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Milton Keynes: more evidence needed to drive smart city investment

Neil Merrett Published 28 November 2016

MK strategy director says case studies are needed to improve prospects for smart and IoT public sector initiatives; standards and regulations also vital says Jos Creese


There remains insufficient evidence on the impact from introducing and investing in sensor and other smart city technologies within the public sector as a means to improve efficiency, according to Milton Keynes Council strategy director, Geoff Snelson.

Snelson, who helps head up projects such as the council's smart city programme that aims to introduce an expanding city wide Internet of Things (IoT) network, discussed potential challenges and opportunity for local authorities from this work during the Socitm conference held in the city last month.

He noted at the time that there were ongoing discussions nationally about better preparing or moving forward with smart city initiatives that could potentially replace existing local government service models or serve as alternative cost cutting strategies.

“There are business models and service efficiencies that can be derived from deployment of sensors and other technology, but mostly there isn’t sufficient evidence of the impact for people to be able to take the decision to invest to deploy these things at scale,” said Snelson.

As a city, Milton Keynes has opted to create what it calls a data hub that can bring together and manage vast amounts of data related to city systems that includes information on transport, energy and water use, as well as social and economic data sets.

Crowd-sourced data and information received from diverse sources such as social media, specialised apps and satellite technology is also included under the focus that is supported by engagement programmes to bring together, the public, private and academic sectors.

As council strategy director, Snelson said that in potentially looking to employ smart technologies at scale, either to replace a local government service model, or pursuing efficiencies, more thorough planning is needed in the UK.

“I do think there is a need to concentrate the development of some of these solutions in particular cases rather than leaving it to happenstance and for things to emerge,” he said.

“It does need a fair amount of risk share if you like in the early stages and we’re still a long way off.”

Snelson argued that from the authority’s own perspective, the majority of future projects were still in a research and development stage, rather than available as active prototypes.  He argued that its transportation focuses were presently seen as being the nearest to market with regard to becoming practical solutions.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty about these things so it does need concentrated effort and collaboration to move to the next stage,” he said.

Jos Creese - a former Socitm president and ongoing associate director who is now with Eduserv -  said he agreed there was a role for local government in stimulating more forward planning of how smart technologies can underpin initiatives to better incorporate data and infrastructure.

Creese argued that realising this would allow for commercial value to be realised.

“So local authorities don’t have to make all the investment themselves, but I do think they have to make that investment have commercial value and [they] can do so,” he said.  “I also think there is a need for a degree of regulations and standards here, both in terms of public trust about the data collected from everyone and also in the way it can be connected.”

Creese highlighted one key aspiration for local government planning may be in connecting information between different regions to create more integrated services and information such as in journey planning for different transport types.  This could potentially involve combining data on available parking spaces in one town or region, with taxi services and train timetables on other areas.

“That requires, I think, local government to team up with businesses to make that possible,” he said.

Theo Blackwell, Camden Council’s Cabinet member for Finance, Technology and Growth wrote back in September that newly elected mayors and combined authorities in the coming years would need to be able to join up, analyse and act upon data from across their areas to tackle service needs and challenges.

“They need to consider how smart cities work can be progressed,” he said at the time.

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