Making waves: How Greenwich council is embracing innovative technologies

Written by Gill Hitchcock on 9 December 2016 in Features

The Royal Borough of Greenwich is best known for its nautical history, but the council’s digital team is now setting its course for super-fast connectivity and cutting-edge technologies. Gill Hitchcock reports.  

The Cutty Sark, one of Greenwich's most famous landmarks - Photo credit: Flickr, Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0

A trip to Greenwich can be like stepping into Britain’s maritime past. That’s why visitors flock to the south-east London borough’s nineteenth century tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, and Wren’s Royal Naval College.

But behind its historical façade, there’s something new on the horizon. Something radical, and decidedly twenty-first century. And the council is investing in an architecture that has nothing to do with bricks and mortar.

The royal borough is innovating, embracing digital technologies, and the catalyst is its Smart City programme, launched a year ago to make better use of technologies and data to provide local people – residents, workers and tourists – with more efficient services.

The programme is a voyage of discovery, and at the helm is Paul Copping, chief innovation officer at Digital Greenwich, the team responsible for the programme. He believes that, faced with a wealth of new technologies entering an “extremely turbulent” market, local authorities must innovate to keep pace. And they need the right IT architecture to withstand transition.

But Copping has his compass aligned with commerce, and says the Smart City programme will generate revenue for the council to support further IT exploration and development. For instance, Digital Greenwich intends to offset its costs by selling services to other authorities or organisations, and has already created a wholly-owned commercial trading company, DG Cities Ltd, to deliver consultancy and cloud-based technology services.

“Part of the revenue generated allows us to offset our own costs,” he says. “The other factor is that the borough is too small to be an economic market for the scale of innovation that we are contemplating here.”

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It also puts Greenwich at the forefront of innovation in a range of technologies, not least the expansion of the UK’s next generation mobile and wireless connectivity system, 5G. This is will be key to enable the widespread use of Internet of Things-enabled devices, among other ground breaking developments, that need a higher bandwidth.

The expansion of 5G across the UK has strong backing from government. Take its commitment to spend £740m on full-fibre connections and 5G, along with a series of trials for these technologies, set out in chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement this November.

And this summer, Digital Greenwich entered into a partnership with the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC).

The Guildford-based centre – backed by £12m from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and £68m from industry and partners, including the EM3 Local Enterprise Partnership – aims to develop next-generation wireless technologies to benefit transport, health, energy and the built environment.

When 5GIC needed access to an urban test site, Greenwich stepped in. The borough will provide it with the ability to carry out technical trials and work with users in the face of day-to-day challenges in an urban environment. Copping says that the preliminary discussions focused on the pair’s “convergent needs, our work with telecoms operators and a lot of other overlapping ambition and interest”.

Meanwhile, Rahim Tafazolli, the director of the centre, says the partnership will allow the team to develop solutions that will work in a city and help create standard solutions that can be applied to all 5G-related technology, right across the UK.

Shipshape and Bristol fashion

Digital Greenwich is also working on 5G technologies with Bristol is Open, a joint venture between the University of Bristol and Bristol city council. The aim here is to apply developments in software, hardware and telecom networks in a way that will encourage people to interact more with the place they live, as well as improving machine-to-machine communication.

“The Bristol university guys are working on a load of 5G-related stuff, especially massive multiple antenna technology, known as MIMO, which greatly improve spectrum efficiency,” says Copping. “Bristol is Open has also inherited a very large fibre network, and that gives it opportunities for rapid wireless deployment. So we are ready to share and learn together.”

Greenwich has also been named as the London demonstrator site for Smart Cities and Communities Lighthouse programme, which aims to develop solutions to challenges faced by all major cities as they continue to grow and develop. This means that it is joining forces with Milan, Lisbon, Warsaw, Bordeaux and Burgas in a project funded with €25m from the European Union.

David Gann, professor of innovation and technology management at Imperial College London and chairman of the Smart London Board, says: “The Smart Cities and Communities Lighthouse programme provides a great testbed as we endeavour to innovate, harnessing the opportunities of the Internet of Things and data to sustain the capital's leading position as the world’s smartest city.”

The borough’s maritime history dates back to the seventeenth century. Can it make history again? Digital history? Gann for one likes the cut of its jib, saying that no city in the world can match London for its technical nous and creative prowess.

For Copping, things are at a relatively early stage – too early for him to be specific about outcomes. But he predicts that in another five years Greenwich will have tried, tested and deployed a range of new technologies, and he is confident that the residents of the borough’s 23,000 social houses and apartments will be benefiting from super-fast connectivity. 

About the author

Gill Hitchcock is a health and public services journalist. 

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