THERE are plenty of companies bent on shaping our cities, but many entrepreneurs working with tech and data are frustrated at a lack of progress.
“We’ve done loads of prototypes and we’ve got to get on and expedite this stuff,” Microsoft’s chief technology officer for local government Tim Gregson told London’s Smart to Future Cities conference.
His call resonated with entrepreneurs.
Tech consultant James Monighan, vice-president of smart lighting company Telensa, told the Tribune that collaborations between business and councils only worked to an extent.
“You can spend a lifetime doing small pilots but not grow and develop. People make a great product and then authorities run out of money and shut the pilot. If you’ve proved the objective, then it should lead to something bigger.”
So what needs to change?
Gary Atkinson, chief executive of another smart lighting firm, Norfolk-based enLight, said he makes clear from the outset that pilots are to build a business case, with the expectation that budget will be allocated.
The company uses radio mesh technology to transmit data on water levels, air quality, noise or traffic, from sensors mounted on lampposts. Atkinson argued: “We can prove the value of all this by doing 10 streetlights and a dozen sensors.”
While enLight had been well-supported locally, even getting to the pilot stage elsewhere had proven tricky because council lighting teams often do not look beyond their own remit.
“Different council departments don’t talk to each other. The nirvana is for them to share budget and resource to get things done,” he said.
As one delegate pointed out, it takes “a very brave person” in council procurement to allocate money to unproven models.
But councils are trying new approaches.
Simon Pitkeathley, small business champion for London Mayor Sadiq Khan, admitted the public sector “can be very unimaginative” but pointed to Transport for London as a notable exception.
In May it selected six tech start-ups from a field of 300 to access its data via the Nitrous Accelerator, which connects fast-growing companies with government agencies.
Among them were the Blubel safe cycling route finder, described as SatNav in a bicycle bell, incentivised carpooling app Faxi and TravelAi, which crowdsources travel routes before applying machine learning to build transport analytics.
In Exeter, councillors signed up to a non-profit partnership with the ambitious goal of making the city energy-independent and congestion-free by 2025. Exeter City Futures offers start-ups 15 weeks of support and advice to develop and validate business models.
Its head of innovation Liz O’Driscoll told the conference: “You either sit and wait for technology to happen to you or you engage in some way in very early stages and build something absolutely bespoke.
“We are starting with the problems and challenges that need to be overcome. We are looking to build the market and the user base. It provides a framework for public sector to engage with very early stage, risky ideas.”
Can experimental funding make a difference?
Alexander Holt, who heads up the Scottish government’s CivTech accelerator, said there was misunderstanding about the flexibility of public funding.
“People build rules and guidance around it that bears no relation to the law, because essentially people are fundamentally risk-averse,” he said.
CivTech offers challenge-based contracts that grow from an initial £3,000 during the “exploration” phase, through £17,000 during a three-month accelerator, and upwards according to project size.
It benefited RiverTrack, which was sponsored by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to develop air quality sensors and long-range, low-power wireless technology for flood forecasting.
The man behind the tech, Gary Martin, said: “The high-quality mentoring, networking, and funding support has allowed RiverTrack to develop a robust, innovative, affordable product, and bring in expertise to grow the team and business.”
CivTech’s location within the UK’s largest accelerator, CodeBase – which houses nearly 300 tech companies within a 3,000ft sq building – is essential to changing culture, says Holt.
“You’re able to bring the public sector into a place, experience different environments and see how things could be developed in different ways.”
O’Donnell agrees: “Cities are incredibly complex networks for start-ups to negotiate. It works really well when the public sector creates a small team and physically moves them into one of these start-up bases. [They are] easy to engage with, like a chaperone or a filter.”
There was broad agreement, however, that nothing could be done without winning over a sceptical public.
“We need to find a way to talk about this stuff outside a forum like this,” admitted Pitkeathley.
And Gregson, for all his desire to “get on with it”, agreed: “It’s looking at opportunities, focusing on the citizen, coping with the problem of the ageing population and creating healthy cities.”