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Milton Keynes: The Smart Future

24 min

One of the largest towns in the UK, Milton Keynes is an emerging urban space after being commissioned in the late 1960s. Yet the town has already become a trailblazer for innovation and use of data as a strategy to provide effective and efficient services for residents. With smart solutions ranging from electric vehicle infrastructure to a new digitally-focused university in the plans, Milton Keynes is one of the hotbeds of cutting-edge technology and takes a proactive approach in providing using smart capabilities for its residents.

Milton Keynes: home to WD-40, Red Bull Racing’s Formula One team, and a 40ft-long Tyrannosaurus Rex at Gulliver’s Dinosaur Park, the city is a hub of creativity and dynamic business production. Nestled in the arc between epochal knowledge institutions Oxford and Cambridge, the 270,000-strong city has rapidly built a propitious future for itself with investment in smart solutions, and has received plaudits for its big data strategy.

Though the city at times fails to receive the same national recognition for productivity as its close neighbours, Milton Keynes has kept pace with Oxford and Cambridge in economic growth. Topping UK tables in 2017 after producing a GVA growth of 2.7%, Milton Keynes is ranked fourth in the UK for productivity and fifth for business start-ups, and now plays host to renowned companies including Mercedes-Benz, Marshall Amplification, and Volkswagen AG.

At the heart of Milton Keynes’ smart strategy is the MK:Smart project, a collaborative initiative led by the Open University (OU), Milton Keynes Council and BT, with a consortium of 13 organisations ranging from local businesses to global corporate partners that also attracted associate partners such as industry titans Samsung and Huawei. At the core of the project is the MK Data Hub, a key technical infrastructure designed and built by the university and BT, capable of collecting and analysing swathes of information ranging from movement of traffic to air quality, water consumption, and energy usage. Though MK:Smart officially ended in June 2017, the MK Data Hub remains a thriving R&D centre at the OU led by the Knowledge Media Institute (KMI).

Data as a strategy allows for the building and curation of data to develop more innovative business models for the entire organisation

“From our perspective, what we wanted to do was understand the data at the heart of the smart city,” said Alan Fletcher, business development and lab manager at KMI. “What’s the one thing across all the different aspects of the smart cities domain, that ties all of those aspects together? Arguably data, and the curation of data, which helps with both the understanding of the domain and the delivery of change.”

Alan noted that organisations are successful in running their digital platforms when using data as a strategy in itself, rather than simply using it as a resource. “Data as a resource can help you solve more traditional problems, like efficiency in a process. Data as a strategy allows for the building and curation of data to develop more innovative business models for the entire organisation,” he added.

The MK:Smart project centred around the curation of data in the transport, water, and energy sectors in the city – amassing more than 150 datasets across the three industries. The Data Hub creates the platform for its users to further investigate, experiment, and compare sets of data in order to glean trends and areas of interest that may not have originally been found before the datasets were analysed.

Alan maintains that MK:Smart was designed as a research and innovation project, assessing the deployment of technologies in city environments and any resulting behavioural change of residents, using data to evidence the outcomes and impact. Collaboration with local enterprises was a key activity for the project, where the MK Data Hub provided Smart Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to safely open up data to local businesses to analyse trends over time and provide bespoke solutions for the city.

“As a research and innovation project, we built testbeds that allowed the city, its business community, and its citizens to gain knowledge and insight,” Alan explained.

CASE STUDY: The SciRoc Competition
c. SciRoc

One of the most striking examples of Milton Keynes’ acquisitive approach to big data is the SciRoc competition. An EU Horizon 2020 funded project supporting the European Robotics League, SciRoc introduces robotics into smart-cities-centric challenges in a bid to highlight the opportunities robotic technologies can bring.

Held this September in Middleton Hall, a vast open area in the middle of the Centre:MK shopping mall, autonomous robots were given a variety of tasks, including taking and delivering coffee shop orders, picking and packing shopping, and delivering emergency medical supplies. The robots had to utilise their voice recognition, image recognition, and LIDAR routing technologies to work with complete autonomy in changing and dynamic environments, without assistance from their handler, so that the team could assess how well the machines could master their surroundings.

