Our chance to shape the future city

Our chance to shape the future city

The issue: How can the private, public and university sectors harness technology to create the future city, and what can we do to lead the way?

Taking Part 01Possibilities of the North East becoming a ‘living lab’, building on its existing and future technology to become a paragon of smarter and healthier cities or city regions, have taken a major step forward with BT’s disclosure that it wishes to consider North East potentials in its plans to invest in partnerships with major cities of the North.

The opportunity emerged during a stimulating two and a half hour debate in which many opportunities and visions were generally suggested as goals. They included becoming a national internet centre for Big Data, a prime driver of utilities efficiency putting money back into people’s pockets, a centre of excellence in cyber security and forensics, and further advancing existing progress in life sciences and ageing research.    

Simon Roberson said BT is interested in ICT’s hot topics because it’s a big investor in city infrastructures. Newcastle has 98% superfast broadband coverage and areas of conurbation surrounding will be similarly advantaged during the next couple of years.

“We’re moving on to build greater wi-fi coverage in central areas. When we acquire EE (the mobile operator Everything Everywhere) – assuming we get regulatory approval – we’ll have the UK’s biggest 4G mobile network. We also have a coup for the North East – an ultra-fast broadband pilot, 300Mbps in Gosforth this summer.

“There are only two places in the UK where that’s happening with BT – the other is Huntingdon. No other operators are so advanced with this technology. We’ve made a commitment that, subject to things going well with the technology and the regulatory environment, we’ll roll that out commercially.”

He hoped to hear suggestions on how to build more sustainable cities, more prosperous, healthier and with greater inclusivity; how they’d mesh in different ways – generating wealth and improving lives.

“How different networks of people link up to achieve this is something I’m keen to see.” Some issues are political and organisational as well as technological,” he added.

David Townsley wondered: have universities and other academic institutions the commercial acumen to exploit IP and operate with significant impact alongside commerce not only in the North East but also the UK economy?

Rebecca Strachan cited gender imbalance in technology. Is what’s being designed for a Smart city fit for purpose for both genders, she asked?

Paul Watson said more and more hugely valuable data was being collected in the region. “How can we work together to unlock its potential?”

Tom Baker: “We’re aware we need to exploit in partnership the technologies talked about. We’re keen to understand where we can build relationships.”

Andrew Lewis said Newcastle Council’s numerous initiatives include an excellent partnership with BT. The Core building in the new Science Central district, built also through strong partnership with Newcastle University, had been 90% prelet.

A partnership has been agreed too with Northumbria University, and Newcastle is one of only three cities partnering the Energy Technologies Institute.

Millions in private investment is being attracted into the city, he added. The new Institute for Ageing is a relevant asset, and a wide range of activities in Newcastle figure prominently on the future city agenda.

“My challenge is to connect that so it isn’t just technologicial development for its own sake, but is connected to communities and business growth, and opportunity for people of Newcastle.”

Andy Mace said the global consultancy of 12,000 people he represents is working with the Rockefeller Foundation on a 100 resilient cities project. “We need people to do things differently if we’re to reduce our consumption, carbon footprint etc.” How could ‘Smart’ do this?

David Dunn wanted to know how smart cities could bring the opportunities globally and digitally.

Simon Hanson: “We want the North East recognised as best in the world in using open data and big data. How can we get our members to use big data they’ve got plus big data of others?

Given announcements in the Budget, how can we get Newcastle and the North East positioned as an internet leader? Have we leadership in the North East to exploit this potential? We seem behind a lot of cities which have more sizzle than sausage, whereas we appear to have more sausage than sizzle?”

Brian Nicholls felt BQ readers might like to know if it’s true that by 2017 broadband speeds of nations like South Korea will be 40 times faster than the UK’s. If this is a matter of investment, would business be better served if some of the £90bn estimated for an ultra-fast rail system was diverted to intensified broadband, since the time saved on trains between Newcastle and London might only be 11 minutes?

Conn Crawford was fascinated that public data might be available across the country. How might we bring North East resources together to reprocess it?

Simon Yellowley: “In the area I look after I see the Northern Powerhouse being created under the devolution agenda. I look to how Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Manchester are harnessing this. I’d like to see how the North East will measure up to that. How we can accelerate many facets, leadership or otherwise, to get a fair share of this new devolution power and money?

