Interview: Liz St Louis, the city council’s assistant director smart cities, emphasises connectivity as a foundation, the flexibility to choose solutions and the importance of digital inclusion
“A smart city is a super-connected city where our people and businesses can thrive.”
It’s a short and sweet definition that Liz St Louis says encapsulates Sunderland City Council’s drive to place itself among the leaders in the field.
As assistant director smart cities, responsible for its investment in digital infrastructure, she emphasises the overriding importance of the connectivity element, with the council opting for a hybrid approach to give itself the flexibility to adopt different solutions.
“We always talk about the underlying connectivity being pivotal, the foundation to everything else we want to do,” she says. “So we describe it as a ‘network of networks’ with not one kind of connectivity, it has to be many, and there has to be a ‘horses for courses’ approach in finding the best connectivity to meet the need.”
Sunderland took a major step in September of last year in agreeing a 20-year strategic partnership with BAI Communications for the provision of a next generation digital infrastructure, including a private 5G small cell network as a major feature and scheduled for delivery during the summer.
This builds on earlier efforts to boost 5G provision. A 5G Ready Communications Ring was launched in December 2019, and in August 2020 the council won £4.5 million from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, partly to extend 5G availability.
BAI has recently announced an extra capability through a deal with Mavenir to adopt Open RAN (radio access network) technology as part of the infrastructure. St Louis says this will provide for long term flexibility in choosing hardware and software to work on the network, providing for a ‘best of breed’ approach which is security conscious and future proof.
It is combined with a programme to provide pockets of free public Wi-Fi, extending from the city centre to the new Riverside urban quarter and the Roker seafront, with more to come.
This is accompanied by an investment in fibre connectivity. In November 2020 Sunderland signed a £2.9 million contract with CityFibre as an anchor tenant of a network that, backed by £62 million from the company, would provide gigabit-capable connectivity to over 90% of the city’s premises. There have also been investments by Virgin Media and Netomnia in the area.
Another element of the BAI deal involves the provision of a city-wide LoRaWAN network by the summer, built to a high specification to penetrate buildings – a major asset in supporting the use of assistive technologies.
“You can say that in terms of underlying connectivity we’ve gone from a standing start to making progress in all areas, and the 20-year strategic partnership with BAI will give us a global infrastructure to help us design, build and operate those wireless networks moving forward,” St Louis says, adding that this will provide the basis for increased use of internet of things (IoT) technology.
“Quite often when you want to explore with IoT it’s the cost of the underpinning network that prevents you from looking at the use cases. But we’ll have the underlying network from the summer of this year so we’ll be able to much better experiment with different types of IoT sensors and understand how they can benefit us; whether it’s in flood prevention, waste management, smart homes, monitoring things like carbon monoxide or fire doors in commercial premises.
“It makes the use cases more affordable if you have the underpinning network.
“Part of the procurement was negotiating the buy-back solution to make it more affordable across the city. We or others who want to use the LoRaWAN, Wi-Fi or 5G will buy the services across it. You need to buy the connectivity to buy the services, which we will do through the joint venture.”
The council has also made provision for the data management in IoT deployments through a deal to use the ConnexinOS data platform, although it will initially be used to support multi-agency partnership working in areas such as social care.
“The platform can work with data sources of any type and our immediate needs were to support multi-agency approach,” St Louis says. “We can start to explore how we wish to develop it when networks are live.”
A number of IoT initiatives have already been launched. She highlights the provision of assistive technology sensors to over 2,400 homes of vulnerable people in the city, monitoring for signs of falls, whether they are eating and drinking enough and if those with dementia are wandering away.
Sensors have also been deployed in waste bins to support planning of the collection routes, and video camera sensors to monitor traffic and pedestrian flows in parts of the city. 12 monitors have been in place for two years and another 60 will be added as part of the BAI project, feeding into efforts to reduce congestion. There are also plans to install 30 air quality sensors at key locations.
The council is also working with the Digital Catapult on two market challenges. One is to improve the understanding of carbon emissions from large buildings, which has led to Nomad Energy being contracted for a project to examine gas and electricity consumption in two council owned buildings
The other is to develop a proof of concept for modes of sustainable transport, and has resulted in a contract with smart travel firm Nebula Labs to better understand people’s mobility choices.
The latter marks a continuation of the work on an e-mobility hub, which St Louis says has made good progress.
“We’ve taken delivery of some e-bikes and ordered a number of e-cars. The hub will allow council workers to commute on public transport and if they need to go to a meeting to pick up an e-bike, e-scooter or e-car. Part of that is to encourage a modal shift to encourage people to look at other ways of getting in and out of the city centre.”
Another initiative reflects the presence of the Nissan car plant and is likely to feed into the development of an infrastructure for autonomous vehicles. Last year a 5G network, owned by the council, was installed to cover a private road between Nissan and major parts suppliers Vantec. This is now being used as part of the 5G CAL (connected automated logistics) project for the operation of autonomous trucks.
“The International Advanced Manufacturing Park and key players like Nissan have been part of our thinking, but it’s much broader than that,” St Louis says. “We absolutely believe that in order to realise the city’s ambitions advanced infrastructure is key.”
She outlined other elements of Sunderland’s plans at last year’s UKAuthority Smart Places, Smart Cities event, including the developments of a living lab to showcase technology, a smart district to develop opportunities and an education, enterprise and skills working group. During the interview she also emphasises the importance of digital inclusion efforts.
“A big part of our smart city work is leaving no-one behind in digital inclusion. We’ve made a great start, have initiatives, but want to do a lot more in making sure that everybody in Sunderland has equal opportunity.
“The initiative that’s been quite successful has been the Re-use and Reycle project in which organisations donate devices. We have a partnership with local company Protech that wipes and recycles through voluntary and community organisations.
“It’s an area we would like to see grow; but people need the underlying connectivity and skills to use the devices. You have to look at affordability and skills.”
Milestones in sight
Looking forward, she sees the next big milestone in the completion of the core networks to be followed by their expansion, then looking for the benefits in public service improvements and economic growth.
“For us it’s about getting the networks live over the summer then building them out.
“It’s about delivering on a number of use cases and starting to see the benefits they can bring for residents and businesses. We’ve seen it with assistive technologies but there’s a long way to go yet. It’s building on the early successes and scaling more for people and businesses to benefit.”
She concludes by emphasising that the council is keen to share its experiences and learn from others, not just in the UK but further afield.
“There are so many verticals in a smart city place, and it’s important if you are looking at a true smart city that your are grasping those opportunities. The shared learning we can do with other local authorities and public sector organisations is so important.”
Image from Liz St Louis