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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

Inside Hull’s ambitious plan to become one of the world’s smartest cities

Mike Kenworthy, assistant director of digital and ICT, joined Hull City Council several months ago with a remit of modernising the IT internally within the council as well as developing the digital strategy for the city as a whole.

This meant working with partners across the city on areas such as regeneration, economic development as well as improving life for citizens.

Kenworthy explains that there had been a smart city strategy in place before he arrived but now the city is developing an overarching digital strategy. Feeding into that is an ICT strategy for Hull City Council, which involves a partnership of public sector bodies including the NHS, fire service, ambulance services in creating a single vision for the city.

“The strategy is for the whole city but also for the council itself, meaning it covers citizen engagement and adult social care, as well as smart city elements such as air quality and traffic management – the aim is to make Hull a better place to live and work,” he says.

Before Kenworthy arrived, the council had already selected Cisco and smart city operator Connexin as partners for its ambition to become one of the smartest cities in the world. Connexin provided Hull with what the council claims is the first purpose-built smart city operating system in the UK, dubbed CityOS. The platform is based on Cisco Kinetic, an IoT product. 

“The idea is to get data standardisation around multiple sources, so that we can make data-driven decisions, but also inform the public with the data we have, and provide this data to app developers,” Kenworthy explains.

In terms of progress, Kenworthy emphasises that Hull is a different city to others in the UK because it has fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) broadband available to all businesses and residences in the city, as well as a large LoRaWAN network, which enables it to put sensors out and feed data back to the council.

“This makes it a special place in order to develop a smart cities programme. The first step for us is putting in place the building blocks and infrastructure so that we can develop innovative solutions and get intelligence from data,” he states.

The first phase also includes integrating 12 smart systems that the council already has in place, including those focused on traffic management, parking, lighting, flood monitoring and air quality. This would give the public the data to then see the areas where both traffic and air quality are particularly bad, for instance, and perhaps make a decision to avoid those areas. It’s for this integration that the council opted for Connexin’s CityOS platform. 

The next phase is around using these data sources in a more intelligent way.

“We want to put intelligence over the top of that data, allowing us to automate systems such as traffic flow, and enable us to direct traffic in a way that can reduce air pollution. It’s an open landscape where we want to get as many good use cases on board quickly,” Kenworthy says.

Smart cities have had a bad reputation of late – mainly because the hype associated with smart cities has not led to many actual great examples of smart city work. It’s for this reason that metrics are particularly important to show that this programme is working for Hull. According to Kenworthy, each project has to have a business case, whether it’s outcomes-based or real-time savings. However, he suggests that in order to realise many of the benefits, the smart city programme has to be at a stage where the projects are mature enough, and integrated.

“You have to be iterative around the way you’re doing it; if you focus on some wonderful vision of the future being just down the road, you might miss the target. You have to be laser focused on what you’re going to get out of this, and the actual business cases that can have an impact,” he says.

Once the city gets to a mature stage in its smart city programme, Kenworthy believes that Hull can be a template for the rest of the UK.

“We want to become a showcase. Hull is quite dense, it’s made up of 27 square miles, so everything we do can be showcased as it’s not just about putting in 15 smart lights, it’s about rolling it out across the whole city. This allows us to demonstrate the art of the possible,” he says.