Dynamics Matters Podcast Ep 73: The journey to become the UKs smartest city

With special guest Patrick Melia, Chief Executive, Sunderland Council

✔ What is a smart city?

✔ How to make citizen services more accessible

✔ What it means to create an agile culture

Transcript

Welcome to episode 73 of the HSO Dynamics matters podcast.

Your regular sonic dive into the world of Microsoft technology related matters and much more besides.

And I’m your host, Michael Lonnon.

I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the story Alice in Wonderland, but did you know it was inspired by Sunderland where it’s creator, Lewis Carroll, spent much of his childhood?

Sunderland has many surprises including an ambition to become the UKs smartest city.

An ambition driven by Sunderland Council’s Chief Executive, Patrick Melia.

And in this episode, I had chat with Patrick to discover what that means, and how it benefits the people that live there.

So, grab a brew, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Michael Lonnon

People before processes or processes before people

Patrick Melia

People

Michael Lonnon

So Sunderland Council; you’ve got a bit of an ambition haven’t you, Patrick, this 2030 goal of creating a digital Council and I’d like to know a little bit about what that looks like and what you’re envisaging.

Patrick Melia

We’re seeking to be the UK smartest city. So, our ambition isn’t just about the council, it’s about the city. What we want to do is make sure that digital tech adds value to people’s lives. And in doing so make sure that no one is left behind. The simplest thing you can do in a tech digital world, is create a digital divide for those who could afford and who have easy access, as opposed to those who can’t afford and don’t have access. So what we’re trying to do is create a digital infrastructure in the city. That means everyone’s connected and can be connected, if they wish, and then deliver a range of applications that add value to your life, which could be education, could be health could be your house and how your house works. It could be around transport, about how you have fun. If you’re a business, it’s about how you create efficiencies and value for money in your business. So, we’re clearly engaging say with Nissan and your automotive sector at the moment, the more competitive Nissan is in Sunderland, the more chance we have a retaining 50,000 jobs in the Northeast in the automotive sector. So, it’s about doing it in a joined-up way. Our digital ambition for the city is a series of layers, we call it the layer cake. The bottom layer is infrastructure, put fibre in the ground and on that build a network of networks using Wi Fi and broadband, what they call 5G smart cells. So, you’re building a network of networks. And it might be that if you’re traversing the city on foot, all you want is ultra-fast broadband. If you’re doing research in the university, you might want a private 5G network. It’s about building the network and networks. The reason we’re taking connectivity in that infrastructure very seriously, is when we first started with this ambition people like Openreach, Virgin, we weren’t on their radar, so it meant the people of Sunderland would take a long time to get good digital connectivity. So, you go from 4G to 5G, get four gigabit connectivity and then within the city, those companies will only go to the wealthiest parts of the city. So to your wealthy homes, you go where the business sector is, those in the most deprived areas are still on 2G, 3G, and be a long way off 5G or the fast broadband. So, the approach we’ve taken is that by mid-2025, all our properties in the city will have full gigabit connectivity. So, we’ve changed the marketplace, we’re building the network and networks. Then you’re in a series of applications and the way cities do this, Liverpool, for example, are doing good on health and social care. Someone else will do something on transport, someone else might be playing in the education world. What we’re trying to do is have use cases in all of those fields, so we’ve got use cases running in education, whether that’s in the college or building 5G networks for the university. We’ve got infrastructure going in the football club. So how do does it run on matchday and give a better matchday experience? We’ve got 2,500 homes in the city that have got assistive technology to enable people to be cared for at home and less carers going in etc. We’re doing work on housing and what is a house of 2030. You look into how you really bring it to life. We’re running a series of use cases, and on each grabbing the data in a consistent way and its use of that data from health and education, how do you move around the city that’ll allow us to then put new interventions in the city to make it a smarter city.

Michael Lonnon

So previously, you have this whole of a city, whereas only a portion was being serviced by advanced digital networks. But now you’re creating an infrastructure, which covers the entire city and makes everything more inclusive and then you’re building applications that people can use depending on, as you say, the use case. So, it’s solving specific problems. My problem might be different to somebody else’s problems, but we have one application that fits and works towards each of those different things.

How to make your new Microsoft project a guaranteed success

In 10 minutes, this brochure shows you how to launch projects in the quickest possible time, resolve mistakes and mishaps, and keep your ongoing costs to the barest minimum.

How to make your new Microsoft project a guaranteed success

Patrick Melia

The key thing is your grab the data. So you understand how people want health and education to work, as you have to move around how does someone move from where they live to a hospital appointment. The more journeys we understand the smarter we can develop our transport networks to make it easier for people to move around or help people move from home to college or university. So, it’s about understanding the data around how people behave, then helps you to tweak your applications and make it better and smarter.

Michael Lonnon

What’s the challenge in achieving that as that’s not a simple undertaking?

