“Smart cities in Europe: Financing the commercialisation of smart city technology” – Interview with Geoff Snelson

This summer, OC released the first in a series of white papers on smart cities, “Smart cities in Europe: Financing the commercialisation of smart city technology”. We, in collaboration with VB Research, interviewed smart cities champions and experts, including Geoff Snelson, Director of Strategy at Milton Keynes Council.

On the status of
Internet-of-things project:

We have a wide range of smart city projects in Milton
Keynes. The IoT project is just one of them. That includes establishing a
city-wide, low-power, wide area network (LPWAN). This is now in place. It uses
four base stations and gives us city-wide coverage. With a range of
collaborators, but mostly BT and the Digital Economy Catapult and the Future Cities
Catapult, the project is developing a series of use-cases that primarily
involve the deployment of sensors for a whole range of different applications
in the city. Other wireless technologies are also being used in addition to the

The LPWAN network allows us to transmit data very
efficiently and cheaply. It makes it much more affordable than 3G or 4G. We
have now established the network and a number of use cases and are at the early
stages of implementation. For example, there is a car parking sensor trial that
is underway, as well as one that puts sensors into neighbourhood recycling

On importance of the project being ‘open-access’ and enabling SMEs to plug in their solutions:

This is a national project in effect, which is why it is
supported by Future Cities and the Digital Catapults. It is about trying to
push sensors to being deployed at scale. Sensors are costly to produce so
deployments need to get into the hundreds of thousands to get costs down.

For the city it not only provides us with profile but an
innovation environment in which people can develop new solutions to existing
city challenges. Once you put the kit in place it lowers the entry level for
innovation. This is particularly important for SMEs.

On potential concerns
with working with small technology or software companies:

We don’t  have any major
concerns because a lot of the initiatives are at the R&D and proof of
concept stage and most of the projects the city has done have been funded
through Government R&D funding from innovation funds or through individual
corporates that have an R&D budget and need to trial new technology. As a
city, if these solutions start to be proven and emerge, we would then have to
go out and procure them just as we would with any other service. Of course part
of that procurement process involves making sure the companies we procure from
are resilient but this is less of a issue  for demonstration projects.

You don’t want to stifle innovation. Our experience is that
a lot of larger companies have their own pre-existing products they are trying
to sell. Our best experience is with Smaller companies and increasingly larger
ones that have an approach of working together collaboratively rather than just
trying to sell products.

On how initiatives
are arranged:

A lot of the big companies have products, but before I can
buy as a city, I need something that is low risk and something I know will
generate certain benefits and savings. At the moment it’s difficult for us to
buy many smart city solutions  because they
are not proven and you can’t show a
bottom line benefit in many cases.

These companies need somewhere to demonstrate those savings
and efficiencies in a real life environment. Cities are looking for answers to
budgetary and other challenges, be that related to energy or transport. It is
not often apparent what solutions are out there so working with others and the
notion of co-production is attractive to cities. It creates an opportunity to
try things out and innovate.

The greatest opportunities arise when we can match  someone that “owns”  a problem with a solution provider who is
prepared to engage in developing an approach together.

On willingness of large corporates to finance pilot projects that use
technology from smaller companies:

They do this. The wisdom is that a lot of the technologies
provide opportunities to lever in other solutions or provide connectivity
between a whole range of different products and challenges. A good example is
our car parking initiative. We have three different car parking sensor trials
going on now each with different companies. It could be that one of these
reveals itself to be so fabulous that it is clearly the answer to all of our
parking needs in the future. But I’m envisaging that we may need some sort of
integration layer above an emerging range of schemes .. It would be in
everyone’s mutual interest to cooperate to provide data into some kind of
parking portal for the city because everyone benefits from a more cohesive
access point.

A lot of these things are about integration at a city scale
of a whole ecosystem of different things. It’s in everyone’s interest to have
some common standards for integration and to work together to understand the
connectivity and share data across a lot of different service areas, because
you often don’t know what is possible until you start pulling things together.

On the role of small
technology companies in smart initiatives:

One of our projects with BT and the Open University (MK:Smart)
is funded by higher education funding. As part of this we have an innovation and
engagement  work stream and are creating
an innovation centre. We have a target of bringing in 90 SMEs to make use of the
functionality. We have created a developer environment and an education
environment around our city data hub.

Already, 18 SMEs are working with us to test that environment
and the developer tools that have already been put in place to enable them to
easily find ways of developing new applications using the data we are revealing
through that project. We very much want to stimulate the growth of SMEs and
provide opportunities for them to grow, irrespective of whether they address
city challenges or not. Economic activity in the tech industry in our city can
only be a good thing.

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