Spotlight Interviews – Geoff Snelson

Geoff SnelsonGeoff Snelson heads the MK:Smart Executive Board and is the Director of Strategy for Milton Keynes Council.

What is your role in MK:Smart?
I’m on the Executive Board of MK:Smart. That’s about making sure the collaboration works effectively between the core partners and providing a steer and guidance for the overall project, as well as looking at the inter-relationships to other projects, so that we can make sure that we’re exploiting opportunities and leveraging all the capabilities that MK:Smart is going to develop.

MK:Smart also feeds into the MK Future City Programme which I have a role in as the overall sponsor. This aims to use innovative technologies and service models to enable the city’s ambitious economic and housing growth plans to be realised, whilst meeting challenging carbon reduction targets. Part of that is about making sure that we have an overall vision for where we’re going, since it involves a whole range of projects. We need to understand how they fit together and decide which sorts of projects to chase.

What have been your project highlights so far?
For me the biggest highlight has been seeing the scale of ambition for something that’s really ground-breaking, something that’s going to really benefit Milton Keynes, and also the enthusiasm and expertise of a really top quality group of partners that work on the project.

What are the potential benefits of MK:Smart for Milton Keynes?
It’s early days yet, but there’s also the promise that the MK:Smart approach brings to enabling economic growth and development, through addressing things like infrastructure blockages, and developing new service and business models. The benefits for the city as a whole include being seen as being at the forefront of new technologies and new approaches, because that helps us attract investment, through enhanced reputation, and helps bring the right kinds of companies and jobs to Milton Keynes. So that’s all very exciting.

One of the things that I hadn’t anticipated quite as strongly is that there’s a whole range of related projects that are starting to spring up, because of the existence of MK:Smart. One of the recent topical examples is the big Internet of Things project that we’re developing and that we’ve just launched with the Connected Digital Economy Catapult and Future Cities Catapult. It has some connectivity with MK:Smart, in that it involves deploying sensors on a large scale across Milton Keynes for the use cases and managing data through the MK Data Hub. Secondly, there’s the work we’re doing on driverless cars and intelligent mobility, which is a project in its own right but it’s going to be enabled by things like the MK:Smart Motion Map that we’re developing through the project.

The driverless cars project and the Internet of Things project have a variety of technological requirements. These include Machine 2 Machine communications networks to help to provide guidance systems and help understand how things like vehicles and devices are relating to their environment. If we can support these needs with information, from the data hub it provides opportunities for all kinds of new and interesting innovations, which we can’t predict at the moment.  For example, the data hub has the potential to predict congestion and provide effective routing for driverless vehicles by combining a variety of datasets.

How does MK:Smart compare to other smart city projects in the UK?
Through MK:Smart and a range of associated projects we’re developing a nationally significant innovation ecosystem. One of the things which is very important about Milton Keynes in comparison with many other smart cities is that we have a whole range of significant capabilities that have been developed at city scale and that are well integrated. Lots of places looking into smart city thinking have piecemeal things, with small scale demonstrators, but the inspiration here in Milton Keynes is to provide real, full scale functionality that will provide services into the future. Our projects have sometimes started off as pilots and trials, but ultimately we want to develop and grow real business models and real functionality.

What’s coming up over the next few months of the project?
The system build is going on as we speak. So in the near future the top priority is to make sure that all the IT infrastructure and architecture is in place, but what we’re already looking at how we can enhance the data feeds into the hub. For example, here at Milton Keynes Council we’ve been working with a whole range of people, so we can see how we can automate data feeds into the hub from council systems. We’re working with the Satellite Applications Catapult to see how we can pull down satellite data into the data hub.

In addition, there is a great deal of citizen engagement going on through the MK:Smart Citizen Lab. This involves working closely with local people to try to work out some of the infrastructure challenges that we may use the MK Data Hub to address. This soft aspect of the project is important as we need to ensure the activities and innovations are driven by citizens and the needs of the city.

Do you have any predictions about the future of Smart Cities?
I think the big trend at the moment is through the Internet of Things. So that is a huge area of interest, nationally and internationally. There are predictions about how many devices will be inter-connected globally and we’re talking billions and billions. One thing we can predict is that those kinds of trends will accelerate, but what we’d be foolish to predict is exactly the service and business models that will come through there. This is such an innovative movement that what we need to do is provide the environment in which people can innovate and develop new things that we can’t envisage at the moment.

It’s important to realise that with that kind of innovation it’s not a straight line, not a case of strategic development where you look twenty or thirty years into the future and you state the requirements that you have for that future and then you start deciding what you’re going to develop in order to achieve that. There’s an element of that, in terms of putting in place capabilities, but it is very foolish to think that you can anticipate the future with enough clarity and certainty to pursue that, so what you need is a strategy that is much more based around interconnectivity, and about cities having greater control and access over their own data.  In short, we have to keep our strategy agile so that it can evolve with future technological advancements.