‘I cannot buy a promise’ – strategy chief of UK’s fastest-growing city on the challenges facing smart cities

Written by Sam Trendall on 22 August 2017 in News

After concluding a three-year programme, Milton Keynes is working out how best to proceed with smart-city technology

Once best known for its concrete cows - pictured here on display at the Midsummer Place shopping centre - Milton Keynes wants to become recognised as a hub for technology and innovation  Credit: PA

The financial or public service benefits of smart-city technology are not yet clear enough to justify major investment, according to the strategy chief of the UK’s fastest-growing city.

Milton Keynes has just concluded MK:Smart, a three-year project dedicated to using technology and innovation to find ways to support the city’s rapid population growth – which a Centre for Cities study last year revealed was the fastest in the UK between 2004 and 2014.

A number of individual programmes have been launched during MK:Smart, including the creation of an open data hub and the introduction of driverless ‘pods’, which are currently being trialled ahead of 40 of the vehicles being rolled out in the city centre next year.

But, according to Geoff Snelson, the council’s director of strategy and futures, the smart-city sector as a whole remains stuck in its what is popularly referred to as the Valley of Death – the difficult and defining period between a start-up business receiving investment and the time it becomes financially self-sufficient – or not, as the case may be.

“The smart-city movement is going through a testing, searching time. There are exciting use cases, but not too many strong, tangible benefits,” he told PublicTechnology. “It is classic Valley-of-Death stuff – there are great ideas but, until you deploy them at scale, you do not know enough about it. All the big vendors are going round asking why people aren’t buying their products, and we are saying: ‘when can it be demonstrated [at scale]?’”

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Snelson added: “Everyone knows it could be great – but I cannot buy a promise. I can enter into a conversation that can explore something but, if I want to commit public money, I need a decent prospect of return.”

One smart-city project that has got underway in Milton Keynes is the citywide deployment of 2,500 sensors from London-based start-up Vivacity Labs, which specialises in cameras equipped with artificial intelligence. The sensors will monitor all major junctions and each parking space in the city. The ultimate goal is to use the data gathered by the sensors to help manage traffic in real time.

The project was funded by Vivacity via a £1.6m grant from government innovation agency Innovate UK, and a further £1.7m in money from private investors. The city’s use of the data gathered by the sensors – potentially in its MotionMap city transport application, which is currently being tested after being developed during MK:Smart as a proof-of-concept exercise – will depend on all parties agreeing on the “right commercial model”, said Snelson.

“[Vivacity] have raised the investment, they are deploying the sensors. It is up to them – they own the data, and the terms [under] which the data will be used,” he said. “But I cannot believe that it is not possible to find a model that can give them a bit of margin, and allow us to benefit from the data.”

  • Look out in the coming days for a full write-up of our discussion with the Milton Keynes strategy chief, and details of the investments for its future the city is making in technology and innovation.
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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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John Booth (not verified)

Submitted on 22 August, 2017 - 14:16
Smart Cities concepts always forget one very important point, "cities are for people". technology solutions are always hard, and we need to be and think soft. Not everything can be assigned a financial value, for instance in this case the CO2 emissions that are "avoided" due to commuters driving around to find a parking space have not been calculated, or are not recognised as being of value. Councils need to start treating their citizens as customers instead of captive audiences to be fleeced. That means that Councils have to change their approach and move from 19th Century services delivery to the 21st Century! Im not saying that its going to be easy but radical problems, population growth, climate change etc, need radical solutions and radical thinking.

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