MK:Smart provided the framework for a smart future for Milton Keynes

MK:Smart provided the framework for a smart future for Milton Keynes
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Alan Fletcher, business development manager at KMI, the Open University, reflected on the legacy of the MK:Smart project, and explained how it continues to shape the future of Milton Keynes.

MK:Smart was founded in 2014, funded partly by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), whilst the remainder of funding came from partners. Initially, it was intended to be a £16m (~€18.3m) project, but rapidly rose to a figure of £19m as new corporate partners joined. The project was born out of Milton Keynes’, UK, desire to see where it sat in the world of smart cities after being runners up in the UK’s Future Cities grant – the first of its kind – losing out to Glasgow Future Cities. Undeterred, partners in Milton Keynes took the work which they had conducted, elaborated and repurposed it, and bid to the HEFCE Catalyst Fund call, where it was successful.

Always at the forefront of innovation, Milton Keynes is the newest, fastest growing city in the UK, offering excellent employment diversity and activity. The Knowledge Media Institute (KMI) at the Open University is a data science research and development lab, and as the business development manager, Alan Fletcher was at the forefront of MK:Smart’s developments. Taking data from differing projects, activities and test beds, to explore how this data could supplement smart city growth, KMI worked with BT to develop the MK Data Hub at the heart of MK:Smart. Fletcher explained to Government Europa how the legacy of the MK:Smart project is being used to shape the future of Milton Keynes.

What smart city transformations has Milton Keynes already overseen?

MK has benefitted immensely from the vision of the local authority. MK Council have a Director of Strategy and Futures, Geoff Snelson, who has been instrumental in ensuring that the city brings together government, academia, industry and citizens to help shape the future of MK.

Even in 2014, we were already working on smart activities, such as the first fully electric bus route in the UK, which uses wireless induction loop charging in the road. Instead of taking buses off the road for recharging at the garage, when the bus pulls into the stop for a couple of minutes, it picks up charge from the induction loop at the bus stop. As a result, the bus runs all day, covering many more miles than on a single charge, and then goes back to the garage for its overnight charge.

MK has always been at the forefront of innovation in terms of urban planning and living. We were the first city to have a fully dedicated non-road-based network (of over 270km) for cycling and walking, called the redways. The £20m UK Autodrive project is running the UK’s most significant trials of autonomous transport with automotive partners Jaguar Land Rover, Tata and Ford. This included extensive real-world demonstrations of driverless and connected cars on the city’s streets in March 2018. The project also sees British engineering firm RDM undertake a deployment of autonomous small pods on the streets of MK in summer 2018 –testing a new transport service, through which a fleet of 40 fully autonomous pods will serve as a “last mile” transport solution in the city centre.

We also have a city-scale network of artificial intelligence (AI) enabled video sensors that are helping us learn about traffic movement and prediction, a fully-equipped electric vehicle (EV) showroom with long-term user test drive programmes, and a fantastic network of EV charging infrastructure.

How did the MK Data Hub power the work of Milton Keynes as a smart city?

MK:Smart was designed to help the understanding and interoperability of the range of projects that were already active and to build key demonstrators in:

  • Transport;
  • Energy;
  • Water;
  • Business; and
  • Citizen engagement.

Therefore, the MK Data Hub is more about creating a network which enables the interconnected parts to talk to each other and to increase the understanding they have of one another. It isn’t that any of the projects are reliant on the hub, nor is the hub reliant on the projects, but the MK Data Hub creates an architecture which allows for further investigation, experimentation and research, in order to understand the benefits which may not be apparent in the individual projects.

Education is seeing renewed interest under the European Commission, following the 1st European Education Summit. How did MK:Smart’s education programme enhance education for all, and why is this important?

The education work stream within the MK:Smart project resulted in the creation of the globally accessible Smart City MOOC, hosted on the FutureLearn platform, and engagement with local schools to create Urban Data Schools, exploring the purpose and use of data in city scenarios.

Milton Keynes continues to build on the success of MK:Smart, developing a network of people and organisations, alongside the technical and physical architecture – computing and data – in order to create other kinds of education-focused activities. For example, The Open University is part of the Institute of Coding, a UK national initiative to develop new skills in a changing digital economy, as well as engaging in knowledge exchange activities with citizens, business and government. This is all part of the ecosystem within Milton Keynes, whereby connections create opportunities.

