Interview: Tom Warburton, the city council’s director of place, says its approach to smart city development involves emphasising local resources rather than writing a detailed strategy
Newcastle has ambitions in the smart city arena, but it’s not aiming to fulfil them with the aid of a big, detailed strategy that plots major themes and important steps. Instead, it is emphasising the resources it already has as a foundation for smart service projects.
“We haven’t spent a lot of time writing a strategy,” says Tom Warburton, the city council’s director of place. “I think if you compare what we have on the ground with any other city we have more already delivered.
“There is a lot of strategy development elsewhere and not necessarily delivery.”
What the council has is an idea of an evolution that draws on the city’s digital resources to develop the public services associated with smart places and foster the growth of its digital economy.
“Newcastle is big enough to be a proper city but small enough to work in and we want to use that to attract businesses in the digital sphere,” Warburton says. “The TechNation report made us the second fastest growing digital sector outside London. Companies including Ubisoft and Accenture are in the city and we see the infrastructure and university skills as attracting more.”
He can point to local resources that are already impressive.
“We’ve got pretty good broadband coverage across the city, about 98%, with free Wi-Fi in city centre.
“But the big difference with other cities is that we have a private sector investor, Stellium Datacentres, with three data centres on the outskirts and they have put a fibre link right into the city centre then out again, so there are two routes each with 144 fibres, so it's resilient. We first assisted them with licence to dig up the roads and they have put in ducting with space for five fibres, although just one is in there at the moment.
“Also, Aqua Comms is putting in a link from its Tyneside data centre to Denmark, with a proposal for another to Stavanger in Norway and one from the Atlantic. It will put Newcastle on the main line for fibre.
“The infrastructure in Newcastle and the North-East will be phenomenal. That’s fine but it could mean all the data could just go through the city and the trick is to do something with it.”
The city has resources for harnessing the data. Warburton says that Newcastle University’s School of Computing is one of the best in the world, and it has won the Government’s support to build a National Innovation Centre Data on the Science Central site.
Alongside this the Newcastle Urban Observatory provides real time sensor feeds from around the city, which are taking 8,000 measurements per minute and is making them available as open data. The council is already collecting some data in its Urban Traffic Management Control centre and Warburton says the aim is to increase this as more becomes available, bringing together people from its digital and service teams to work out the best ways of deployment.
There have already been pilots in areas such as using sensors in housing to support adult social care, monitoring waste collection from public bins and developing intelligent traffic signals, and the council is looking at ways for technology to make its services smarter.
A significant step is expected during the summer, when as part of the Great Exhibition of the North digital networks company Cisco will create a ‘smart street’ with sensors for bins, lights, traffic flow and air quality to demonstrate smart place applications, with all the data routed through the Urban Observatory. The city council hopes to take this further after the event.
“We’ll look to work with Cisco or other tech partners to roll it out city-wide, possibly across city boundaries,” Warburton says. “We’ve been working with (energy supplier) SSE on roll out of LED lights and it is in dialogue with Cisco about how two systems can talk to each other.
“Deploying tech for tech’s sake not what we are about. From our three or four big outcomes we want to improve customer service, save money, make money in some areas, and make this the place where businesses in the centre would want to locate.”
The council has a priority within this: to ensure that ownership of the data collected remains within the city, rather than with any private sector partner. He says this will be one of the things to work through in any contractual negotiations on the use of suppliers’ platforms, along with data protection and the ability to switch platform if needed.
It is also intent on ensuring that there is a solid business case for each move, reflecting the limited financial resources available and that desire to avoid grand plans, but take things forward through a series of achievable steps that will each make a difference in its own right.
“If all councils are going to do this across the country you have to make the business cases stack up without too much money,” he says. “We’re trying to make that happen at scale and in depth. We’re working with partners to do that.
“We’ve already started in a number of areas and it’s about scaling up. The smart street will be in place by 22 June, then we’ll be working with partners up to new year to look at business models.”