Charlie Hoult was keen to see how small businesses can benefit. “It’s a big ask putting the infrastructure in and the big data. How do you get the dividend of IP and wealth to reside here?”

Europe had pots of future cities money – how to co-ordinate that? “How do we make ourselves the UK’s beacon region for smart progress?”

John Fitzgerald: “As a builder of the next building on site at Science Central, much of my work is involved in digital aspects of urban sciences, the £58m collaborative venture between Newcastle University and the city.

We’re bringing together a lot of disciplines traditionally kept separate. What should we build in this region that will bring the world’s most innovative organisations to our door? We’ve many opportunities.”

Mike Hartley, whose SME produces a Smart energy product, is working with Gentoo on storage heating in social housing. The aim is to have a Smart system on the cloud instructing multiple occupancy properties, such as tower blocks.

Montage 01

“We could regularly do with talking with energy suppliers on being much more flexible about supply of energy, and to see whether we could work with them on a Smart grid basis.”

Dr Vincent Thornley works for Siemens on Smart grid. “We’ve been heavily involved with Northern Power Grid in projects, and increasingly with council and university on Science Central. I’ve observed, as we try to bring forward innovative projects, circumstances around what the future city is. I think it’s a bit more than a city, probably a region.

“It’s good that representatives of Sunderland and Newcastle Councils are here. Sometimes we talk about ‘the city’ and we normally refer to Newcastle. Other times we talk about ‘the region’. My perspective is that the reason we’re not sizzling is that we don’t act together, like areas around Manchester and Liverpool do.

Hans Moller, previously chief executive of a science park in Sweden founded following the breakdown of shipbuilding, earlier spent 20 years in IT. “There’s a pretty good foundation in innovation here that I think can be developed,” he said, advocating open innovation. In Sweden they tried to engage SMEs with large corporations.

“If you’re a SME it’s hard to speak to the like of Siemens, BT and companies that size. We tried to persuade large companies in Sweden to interact in trying to solve different problems.”

Engaging a region’s general public was also necessary. “I used to do the litmus test, come to a new city and ask the taxi driver ‘please take me to the innovation centre in this town’ and at least 99% of the drivers would drive me to a major science park.

“I’ve tried it three times in Newcastle and they looked very strangely at me. I tried the hairdresser but she knew nothing about local enterprise partnerships, North East LEP – she didn’t have a clue. We have to work together to change that. You can engage with the public on open innovation projects.”

Tom Baker, who recently attended an all-party parliamentary group at Westminster to discuss connectivity, suggested greater opportunity for innovation exists through cities and regions than through central government. A city digital service would be interesting, he felt.

Devolution gives opportunity to think around areas much more manageable. “From BT’s perspective, we’re keen to think about how we spend our R&D. We’re concluding it must be situated alongside and in partnership with cities, entrepreneurs and developers.

What could such a platform look like in the North East, where could some challenges
become opportunities?”

Charlie Hoult said computers could scale 19thC political boundaries and parochialism. But whereas some challenges of leadership were being settled in other cities there was not around the debate table a chief executive of a LEP or the chief executive of the Combined Authority.

“We don’t have politicians round the table. They equally ought to know about technology. But the council gets its votes from bins being picked up on time.” He criticised short-termism on councils and political cycles challenging amounts of investment needed for Smart city infrastructure.

Andrew Lewis said ludicrous budget cuts that North East councils must make compared with elsewhere threaten many services taken for granted. “But the public sector can do many things if it thinks innovation, thinks long term and uses other powers and other funding opportunities involving both private and public sector, also European and other international networks – fighting for every opportunity.”

A lot was done over 10 years to bring Newcastle City and Newcastle University together to attract inward investment. There was multi-party consensus to develop long-term opportunities. “When it does happen it’s close to the future cities agenda.”

But it was necessary to work as a region. “There’s strong collaboration in the public sector despite political rows reported in the Press. One example is Newcastle, Sunderland and electric vehicles. Now the North East has one of the best networks for developing the necessary infrastructure. There are many other examples.”

Vincent Thornley said that whereas what’s called Greater Manchester is Greater Manchester there isn’t a Greater Newcastle. “If we called it that Sunderland might get upset.”

Tyne and Wear? The North East? He questioned the existence of such identities.