How is Milton Keynes as a smart city encouraging citizens to become more engaged with initiatives and projects, in efforts to become more sustainable in their ways of living?

In Milton Keynes we are very lucky to have a charitable body called Community Action: MK and they have a small army of community mobilisers who actively go out and talk to people across the various parts of the city, seeking their opinion, as well as working to identify problems. As a result, these community mobilisers help to form the community’s idea of what a smart city should look like.

What they’re doing is accumulating grass roots intelligence in the context of the location. Smart cities are totally contextual; it isn’t a one size fits all and there is no pre-packaged solution to implementing smart practices. Therefore, we have to absolutely understand what the unique problems are local to that area, and the ways in which it can be made smarter. Community Action: MK provides that wonderful link.

As part of MK:Smart, we created an online platform called Our MK. This allows people to suggest what they think Milton Keynes would benefit from. We looked at their ideas and thought: how can technology and data help deliver these ideas? For example, we funded some citizen-based experiments for small-scale solar panels for 12v lighting in houses, as a result lighting a house year-round using a solar panel and some batteries. Therefore, reliance upon the national grid is eliminated.

We’ve also had some really interesting citizen projects, including those for assisting in navigation for partially sighted individuals in indoor locations, such as shopping centres. It might not fit into the world of autonomous vehicles and drone deliveries, but actually you can use data and technology to support initiatives such as these. Depending on the context of the city that you live in, it may actually be more important to know where local produce is at the right time, rather than having them delivered via a drone. That is what I mean by the contextual aspect to smart cities.

How can funding facilitate more smart transformations? What needs to be done to incentivise sustainable technology in advancing cities?

Firstly, it all comes back to context. Funding can facilitate anything from the smallest of changes to significant infrastructural changes, such as clean water or delivering super-fast broadband. I sit on the UK All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Smart Cities, where we are building understanding of how national and local governments can enable smart cities, and funding is a hot topic. It is important to accept that funding is not all about the technology, but about how understanding, engagement and interoperability can incentivise collaboration, not just result in competition. We want to try and emphasise that smart cities are not about creating lots of individual, siloed responses to problems. These may be great in themselves, but don’t necessarily add to the collective understanding and co-operation of building advancing cities.

Of course, funding is critical in smart city transformations. Arguably, funding should be made available as collaborative, not competitive, support and based on long term outcomes. There is nothing more frustrating than losing unspent budget at the end of a financial year! Therefore, it should be considered in terms of holistic city thinking, where the focus is on change to enable foresight, sustainable thinking and interoperability between initiatives and cities.

How will Milton Keynes develop going into the future, and how has it developed since the MK:Smart project?

Milton Keynes is a rich place for innovation and, on the back of MK:Smart, we have a number of projects and collaborations. Currently, we’re working with the SME Vivacity, who are trialling AI cameras in the city. They don’t stream live video back to a control centre, but are able to identify different vehicles using the software in the camera; this is helping us understand and predict traffic flow and parking occupancy, using machine learning.

The Estonian-based robotics company Starship has made Milton Keynes its home for their UK headquarters. Using urban delivery robots, any lightweight packages can be delivered across the city. Meanwhile, a fully-commercial food delivery service is now operating in the Monkston area of the city.

The Open University is currently running a programme, funded by the European Regional Development Fund, called

This programme supports regional SMEs in R&I in the digital economy. We are working with SMEs to help them leverage the digital economy, even if they’re not an IT development or tech company. As a result, they are encouraged to make use of the digital economy to enhance their business.

We are also developing a programme for 5G testbeds, as well as building on the work of urban robotics, through collaboration and discussion with a national logistics company about how AI can contribute to the smart city domain. We’re also working to further develop autonomous vehicle trials through the UK Auto Drive project. Milton Keynes as a city more widely is investing in a new university to operate at the leading edge of education in the digital economy.

All of these endeavours owe, to a large extent, something to the fluid network of people who are constantly coalescing around these ideas, not all as a direct result of the MK:Smart project, but is certainly a reflection of the collaborative and innovate spirit that MK:Smart has proven to be such a fine example of.

Alan Fletcher
Business Development Manager
Knowledge Media Institute
The Open University
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