The underlying complexity of the data that is generated needs to be properly managed, understood, and then re-served, to help you to crack some of the smart city challenges

The MK Data Hub was integral to the challenge, acting as its central point of data collection and allowing the teams to use the hub to facilitate and map out their robots’ actions for the task. Alan noted that the robotics challenge is emblematic of the value a connected infrastructure and data centre can bring to a city. He added: “That’s a really good example of how a central data management environment – which is a curation environment, not just a collection environment – can support the activity of further experimentation in how you bring autonomy to a city; in this case, through robotics.

c. SciRoc

“The underlying complexity of the data that is generated needs to be properly managed, understood, and then re-served, to help you to crack some of the smart city challenges – for example, autonomous robots – as actors in a city for the provision of services.”

Self-driving robots are already assuming duties in Milton Keynes – tech firm Starship’s robot delivery service, which transports shopping goods to homes around Milton Keynes, celebrated its 50,000th delivery in April this year – despite the concept of task-performing robots still sounding foreign to most people. But with only a paucity of budding engineers with the skills to enter the industry, and with an annual shortfall of almost 60,000 engineering graduates and technicians to fill core roles, those in Milton Keynes are hoping challenges like SciRoc can unlock the fervent passion brought about by autonomous robots to inspire the next generation of engineers.


“When we built MK:Smart, one of the things we were most conscious of was of not just imposing technology on people,” Alan pointed out. “A function of smart city development is to understand the wider context of individual technologies and the challenges or opportunities that they bring whilst making sure that the technologies address real issues and are not deployed just because they are cool.”

Rather than install top-down initiatives that may not meet a city’s manifold socioeconomic demands, Milton Keynes turned the concept on its head with Our:MK, an online platform that supports and promotes funding calls for innovative grassroots projects – ranging anywhere from woodland tipi projects to lifesaving defibrillators for local community centres.

Although not showcasing the glamorous flashing lights and smart sensors that your stereotypical smart city application would, in Alan’s opinion the service encapsulates what a smart city does best: it uses technology as a launchpad for finding solutions to real-life social and economic issues. “The key thing about it was that it wasn’t billed as a smart city or technical delivery platform that would help you understand data,” he explained. “It simply asked people a question: how would they make the city better?

“Asking people what ideas they have allowed us to fund a few small projects to test solutions. That allowed lots of people to come up with lots of ideas, which we were then able to support with financial and technical resources. That’s not some big smart-city initiative with massive amounts of infrastructure; it’s actually looking at how local micro-generation of ideas and solutions could potentially influence how a city behaves.”

Across its projects, Our:MK gained the support of 171 backers, four successfully funded projects, and £12,245 in total pledges.

Tackling transport

In Milton Keynes, car remains king. Designed and built during the motor boom of the late 1960s, Milton Keynes takes an American approach to its highways, opting for the grid-like road system mapped out in horizontal and vertical routes, mirrored by a pedestrian and cycle network known as redways. Between 2000 and 2015, the car accounted for three-quarters of all journeys in the city, with a 57% rise in car journeys at peak travel times predicted to occur by 2031. As carbon emissions and roadside air quality have become a major social talking point in recent years, Milton Keynes Council has looked at inventive solutions to meet the demands of its unique transport users for the coming years.

One of the strongest opportunities to positively impact services for road users is through the use of artificial intelligence (AI). In 2017, with the help of investment from Innovate UK, Vivacity Labs – the creators of a first-of-its-kind sensor with in-built machine learning that can identify individual road users and manage traffic accordingly – rolled out its services in Milton Keynes as part of the ‘VivaMK’ project. The sensors can recognise different vehicles and perform local analysis and traffic management in real time, thus removing the burden of feeding imagery through to a central server for analysis and response, future-proofing the city’s road network for the arrival of connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) by enabling traffic lights to communicate with driverless cars and strengthening the vehicle-to-infrastructure connection, and improving safety for all road users.

Working in tandem with the intelligent infrastructure is the city planners’ smart signpost strategy. One of the key tenets of the VivaMK project, Milton Keynes Council has utilised the Data Hub to collect, analyse, and utilise millions of points of information on the city’s traffic movements, and installed dynamic smart signage to give car users ample time to find a parking space that suits them.

Brian Matthews, head of transport innovation at the council, argued that Milton Keynes’ approach boils down to maximising its current assets in the city’s transport systems. “In terms of sustainability, we know cars are going to be a major component in the transport mix for the next five to 10 years, and we want to make the most efficient use of existing parking capacity to manage that growth,” he said.

