The view from Smart Oxford

Interview: Llewelyn Morgan, manager of Oxfordshire County Council’s Innovation Research Team, talks about its participation in the county-wide programme, a new approach to procurement, and an alternative view on what ‘smart’ is all about

The dialogue around smart places has often focused on the potential for big urban areas, but smaller cities can provide inviting environments for the technology trials, especially when linking their problems with those of the surrounding areas.

Llewelyn Morgan says this is the big challenge and advantage of the Smart Oxford programme.

View of dome and skyline in Oxford“Oxford is a great place to attract people to try things out, using it as a living lab, because it has a lot of big city problems in a small geography,” he says. “It’s quite a cosmopolitan place for the size of its population, it has bad congestion, really stark differences in educational attainment in different parts of the city.

“And life expectancy in south Oxfordshire is something like 10 years less than for the north. The county has a big working class in the south, and there are big challenges around the cost of housing.

“In Smart Oxford we try to provide the support network.”

As Oxfordshire County Council’s services manager for information, infrastructure and development, he manages its Innovation Research Team and liaises with the city and district councils on transport and roads. It has led him to a prominent role in Smart Oxford, the programme set up by the county, city and its two universities to develop the use of data and technology for local people’s benefit.

County and city

“Smart Oxford was set up because we realised there was a lot of stuff happening in the county and the city, but we weren’t really telling anyone about it and realised we should do so under a smart cities banner,” he says. “At the moment it’s where we bring projects together and look for opportunities of overlap and getting more benefits across sectors.”

It is running a number of projects, including MoBox, aimed at using data to provide better transport facilities, the development of a network of flood sensors around the county, the Culham Smart Community for testing autonomous and connected vehicles, and tests on driverless cars with the Mobile Robotics Institute.

For Llewelyn it is important to ensure that much of the focus remains on Oxfordshire’s rural residents. It partly involves embedding the work of the Research and Innovation Team into the development of the county council’s strategies and planning; and making sure Smart Oxford’s work is spread between the demands of urban and rural areas.

“The big challenge for us – which we have to look at within the county council and in Smart Oxford – is to start doing more projects that benefit rural residents,” he says. “That’s where you get into issues around accessibility.

“Oxfordshire has very strong communities, but we need to match them up with the investment to do projects. That’s where the council has a responsibility to see what we can do.”

Time factor

He acknowledges the occasional difficulties in working with the number of partners in Smart Oxford. In addition to the councils and universities it includes the police and NHS, voluntary and community organisations, and a number of businesses. The programme has limited funds and it can be difficult keeping projects on track when people are giving up their time for nothing.

But there are hopes that the recent provision of some European Regional Development Fund money will make a difference in helping to pay for a full time official to coordinate much of the work. And Llewelyn points to solid progress with some projects.

The one with the highest profile at the moment involves the Driven consortium, of which the county council is a member, testing a fleet of autonomous vehicles using Oxbotica software. It has been done on a closed site in Culham, but there are plans for trials in urban areas and on motorways from Oxford to London. These will look at how connected vehicles communicate with each other, and how this can be used in assessing risk and feeding into real time traffic management.

The aim is to have a fleet of driverless cars operating at level 4 autonomy – for which they have steering wheels but the drivers seldom touch them – on Oxford to London roads by 2019.

“This is part of learning about the parameters,” Llewelyn says. “How much regulation do you need for autonomous vehicles? And we’re interested in a real time assurance system, whether we can make use of it beyond insurance. And in the future could it be a method for congestion management and charging?”

Beyond that the aim is level 5, using vehicles with no steering wheel. This paves the way for mobility as a service, providing more flexible public transport systems that can contribute to people living without their own cars.

Messy period

Llewelyn says the potential for this is well into the 2020s. It will not be viable until most cars are connected to a data network, and there will be a “messy period” before the tipping point occurs. It will also need legislation to give authorities the ability to operate dynamic traffic management tools.

“The technology world will push it, and the government world will have to catch up in terms of how to do real time processing, even real time network management,” he says.

He also points to a small project to use data from sensors around parking bays and mobile phones for transport modelling. There are plans for a procurement next year using the Innovation Partnership channel, an EU model introduced last year that has so far been little used, but which Llewelyn says has great potential.

It works as a formal tender process focused more on outcomes than a specific product or service. This provides the scope for an authority to choose a handful of suppliers for an initial round of R&D over a set period, then decide if one of them would be a suitable partner.

First in UK

“A few places in Europe have done it but nobody in the UK,” Llewelyn says. “In terms of what we want to do with transport modelling our procurement team says it is the sensible thing to do as we want something innovative. It will be interesting for us, the LGA and the market to see how it works.

“If councils do any R&D at all they tend to do it slightly informally, with some work on the edge of a larger contract, and it might be built into something quite good. But then you still have to go to a formal procurement.

“We’re going to be quite open and say ‘We don’t quite know what we want, but it will look something like this, and let’s do the R&D together’. Then we’ll work with the ones who we work best with.

“It also potentially allows you to retain an intellectual property share. It looks like a good route.”

Surprising connections

The county and its partners are also looking forward to new lines of research. He says this comes partly from seeing that the tools developed for some services can have a relevance to others, some  of which may be surprising.

“Within the council we are starting to work more closely with our social work teams. The Research and Innovation Team sits within an area that looks at transport, planning, energy and communities, but we’re now acting as a team for the whole council, and just starting up a project to support homecare.

“A lot of transport companies are interested in how you can take the learnings from their work into health and social care.

“It happens because transport is in a world that is user-centric and you have to understand the person. Social care has the same problem and there are potentially a lot of the same solutions.”

Strands and tools

The idea is that problems around different services often have similar strands, and tools with a bespoke purpose often draw on concepts and use platforms that have a relevance to other purposes. This provides the scope for amending their core elements to other services.

There is also a project focused on Blackbird Leys, a working class area south of Oxford, aimed at gaining a strong understanding of the problems facing the area and connecting its people to the technology solutions that could help.

Llewelyn says that he regards this as what ‘smart’ is all about, rather than the conventional emphasis on technology, and that it should form the basis of how authorities approach their programmes.

“We never liked ‘smart cities’ and had a debate about using it, but it’s become an industry name and one that government understands,” he says.

“It’s not really about ‘smart’, but about people and using technology for them to do things more easily, and to empower them more to create a more user-driven place and not a system they have to fit into.

“That’s what ‘smart’ is about from our point of view.”

Image by Tejvan Pettinger, CC BY 2.0 through flickr