Manchester’s autonomy in a lot of areas had been earned. “Too often here we end up in our little silos, rather than everyone working together to benefit the North East. Only when you think what services and technologies can do for you can you make steps forward.”

Caroline Theobald mentioned two Catapult centres serving the region as progress.

David Dunn said residents should benefit from a future city. How to understand their problems and challenges to start overcoming them?

Conn Crawford said it was relatively easy for authorities to access. How, say, Sunderland and Newcastle interact in developments was the key.

David Dunn said world population could be 9bn-plus by 2050 with two-thirds in cities. Consumption of resources broadly multiplies by four in any move from rural to city existence. How could people be persuaded to do things differently when so many “bloody minded” people generally do opposite to what’s asked?

Finding an access to persuade people to change would do it, and drive a market. Over 70% of people in the UK now own a Smart phone, he pointed out.

Charlie Hoult said the idea everyone over 60 should be Smart enabled with a device had been discussed, also an objective like no child under 16 would ever get lost geographically, educationally, or to social services.

“If you get research, data, infrastructure and technology to map it – we’re already a centre for ageing – are there other things you can also designate and shout about?

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David Dunn:  “I fear we’ve glossed over difficulties because we’re fixed on the next Apple gadget. What’s the next shiny thing I can own?”

Vincent Thornley said it wasn’t just about ability to get the next device, but understanding how to get the best from it.

A question asking what Sunderland’s big problems are brought the reply “poverty, exclusion, and an ageing population compared with the rest of the country”.

The “cost-cutting government” pushes to have everything done on the web, but many people requiring services can’t go online, it was argued. Mixing young and old in a community was one solution suggested.

David Townsley expects his home fuel bill to fall 50% now he has a Smart meter. It can benefit young and old. It can inform when a person at risk hasn’t turned on their heating.

Mike Hartley said some people could already re-invest some savings. “We’re capturing information about how people use their technology, and finding out about their lives. It’s how to use that sensitively, retaining their confidence…”

Tom Baker wondered if any role existed for local government.

Conn Crawford felt a role might lie in helping individuals have more control over their personal data, yet also in ensuring that platforms others want to build enable services to come about. What role would there then be for academia, it was asked?

“Gateways,” Conn Crawford replied.

Charlie Hoult advocated broad partnering.

Simon Yellowley said everyone has TV. BT did a trial in Suffolk with the Red Cross on rural isolation. Cameras were put on TVs giving lonely people face to face time with friends, family and acquaintances. A number “blew” their broadbandwidth – they were never off. One elderly lady was on all day to the next door neighbour, whom she never usually saw. A larger pilot is running in Cornwall.

“I’ve been involved in a few multipartite projects,” he said. “If you get agreement on data usage and ownership that seems to make some projects successful.”

BT partnered Milton Keynes and the Open University on sensor networks across transport (a blocked grid can impact on an entire economy). “We used that network and relationship to try to fix that problem.”

Simon Hanson worried that a hacker might destroy the entire system in a Smart connected home.

David Dunn felt that with five good universities in the region and some world expertise, as well as appropriate companies, there should perhaps be less focus on creating a city region and more on the little jigsaw pieces that can make any city anywhere become expert.

Paul Watson thought some large company might find a Smart city solution which would then be bought and deployed. “Can we take the initiative better ourselves by partnering, combining skills of people around this table?”

Caroline Theobald thought that Nirvana but questioned how to get there.

Simon Yellowley said until Dynamo’s launch, nobody knew the size of the region’s ICT economy.

Why not do likewise for the Smart city, building a base map of innovation? “A smart region rather than a smart city,” Rebecca Strachan wondered?

“We have to think of rural areas also.” And how to get third generation unemployed involved, she added.

While there was talk of metro areas, a proposal was made that region, as in energy and some other things, might be more practical than city, since Newcastle doesn’t compare in size to some bigger cities.

Andrew Lewis cautioned against understating the value of a city brand. His home town, Wigan, was part of Greater Manchester but not part of Manchester. He thought working together as a combined authority would grow.

But when you mention Newcastle by name people round the world recognise that, and the North East was competing generally with other cities that similarly use their branding widely.

Conn Crawford: “Funnily enough, I’m going to support that view. But with centres of excellence in Sunderland and cyber security and forensics in the region, he felt it important not to pack everything digital within a single boundary. We could federate rather than become one.”