Patrick Melia

It’s huge because we don’t know what the answer is. We don’t know what it looks like. We’ve taken this leap of faith that if we build the right infrastructure, and as we develop the applications, we make sure we can grab the data, we build the data lake, and all the data goes into. Then we need smart people to come along and ask the right questions of the data and help us develop better applications. It’s all difficult in its own way, keeping it joined up, because if you’re an application developer, you want to control your data, you don’t want to share it with someone else’s data over there because that’s where the power and the money lies. It’s difficult because no one’s ever done it before. No one’s ever taken the approach we’ve taken and it’s very difficult to describe the outcome.

Michael Lonnon

Again, this might be an impossible question to answer. But what does success look like, how do you know when you’ve reached that end success?

Patrick Melia

As a city and as a female, you may fall into ill health with an illness or disability, 60-61 ish, if you’re male, or younger, 58-59. So, you’re living with Ill health, or a disability longer than the rest of the country, you also die sooner. So, success for me looks like a healthier city. We live healthier for longer, because we’ve had a better education experience, better health experience, we’ve got great housing that helps us live and satisfies our needs. Great transport, great education, great cultural experiences, and dynamic, efficient, competitive businesses. If all of our people get great education, and get a good job and a great business, they’ll have more money to spend they will make different life choices and live healthier lives for longer. The golden thing is, can the whole city live a healthier life for longer by being UK a smarter city, I think we can go on that journey to achieve that.

Michael Lonnon

Data plays a role in almost every conversation I’ve had, and what I liked about what you said there is, because most projects start with a specific end goal, but, actually, you’re taking a more realistic view, get the information together create an infrastructure that’s agile and changes or can change depending on circumstances of what happens. What is the data telling us that is encouraging us to do something slightly different, which I think is a really unique approach. Somebody once said to me the only limitation when it comes to data is our imagination. I think you’re highlighting actually that this is the way forward

Patrick Melia

We will need people who don’t think like me to ask the right question of the data, and then interpret that. So, one of the things we’ve done is a partnership to bring fibre throughout the city, with city fibre. We’re spending 60 odd million pound on fibre in the city. We’ve also then done a 20-year joint venture with a company called BI communications. BI communications 100 years ago, put telecoms broadcasting infrastructure in Australia and still maintain it today. They also run the telecomms broadcasting infrastructure in Hong Kong subway, which is 2 billion passenger journeys, and in the New York subway, and they’re now doing London. And are now providing all our digital infrastructure in Sunderland. So, we’ve been able to bring global people to the city to help us with our ambition, and then attract good smart people to come and work in the city to help on the journey.

Michael Lonnon

You’ve been in the role for four years, what has been the biggest change? What’s been the biggest change in terms of the way citizens engage with, the City Council, for example?

Patrick Melia

We’ve noticed, and we’ve tracked quite a bit of this, that certainly, I mean, COVID really helped with this, but we’ve got much more activity and communication online. People are less likely to turn up to the building, they’re more likely to do it online. It’s been interesting. We put new tools on our website, which is about how people report. So, it’s like fly tipping or something else. We’re just trialling it, we didn’t broadcast it but people just started using it. They found it and used it, and we were getting lots of reports coming in. So, people are much more intuitive about doing things online. And if you’re like my mother, what my mother is really good at is getting me to do it online for her. COVID has had such a big impact in how a city feels, but also how we work as a council, like a lot of businesses we’re much more agile, more flexible, culturally, we’re changing in terms of how we operate and how we behave. We’ve been doing an awful lot to support businesses, and economic regeneration as a city, and then we’re heading to the cost-of-living crisis this winter. So, it feels as if we’ve gone from one big crisis and heading into another one. It’s difficult to judge how we changed on a lot of things, we behave differently, we do things differently, and much more online and are more flexible and adaptable.

Michael Lonnon

I not as close to it as you are, but it feels to me that as you mentioned there, people have come more intuitive about using digital technology and I think as a result of that it’s actually more likely to enhance the success of your future digital ambitions. I think that’s what we’re going to see.

Summary

I sometimes take for granted the consistent and rapid broadband I have. And also the reliable 4G mobile network I’m connected to. Others are not so lucky.

Imagine you have these things. Now imagine how debilitating it would be to have access only to a 2G or 3G mobile network. Or to remove your fibre connected broadband. It would be difficult to get anything done. This is the reality for many council residents.

Patrick, and the team at Sunderland council, understand that to create a smart city, it has to connect its people in order to deliver services that everyone can access, and that the council can use to deliver more value-added support.

It’s well worth keeping your eye on how Sunderland progress with this worthwhile ambition.

Thanks for listening, until next time, take care of yourselves.

Get more insight from HSO's Microsoft technology experts

Get in touch with HSOs Microsoft technology experts

By using this form you agree to the storage and processing of the data you provide, as indicated in our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe from sent messages at any time. Please review our privacy policy for more information on how to unsubscribe, our privacy practices and how we are committed to protecting and respecting your privacy.