Greater Manchester is building a digital infrastructure that shows a tipping point has been reached for smart places, writes Stu Higgins, head of smart cities and IoT at Cisco
We are at a point that will set the direction of digital communities for the next 10 years and more.
There has been talk about the development of smart places – or connected communities – for a long time, but developments over the past year have made it possible to go beyond the procession of pilot projects and small scale deployments into a widespread of use of networks, data and new technologies to make ‘smart’ a reality on a large scale.
Full fibre networks are extending their reach, 5G is now available in many places, many organisations are beginning to harness longer range wide area networks (LoRaWAN), and some are exploring what can be done with the Wi-Fi 6 standard.
Meanwhile the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a major boost to the cause of data sharing and shown that it is possible to develop and deploy quickly, concentrating people’s minds on new digital opportunities in the short to medium rather than long term.
At Cisco we emphasise that this can be supported by a whole system approach for a city or region, with one high quality, scalable, agile platform for public services across multiple agencies and departments. This can support stakeholders including local government, the NHS, social care providers, urban service providers, the third sector and academia to provide a wide range of better integrated services, including those for more efficient and sustainable cities and places.
Greater Manchester City-region example
Greater Manchester is providing a strong example. In February 2020, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) published The Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint, a three-year approach for meeting its ambitions to be recognised as a world leading digital city-region, with five priorities including extending its world-class digital infrastructure.
Its core features were outlined by Jon Burt, lead enterprise architect for GMCA, at the recent UKAuthority Smart Places, Smart Cities 2021 online conference. He pointed out that the city-region is the home for a high number of public service organisations, with a drive to work together more effectively and utilise the scale and size of Greater Manchester to test a lot of possibilities.
GMCA (including fire and rescue services) together with Bury, Oldham, Rochdale and Stockport Councils plus Transport for Greater Manchester recently confirmed that, following a discovery project, they are seeking a supplier to build and support the GM One Network. It would provide a single network infrastructure for public sector organisations, connecting an estimated 1,200 of the 1,600 full fibre sites around Greater Manchester.
This will provide managed connectivity and take in a network-as-a-service approach, where it can be connected to external networks where required and take account of organisational and service policies with measures for device and user protection.
Platform to build upon
“In essence it’s a large public sector network, but we don’t want this to be a traditional network but a platform we could build upon, expand our full fibre programme and provide services to citizens as part of the digital inclusion piece,” Burt said.
“Also, we want to enable multiple agencies to work together from health, social care, local authorities and wider. So we’re bringing together the full fibre and additional telecoms circuits from multiple organisations and looking to deploy a single active network across all those sites. Then we’ll use software defined networking to carve it into logical segments, and we’re looking at zero trust technologies from a security point of view.
“But the key thing for us to have the ability to add value to our organisations. So we’re looking to turn this into a platform that gives us the ability to drive our own organisation while devising our own policies with a managed connectivity and network services platform for consuming services through web interfaces or APIs.”
This has come in the form of the Greater Manchester Digital Platform, a cloud capability for joining up organisations and supporting digital transformation. Early use cases are focusing on supporting people with dementia and the victims of crime, services that involve touchpoints with different organisations as they support the end user.
Components and capability
“It’s a componentised platform with different technologies to give us the capability to evolve the platform and bring the services together,” Burt said.
“It is API driven. Fundamentally we’re gathering data from different sources and looking at a better way of doing this. The key thing is storing it, matching it and securing it. Then you have the ability to run it through analytics and integrate with other organisations.”
A third major element is the Greater Manchester Data Mesh, which will enable the sharing of domain data from different organisations through standardised self-service models, and involves a master data service to ensure its quality. It will also involve the use of GM Identity, an authentication service acting as proxy for existing identity providers such as NHS login to allow access.
“We’re looking at creating it as a mesh where we use standards and interfaces rather than storing data in a single place,” Burt said. “The data flows in and out of the mesh, standardised and consumed as data-as-a-service. Then it all flows into a regional architecture involving GM One, the full fibre network and data infrastructures.”
He emphasised that the plans are not all about infrastructure, and involve efforts to strengthen the digital talent pipeline and improve digital inclusion for everyone to take advantage of services and opportunities. The real value of the infrastructure is in supporting the potential to create real social value for the city and its residents.
This is the approach that can underpin the successful development of smart places: taking advantage of the fibre core, building a robust but flexible data architecture and providing the security to get the infrastructure right. This provides a platform for sharing data at high speed and strengthening collaboration between organisations.
In turn, this makes it possible not only to deploy new services but to move forward with strategies for digital inclusion and sustainability. It can all create better outcomes for people, businesses and the local environment.
We’ve reached the tipping point and initiatives such as those in Greater Manchester are laying foundations for a new era of connected places.
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