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What can we learn from Sunderland’s Smart City?

by Jay Saggar and Polly Kwok

This blog was originally published by LOTI on 24/10/23 by Jay Saggar and Polly Kwok: What can we learn from Sunderland’s Smart City? - LOTI

London Office of Technology & Innovation (LOTI), London local government’s innovation team, explores Sunderland’s Smart City advancements in connectivity and innovation.

Recently, members of the LOTI team, accompanied by representatives from London boroughs, embarked on a journey to Sunderland. This blog shares LOTI’s experience exploring the city’s advancements in connectivity and smart city efforts.

This month, Jay Saggar and Polly Kwok from the LOTI team, and a small group of borough officers took a trip up to Sunderland to learn about the city’s efforts to develop connectivity and deploy smart city use cases. The trip was hosted by Boldyn Networks, the company Transport for London (TfL) has partnered with to deliver 4G connectivity on the tube. Boldyn have been working with Sunderland City Council as part of a joint venture to deliver fibre connectivity, 5G networks and smart city functionality for the city. Here are some of our reflections from the visit.

Learning together
LOTI wants to make sure that all those working on smart city projects in London can learn about use cases, partnerships, technology, and routes to deployment from across the world. What’s more we want that experience to be collaborative and shared, so we decided to make the 4 hour train journey together and take the opportunity to learn not just about the work in Sunderland but also about the projects, ambitions, successes and challenges of peers in London. The delegation was made up of representatives from Kensington & Chelsea, Kingston & Sutton, Waltham Forest and Westminster.

First Stop: Connectivity tour
Our first outing was a tour of Sunderland’s city centre to take in some of the connectivity and sensing hardware (see images below). This hardware is the backbone to a variety of networks: The city’s 5G private network that enables autonomous vehicle trials. There is also a LoRaWAN network that enables IoT connectivity across the full city region and the free public WiFi, that functions as a public amenity alongside a digital inclusion tool for use by residents both in public space but also in their homes. It is all part of Sunderland City Councils mantra of “No one, nowhere left behind”.

Liz from Sunderland City Council explained how the city was nowhere near the top of the list for investment in connectivity infrastructure from the private sector. This posed both a challenge but also an opportunity to develop a creative joint venture that has crowded in investment and functioned as a platform for a digital offering that meets the needs of the city and its residents.

Sunderland Smart City Use Cases
Following our tour of the city centre we were invited to learn more about the outcomes and use cases Sunderland City Council are aiming to deliver with smart city technology and reflect on the intersection with the challenges we face in London.

One of the key similarities was a desire to deliver for resident and city needs. This is both a driver and motivator but also a guiding start in evaluating the requirements and success of smart city initiative.

Rainfall Monitoring
This very simple use case requiring a simple connected sensor has empowered the council’s environment officers to much better understand flooding and flood risk in the city. It represents a great example of where technology can change the way council officers use resources to understand the services they provide. Previously data had to be physically collected from monitoring stations across the city on a monthly basis. The LoRaWAN connected system now provides live streaming data that can be used to anticipate potential flooding issues. This type of use case only succeeds when data and technology teams work closely with officers in service areas, to understand their needs and co-design the insights that will enable officers to take action.

Legionella Monitoring
Sunderland and Boldyn’s approach to Legionella monitoring offers an interesting lesson in how to work with key institutions such as housing associations and universities. Both entities have 1000s of taps and outlets that need to be monitored as part of statutory health and safety requirements. The network connectivity and expertise made available by the partnership has enabled key partner institutions to take advantage of the huge cost savings of moving to an automated remote monitoring system for Legionella testing. London Boroughs should consider where opportunities for such strategic partnerships might exist where expertise, technical resources and data can be shared to deliver common outcomes such as public health.

Air Quality and Road Usage
Air Quality is very much a challenge London shares with Sunderland. In Sunderland, the City Council have invested in a network of solar powered monitors similar to the Breathe London sensors used in London. By combining this data with traffic, road and pavement usage data collected by VivaCity traffic counting sensors, the resulting insights are being used to support traffic planning activities that aim to improve the city centre for pedestrians and active transport. As we have also seen through the use cases in the South London Partnerships’s IoT projects and in Westminster, it is when sensor data is combined with other data sources that insights that enable teams to act and change things in the real world start to emerge.

IoT Platforms
Sunderland provided us with a demo of their IoT Platform that integrates data from all of the data sources mentioned above and many more. It is built using Microsoft tools with a variety of different front ends and visualisation made available to different types of users. A key lesson for the London delegation was learning how, through deliberate choices in data architecture, approach to engineering, and the use of data in the outputs and insights, the Sunderland team has been able to control and reduce the consumption costs of running the platform.

Connectivity is a big difference between the operating environment in London and Sunderland. In London we are fortunate to have an excess of private investment in our connectivity infrastructure. London has full NB-IoT provision making connecting low power sensors used in things like air quality monitors very easy. Sunderland needed to build a LoRaWAN network to reach this level of connectivity. In London we should be taking advantage of the ubiquitous connectivity we have available!

We all agreed that the smart city use case that are currently being explored or deployed all sit in the relatively safe box when it comes to ethics. This is partly (and rightly) by design with the most viable use cases being those which do not collect personal data. Where both cities will have challenges in the future is around more controversial uses of technology such as facial recognition CCTV. Here having a robust and transparent framework to making decisions around the use of this type of technology will be key to both controlling its use and maintaining public trust in the broader smart city agenda.

Time to head home
As we headed back to the station for the journey back to London we reflected on the value of having made the effort to meet with colleagues in Sunderland in person. To see the city and the councils’ projects and interventions out in the street. If we aspire to use data, technology and digital tools to improve the city for all, we very much need to be connected to and understand the place. This isn’t about building infrastructure that allows us to hide away from the physical world behind computer screens but should be about enhancing how these real places function for all those in our public realm.