘floating houses’

Use data for working and understanding

  • Supply 5G/high speed broadband to homes and businesses and offer free public wifi
  • Use information such as mobile data to understand how people are using public spaces and where improvements can be made; track movement to/from ExCeL and London City Airport to find ways of encouraging visitors to other parts of Royal Docks
  • Monitor air quality and use this to encourage behaviour change

royal docks charrette discussion

Barriers to delivery

Who pays? Who manages?

  • Funding is a challenge for most ideas, particularly larger-scale initiatives or big infrastructure projects such as waste disposal, supply chain management, bike share, river/dock boats and free public wifi
  • These and other ideas also need ownership and ongoing management, whether through public companies, private sector, or partnerships
  • Supply chain management may not appeal to local businesses which have different delivery and waste requirements

Public attitudes towards data and privacy

  • Individuals may have concerns about being monitored and how their data is handled; they may be reluctant to share personal information
  • There is a risk of going overboard with data analysis and over-prescribing how people can and should use places

Sense of place

  • Walking and cycling are not pleasant because the public realm lacks good lighting, wayfinding, cycle lanes and feelings of safety
  • Royal Docks doesn’t have a ‘town centre’ or central activity hub to attract people and investment beyond ExCeL and the airport
  • In terms of business and culture, Royal Docks lacks a post-industrial identity/sense of place which could hinder investment

Keeping up with change

  • There is a risk of neighbourhoods becoming dated if designed around ‘smart’ initiatives which may change within a few years; technology will need upgrading and it can be costly
  • Industrial spaces will have to innovate to fit into the new mixed-use environment
  • Retrofitting established neighbourhoods to accommodate ‘smart’ technology may be time-consuming and expensive


Work with established businesses

  • As key destinations, London City Airport and ExCeL are important for bringing people into Royal Docks – and getting them to stick around. As such, both could have a bigger role in delivering and financing ‘smart’ ideas as well as sharing visitor data.
  • Local organisations University of Greenwich, University of East London and Siemens have knowledge and connections that could support ‘smart’ schemes and
  • Mobile operators can assist with public wifi and data on movement patterns.

Build partnerships and innovative delivery models

  • As landowner and local authority, the GLA and LB Newham could take a role in long-term governance of Royal Docks, including managing public realm and a supply chain programme
  • Developer contributions or funding in exchange for advertising could support projects like public wifi, bike share, water taxis and public realm improvements
  • Data sharing can help plan services, such as sharing data about cycle hire availability, taxi demand and road traffic levels for an integrated transport system, which could be managed by a single company

Be transparent about data

  • Data collection must be justified and validated, explaining why collection is happening and what changes will it bring
  • Depersonalise/anonymise data at point of collection so no identifying details leave a person’s device
  • Share real, local examples of data being used to improve Royal Docks so people can see the benefits of data collection

Start early

  • Demonstrate financial benefits of ideas like supply chain management schemes, consolidation centres and automatic refuse collection early
  • Build in space for smart infrastructure before all else to minimise retrofit costs later
  • Promote Royal Docks as a smart district through policy and developer obligations
  • Showcase Royal Docks as a smart city exemplar to get buy-in from residents, businesses and investors as they see the area’s accomplishments and potential


  • Meanwhile use could attract business in lieu of a town centre; this could be a modular set-up able to move around Royal Docks as development phases complete
  • Anticipate that technology will change and design spaces and buildings to accommodate this – create a context where you only need to update kit, not an entire piece of infrastructure
  • Embed flexibility in design guides and policy

royal docks charrette discussion

Thanks to facilitators and participants for contributing to the discussion, to Siemens and the Crystal for hosting, and to our project sponsors Arup, GVA and Lewis Silkin.