“The real-time parking sensors we’ve got give us that ability [to manage traffic flows], with around 12,000 to 15,000 of those in the city. The clever thing around them is that we’ve got every junction and parking space covered by the same sensors, so you can imagine a situation in the future where a car approaches Milton Keynes, and because the sensors know exactly what’s happening on the highways in real time, we will not only be able to find that person a car parking space but direct them to it.”

Society is growing to want instant gratification as we’re learning from streaming, downloading, and other smart firms, so that instant transport option is something that will take off

Take a typical journey into the city centre, for example, which can currently take 15 minutes. Through 24/7 data sensors collecting information three times a minute, transport operators will know if a car arrives onto the city’s highways system on a Tuesday at 9:10am, so planners will know where a car parking space will be when the car arrives at 9:25am. When shunts and bumps occur in the city centre, as they do daily, real-time data coming through to transport operators will allow them to re-route road users and mitigate congestion before it even starts.

The head of transport innovation at the council says real-time data has a transformational impact on the road networks – a far stretch from traffic strategies of years past. Information is key,” Brian argued. “I’ve worked in transport planning for many years, and I’ve come from the position where you make all of your planning decisions based on a few traffic counts over a few days and then forecast what’s going to happen over the next 30 years on very spurious information.”

Even outside of the road network, Brian sees the landscape of transport user demand changing in the coming years. A shift towards demand-responsive, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) multimodal transport systems that are already prevalent in Nordic and European transport systems could become more of the norm here in the UK in a bid to meet shifting demands and carbon neutrality targets. Taking the M1 up to Birmingham will already see that in action, with Finnish-based MaaS firm Whim – which also operates in Helsinki, Vienna, Greater Tokyo, and Antwerp – rolling out its integrated transport app in the city.

“Society is growing to want instant gratification as we’re learning from streaming, downloading, and other smart firms, so that instant transport option is something that will take off,” Brian continued, elaborating on the changing demand landscape. “The Uber model, the Uber carshare, minibuses, and shared CAVs are going to be the future of mobility in urban areas – it’s not going to be reliant on mass bus transit avenues.”

For Brian, the traditional bus might be culled in sparsely-populated areas because the economics of it are outdated and inadequate. “The councils are not subsidising it anymore, operators are not paying for it, and it’s not really meeting demands of customers in their areas,” he added.

But the abundance of private cars in the city centre has resulted in a dearth of active travellers in Milton Keynes: just a meagre one in 10 commuters in the city travel by bicycle or walk, according to 2011 Census figures – with many citing confusing signage, poor lighting, or inadequate road integration as reasons for using other modes of transport. Striving to bridge the gap between Milton Keynes’ transport strategy and the national average of 15% active commuters, the city launched the ‘Get Smart Travel’ marketing programme, focusing on sustainable and active transport modes including Get Cycling, Get On Board, and Get Connected, amongst others. These statistics will be a vital litmus test of MK’s ability to encourage healthier transport, taking cars off the roads and encouraging active commuting in a city currently lacking in that department.

Looking forward to the changing transport landscape, the council has lionised CAVs as a key component of its future strategy: the MK50 Future City strategy embraces the potential of driverless cars working with Milton Keynes’ connected infrastructure. Last year, it hosted the £20m UK Autodrive project, the largest CAV pilot with multiple vehicles, allowing passengers to test seven different driverless pods and cars from varying manufacturers across real urban areas so that manufacturers could make vehicle adjustments accordingly.

The Autodrive project was hailed as a massive success not just for passengers who were able to experience the new technology, but for the manufacturers too: carmakers such as Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, TATA Motors, and RDM Group all made significant strides in improving their connected vehicles, and Milton Keynes as a city council could gear up for the eventual deployment of CAVs onto its road networks – an industry which is expected to be worth more than £900bn by 2035.

CASE STUDY: Electric Vehicle (EV) Experience Centre

Taking a truly mentoring approach to EV promotion, Milton Keynes is arguably the most progressive city in the UK in encouraging residents to go electric. Launched as part of the wider Milton Keynes Go Ultra Low Cities Programme, the UK’s first EV Experience Centre, opened in July 2017, is a no-nonsense information centre focused on giving users the knowledge they need before they decide on the make and model of an electric vehicle.

Visitors to the centre can hire out any vehicle on the fleet – with top-quality manufacturers ranging from Volkswagen, BMW, and Renault – for four-day or seven-day test drives, costing £50 and £75 for the experiences respectively; a small price to pay for an investment which could return tenfold savings in the coming years. Citizens of Milton Keynes are thoroughly embracing the centre, with over 100,000 people having visited the city-centre facility since its launch and booking more than 4,000 short-term and 1,000 long-term test drives.

