One of the UK’s most economically vibrant towns, Milton Keynes is a testbed for technologies ©Getty Images
One of the UK’s most economically vibrant towns, Milton Keynes is a testbed for technologies ©Getty Images

Smart cities special: Why Milton Keynes is more than just roundabouts

Milton Keynes has grand ambitions to become a textbook example of a smart city. SM reveals how, and the challenges it faces

“Milton Keynes is a new city built halfway between London and Birmingham. It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy and, all in all, a pleasant place to live. Many Britons find this amusing.” Writer Neil Gaiman’s observation sums up the paradox of Milton Keynes, England’s largest New Town, which is still mocked for its profusion of mini-roundabouts (130 at the last count).

Yet if Geoff Snelson, director of strategy and futures for the council, has his way, Milton Keynes will become famous for something else – using technology to become a smart city which can modernise its infrastructure, be kinder to the environment and grow while enhancing people’s lives. 

You could argue Milton Keynes has always been a smart city. A partnership between the public and private sector, the town was initially conceived as a commuter hub, linked to London by monorail, to ease congestion in the capital. The location – roughly equidistant between London and Birmingham and Oxford and Cambridge, those citadels of the intellect – was deliberate. There were already communities in place but nobody mourned them, with one architect dismissing Bletchley in one word “dismal”. 

By 1969, when the official plan for the new city was first published, the strategy had become more ambitious. A garden town fit for 250,000 people was envisaged. According to The Architects’ Journal, the planners were looking ahead to a world where: “Purely manual labour will have almost disappeared. Production will be automated and require very few workers. Higher incomes and more free time will accelerate the already rapid growth of every kind of recreation. Activities at present the privilege of relatively few, such as golf, riding and sailing, will be available to all. Higher educational standards for everyone will increase the demand for music, opera and ballet.” 

This heady vision of a ballet-loving, yacht-sailing democracy hasn’t quite come to pass (although Milton Keynes does have its own orchestra and, reportedly, 100 trees or shrubs for every inhabitant). Yet it is one of Britain’s most economically vibrant towns: between 2003 and 2014, it created at least 2,000 jobs every year. Per capita, it generates more start-ups than any city outside London and its economy has recently been growing by about 3.3% a year. There is some inequality – one in seven workers earn less than the minimum wage – but the economy is in significantly better shape than the UK’s as a whole.

All this gave Snelson and his collaborators in MK:Smart and the as yet un-named project which will succeed it – which include the Open University (OU), BT and Vivacity Labs – something to build on. Which is good news because, officially, he has no money to spend. While smart cities such as Moscow, Singapore and Hangzhou, near Shanghai, can rely on central or state governments – or large companies, encouraged to invest by the authorities – to fund their smart city programmes, Snelson has to win funding for projects from government departments and NGOs and rely on the support of private companies. 

This can work well: the one aspect of the future Milton Keynes’ founders did not envisage was the internet. Some aluminium and copper telephone lines remain and the average broadband speed locally is 26.6 megabits a second, a third slower than the average figure for the UK. That will change in the fourth quarter of 2018 when CityFibre and Vodafone will begin to install a £40m fibre network that can deliver 1 gigabit a second. Snelson argues that the quest for funding can be useful. It keeps the programme agile – it is not locked into one vision of the technological vision of the future. It forces the team to look at every project or experiment and ask: what will this do for the community? And it enables Milton Keynes to position itself as a test-bed for emerging technologies. In March, Aurrigo, the autonomous vehicle division of automotive firm RDM, began trialling what will become a 40-strong fleet of driverless pods in the city. The new sensor-driven street lighting, being installed across the city by Vivacity Labs, could one day interact with autonomous vehicles.

Much of the significant work Snelson and his team are doing is less visible – such as a £16m project with HR Wallingford, Anglian Water, BT and the OU to improve water efficiency, a critical issue for the town, which is in one of the driest parts of England. The most dramatic investment to come, indirectly, out of the smart city drive is probably MK:U, a new university managed by Cranfield University scheduled to open its doors to the first of 5,000 students in 2023. Digital technology, robotics and artificial intelligence will feature heavily in the curriculum. Yet the single most innovative aspect of Milton Keynes’ smart city drive is its data hub.

To make decisions based on facts, rather than beliefs and suppositions, Snelson needed good data – and to use that data wisely. The smart data hub, created with the OU and BT, provides an infrastructure for acquiring, managing and sharing the many terabytes of data about energy, water, transport, weather and pollution collected from satellite technology, sensors and social and economic datasets. Third-party developers and SMEs can freely access the data to create apps that for example, improve mobility, enable tele-healthcare and measure how moist the soil is. 

The hub is seen as a model for similar developments elsewhere, although the challenge of turning the valuable data into commercial value remains. That said, the data is already informing and shaping the council’s long-term strategies for future development.

The hub also positions the city at the centre of a network which makes it easier for Snelson to innovate and adapt. As the utopian vision outlined in The Architects’ Journal in 1969 shows, the future is not a straight line. “What cities need,” Snelson recently told SmartCitiesWorld, “is a strategy based around connectivity, and having more access to – and control of – our data and where we can be flexible enough to evolve our strategy in line with future technological advances.”

 “There are some great ideas but until you deploy them at scale, you don’t know enough about it,” Snelson told Public Technology. “I can enter into a conversation that can explore something but if I want to commit public money, I need a decent prospect of return. I can’t buy a promise.”

Many smart city experiments would, he says, not make it through any conventional public sector procurement process, so rather than ask for a £1m investment – a request that would most likely get stuck in the system – he prefers to build a case by demonstrating proof of concept at a smaller scale.

That way Milton Keynes also avoids the criticism levelled at some smart city programmes – that they are really rooted in the revenue generating needs of the large technology companies rather than the human needs of the communities they are supposed to serve. (Alibaba, AT&T, BT, Cisco, Microsoft, Google, Hitachi, IBM, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Siemens have all invested, to varying degrees, in the smart city concept.)

Such scepticism is understandable. The smart city movement has no shortage of hype. The inevitable Elon Musk has talked of linking smart networks to the human brain. A member of a British housing association has suggested there is a need for smart mousetraps, that trigger an alert when vermin are caught. Some officials see smart cities as the key to fulfilling the persistent but impossible dream of turning their community into the next
Silicon Valley.

Yet at the same time, smart street lighting and smart traffic management could help councils get a much more accurate fix on CO2 emissions. One 2014 study by Newcastle University found that systems that monitored the average speed of traffic underestimated emission levels by 60%. With 1m Britons suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more accurate data – properly shared – could make a tangible difference to people’s lives. 

Making that difference, whether it be easing traffic congestion, reducing emissions – Milton Keynes aims to be a near zero carbon city by 2050 – or helping the visually impaired navigate around shopping centres – is the priority for Snelson. 

Like many urban areas, the central challenge for Milton Keynes is growth. Designed to house 250,000 people, it could, by 2050, be home to 400,000 residents. That is the clock that ticks behind all the smart city projects. Managing growth on that scale, without damaging quality of life, cannot be solved by technology alone. Yet it’s even harder to see that conundrum being solved without it.

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