Hans Moller cited the Oresund Bridge, the strait crossing connecting Sweden with Denmark. For years three cities including Malmo and Copenhagen tried to form a region, even created a name but no-one recognised it, even though it was promoted as a brand.

Now Copenhagen calls the region Greater Copenhagen. Despite no commitment from Swedish politicians, Danes don’t care. “They include Sweden because it is important and companies don’t care too much about boundaries, even between nations. Copenhagen is a strong brand. Maybe that could be the moral here.”

Charlie Hoult asked how hard it would be for a Newcastle city region to designate itself above nine other core cities as the UK’s beacon of Smart activities.

David Townsley pondered how SMEs might be persuaded to innovate for new technology and new applications, and to work better with universities and councils. A SME trying to get through a local authority procurement system, for example, was a non-starter.

Mike Hartley said bidding costs and bureaucracy in procurement were massive. Someone else hinted at a North East local authorities’ Dragons’ Den.

Conn Crawford felt SMEs might work in partnership to achieve size, since procurement tests were necessary to ensure confidence and deliverability. “Can we help enable you to work together somehow to meet the tests?”

Larger companies could partner smaller ones more, it was thought.

Andrew Lewis suggested SMEs have a good record in procuring locally; the majority of procurement in supplies goes to them in Newcastle. But procurement was not very effective for bringing new technology to the table.

“We don’t set out to procure technology. We set out to procure services or particular requirements. Technology would be inevitably driven through the private sector. Maybe we could identify margins within procurement to bring on new technology.”

Simon Roberson felt massive culture change was needed across local authorities. “Commissioners rather than procurers have the tools.” He quoted progress in the USA, whereas the UK might be handicapped by centralised structure. Someone mentioned Jeremie Funds but Simon Roberson still felt centralisation was too great.

John Fitzgerald said that over five years innovation had grown in electricity networks.

Regulators had set them challenges. Money could be saved. Maybe seed money could come from councils, with input from SMEs and innovators, Ofgen wanted to involve smaller companies. Quite a few had benefited, including university spinouts.

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Simon Hanson didn’t think anyone had expected healthcare budgets to be devolved
to Manchester. It showed the level of movement possible.

Andy Mace said while innovation was evident, sometimes just getting basics done showed progress. It couldn’t always be about the next gadget. He still felt personal leadership – elected mayors for example – was important to get things done.

Simon Yellowley said Leeds was trying to create a SME market around wellbeing and digital health. What are the next apps to make individuals more responsible for their own health and wellbeing?

Conn Crawford suggested also a “circular economy”, recycling goods and products into other products, as done in the automotive industry. The meeting was reminded a couple of hundred scientists will soon be in Science Central wishing to consider problems and ideas that will prompt international interest and competition.

Andy Mace said whatever was proposed for 60m people in Britain would depend on what members there were prepared to do.

Andrew Lewis: “Let’s become adept at publicising what we’ve got and in securing resources to do it with. There’s a call for European money requiring match funding. Why can’t that come from the private sector?

John Fitzgerald said efforts were being made to bring investment into the North East from Germany, but Siemens wouldn’t just throw money at it. Rather, it had to be justified against other places. There had recently been collaboration with an Italian venture and a consequent pitch for European money on that.

Mention was made of two big broadband projects. One in South Yorkshire, with about £100m of European money, was driven by the public sector and proved disastrous – “a useful shroud” to wave at the Government.

But in Cornwall, with similar European funding, a public/ private partnership was formed and Cornwall had worked hard to provide an attractive proposition the private sector could invest in.

Simon Yellowley said BT was considering which of the Northern Powerhouse cities BT can develop a partnership and make investments with. “We’d be delighted to pick up with anyone on that after this meeting,” he said.

“We want to try to work with willing partners, creating some form of living lab – to use a generic term – to try to co-design something we’ve been talking about, building on assets already in the region, so we can call ourselves a smarter or a healthier city.

The money’s in competition with Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool. Last year we invested in Bradford’s digital health enterprise zone. We want to pick some of the largest city regions also. I’d be interested to talk to anyone.”

Asked what budget, he replied it wasn’t monetary value but resource value BT could bring, as in Bradford. “We need a bit of pull to get that in Newcastle. We won’t get it if we just push.”

Andy Mace asked whether it would be across the city or part of the city.

Simon Yellowley said it was as yet undefined.