At the centre, residents also have the opportunity to get answers to potentially confusing questions about EVs; for example, a recent customer survey showed that a staggering 40% of the people doing long-term test drives were unaware of rapid charging. Other respondents to the survey said that they did not know about the savings they could make from running an EV for a month through electric charging compared to using diesel and unleaded fuels.

Such financial savings might be enough to convince people that making the switch to electric is worth it – but the centre doesn’t actually try to sell customers any cars.

“We don’t sell the vehicles at all; you can’t buy a vehicle from us,” said Ted Foster, manager of the centre. “I think that’s an important part of the centre, because when people come in here they know that they’re not going to be sold to. When you go into any sort of dealership, ultimately what’s at the back of the dealer’s mind is that they would like to sell you this car – whereas when you come to the centre, there is no intention of any of us wanting to sell you a vehicle.”

This strictly educational approach has helped clear up any lingering questions from potential buyers without the pressure of a potential commercial sale – meaning staff can show residents the benefits of rapid charging and the differences in cost between electric and petrol while still allowing users to have fun exploring the technology.

“I also think it’s about getting people excited – people are always taken aback by how much fun they have,” Ted noted. “Essentially, electric cars are similar to driving go-karts – and I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who hasn’t driven a go-kart, so I think that’s a strong point to try and get across to people.” The general manager, who joined the project eight weeks before it opened over two years ago, also works with car dealerships in the city centre to assist salesmen on the most relevant selling points of the EVs.

Despite its evident success, just how replicable is a facility like the EV Experience Centre in key urban hubs such as London, Manchester, and Glasgow, for example? Ted believes that although significant investment was required to kickstart the EV industry in Milton Keynes, the hands-off educational approach will pay dividends for smart cities around the UK. “I think it’s definitely replicable; 25% of people that take our long-term loans have heard about it through word of mouth,” he stated. “A huge number of what we’re seeing is through word of mouth. Almost 40% of people have heard about the centre, wandered in, and then booked a test drive, so quite a high percentage of people are walking past the centre.

“I’ve thought long and hard over the past couple of years to try to take away that sort of concern with people walking past the centre. It’s a big challenge, but I think it’s almost about trying to make it as relaxed and as informal as we can. We wore button-down shirts to begin with, but we threw them away and instead put on T-shirts to try and make us less corporate. It’s about trying to change the perception.”

Milton Keynes’ socioeconomic and cultural embrace of EVs deeply contributes to the city’s reputation for being at the forefront of transport innovation. Holding the highest number of electric car charging stations in the UK and running at a 5-6% average of new electric vehicles on the road compared to the national average of 2-3%, both domestic and global cities can look to Milton Keynes as a trailblazer in the sustainable mobility sector.

5G: what can it do for Milton Keynes?

There has been plenty of talk about the immense benefits that 5G can bring to mobile phone users across smart cities. 5G networks are predicted to deliver a latency (the delay before a transfer of data from one device to another) of just one millisecond – a huge reduction compared to the 40-60 milliseconds currently offered by 4G networks. Benefits brought on by reduced latency and thus more agile communication between smart devices are hoped to save households up to £450 a year on energy, council tax, and food bills, according to research by O2.

Zero latency allows machines to act and interact in real time

But what can 5G do for city planners in Milton Keynes? A consortium of key technical partners led by Milton Keynes Council is working on a new 5G initiative looking at the different scenarios raised by zero-latency connectivity. The test network will explore the potential of 5G’s impact on autonomous agents in city scenarios. “One thing we want to test are the benefits of 5G on the ability of machines to act autonomously in city situations – like vehicles or delivery robots, or anything that you can think of an autonomous robot doing. Zero latency allows machines to act and interact in real time,” Alan Fletcher said.

Not only would these self-driving fleets benefit from 5G connectivity, but these expanded capabilities could potentially bring benefits to other autonomous transport systems and real-time traffic data in order to build a more efficient MaaS platform for Milton Keynes residents to enjoy.

And it’s not just the digital city services that are expected to reap the rewards of 5G, either: O2 analysis forecasts that councils could save a massive £2.8bn annually through the installation of smart lights and connected bins. With local authorities facing a massive £50bn funding black hole over the next six years, according to County Councils Network research, cost-saving initiatives brought about by new IoT connectivity will be welcomed by councils looking to balance the books. The same can be said for local healthcare providers in the UK, with O2 predicting that 5G will free up 1.1 million GP hours in the NHS by enabling remote health services and monitoring via wearables.

A digital skills focus

Although it plays host to a tremendous incubator of innovative young entrepreneurs in the city, Milton Keynes is the largest city in the UK without its own university – but not for long. As part of the MK Futures 2050 programme, a new undergraduate university, dubbed ‘MK:U,’ will open its doors in 2023, training up ambitious students in key STEM and digital skills that are in demand in the growing city.

Cranfield University, a postgraduate and research-based public university, will be the lead partner in setting up MK:U, with university course design receiving insight from industrial partners Grant Thornton, MK College, Microsoft, and Tech Mahindra. Hopkins Architects, famed for designing stunning campus buildings at the University of Harvard and the University of Nottingham, has also been commissioned to create a truly smart campus for students in Milton Keynes. The result will be a modern destination aimed at “21st-century students,” with a curriculum focused on the digital economy which specifically addresses the employment needs of organisations at present.

Although still in the feasibility stage of planning, Dr Ruth Massie, education lead for MK:U at Cranfield, is excited at the prospect of designing tailored and employer-relevant courses for students. “We’ve come down to three areas: digital, business, and design thinking,” Dr Massie explained.

The very first thing we do when we’re designing the course is go directly to the employers and ask them what they need; what they need technically, and what they need in professional skills

“The smart city concept is a really obvious thing here in Milton Keynes, so we’re looking at undergraduate degrees in and around the smart cities theme. At the moment that’s focusing in and around smart cities in a design structure, but also smart cities in terms of CAVs – those are the kinds of topics we should be looking at.”

For Dr Massie, the course-setting process is reversed: there are no buildings or staff members to assign courses to, so course designers have reached out to enterprises in the city to find out exactly what digital and technical skills are in demand in their sector. “The very first thing we do when we’re designing the course is go directly to the employers and ask them what they need; what they need technically, and what they need in professional skills,” she revealed.

The university has collaborated with Connected Places Catapult, bringing in the organisation’s programme director weekly to help design the campus, the smart cities degrees, and the professional applicability of the courses. Start-ups and SMEs are being recruited to deliver guest lectures, with a focus on bringing the innovations shown in Milton Keynes’ commercial sector into the classroom.

“Every time I mention it to industry, they’re asking when they can start,” Dr Massie claimed proudly. “Asking whether they can teach these students a real-life case study – and the small companies are brilliant for that, because they’re always coming up with real innovation which tends to be very relatable to the students.

“We have the industry coming in, and not just academics saying, ‘Please write a dissertation on this.’ We can use student projects to do that and help the local community and businesses with their work in that sense. We think that will be a really powerful message back to the industry.”

Unlike other UK cities, Dr Massie notes that Milton Keynes’ lack of a higher education facility has resulted in symptoms of the dreaded ‘brain drain’ in the city – something the university design team is eager to eradicate through the offer of flexible and suitable course structures. She continued: “We’re looking at timetabling too: we will have fast-track degrees which are two-year degrees, we’ll have three-year degrees with internship opportunities, and we’ll have part-time degrees where you come in on every Monday for a couple of years, or whatever the schedule ends up being.

“We’re also looking at what kinds of courses the people of Milton Keynes need that could be done through the apprenticeship levy – everything from management apprenticeships to digital and design thinking spaces. So if you decided not to go to university and instead got a job when you were 18, and you’re now in your early 30s and thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I’d gotten a degree’ and, ‘I really like the idea of smart cities,’ we’re looking at what apprenticeship schemes we can offer to meet that demand.”

We can use student projects to do that and help the local community and businesses with their work in that sense. We think that will be a really powerful message back to the industry

With 21 million people within an hour’s drive away, and with the facility just a short walk from the city’s train station, MK:U has the potential to merge industry and academia to create a contemporary and cutting-edge curriculum that can properly train millions of students of all ages and meet the expanding skills demand from modern commercial companies.

In early October, the Department for Transport report into sustainable mobility selected Milton Keynes as a potential testbed for e-scooters – yet another example of national and international eyes looking to the city as a launchpad of game-changing technology. With the new skills base from the university coming through to foster this city-wide innovation, look for Milton Keynes to continue to punch above its weight in the smart cities world.

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