Once upon a Tyne

Once upon a time electric lampposts represented a break-through in technological innovation. And the first place in the world to electrify in this way? Mosley street in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Nowadays the humble lamppost can be fitted with many ‘smart’ functions: from sensors that monitor air pollution or traffic congestion, to offering adaptive lighting to manage power consumption, to being a WiFi emitter.

Far from losing its crown, 141 years after its first electrification, Mosley street has maintained its leading edge as a smart street, and has moved far beyond lampposts in its endeavours. By making use of the Internet of Things, the street is today fitted with sensors that monitor, for example, the capacity of its rubbish bins so that the local council knows when they need to be emptied.

As well as monitoring the general flow of traffic, which can help the city in its transport and environmental plans, the sensors at Mosley street also share information on parking availability directly with drivers via a mobile app. Given that, by some estimations, up to 30% of city centre traffic is caused by people searching for a parking space, this can be no bad thing!

And all this data is revolutionising the city’s public policy. “The live data feeds are not just a data capture exercise. They have already offered valuable insights into how a small section of our city operates,” explains Jenny Nelson, Programme Manager for Newcastle City Council’s Digital Newcastle Programme.

Such real-time data is fed back into a central information hub, which helps urban planners in the city council work out what needs to be done. For example, through use of Artificial Intelligence and video analytics, the city is able to monitor the state of Mosley’s road surface and predict when repairs should take place, in order to avoid the creation of potholes or other longer term disruptions to the lives of the city’s residents.

And why do all this? As Nelson explains, “for me, smart means creating a better place; one that is more cost effective and a great place to live, work and visit. But to fulfil our smart ambitions, we’ve had to get this initial stage right and gain people’s trust.”

Indeed, Newcastle’s ambitions are far wider than one street. In fact, the city recently scooped the title of Smart City of the Year 2019 at the UK’s Digital Leaders Awards – a result in no small part down to the efforts put in at Mosley street.

Digital Newcastle

“The ‘smart city’ agenda has broadened our view of digital transformation; away from internal digitisation, chatbots and mobile working, towards a stronger focus on using technology and innovation to improve outcomes to make life more liveable – like cleaner air, better transport, more responsive local services and increasing independence for people in their own homes.” This is the view of Nelson as she explains the direction of digital policy in Newcastle.

To capitalise on its success and further drive forward its digital ambitions, the city recently entered into a partnership with Urban Foresight – which had previously undertaken a study suggesting that Newcastle’s adoption of digital technologies stands to benefit the city to the tune of £200 million by this year.

One of the recommendations of the initial study – to develop a branded smart city innovation programme – actually corresponds to the way the Digital Newcastle Programme has developed over the last few years.

Today, the Digital Newcastle Programme takes a ‘whole-city’ perspective on how to drive forward the city’s digital ambition, and brings together a broad church of academics, businesses, community representatives and the city council.

As Councillor Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle City Council says, “we are a city that is powered by people and inspired by fresh ideas, from start-ups to global players it is a digital city for all and our partnerships across the city place us at the forefront of digital innovation.”

One such collaboration that Newcastle is engaged in is a ‘city listening’ project with a local SME, which mines publicly available ‘conversations’ on social media and uses advanced AI to understand how people perceive the city and help determine possible policy avenues for improvement.

And, thanks to the new partnership with Urban Foresight, the city has already switched to more use of electric vehicles, by increasing its ‘corporate fleet’ by some 140%, corresponding to a carbon reduction of 2,700 tonnes over seven years.

Despite all this success the council is still hungry to provide better services – it’s reaching out to other cities, both in the UK and internationally, to provide and to share best practice.

As Jennifer Hartley, Director of Invest Newcastle, explains, “collaboration has played a vital role in driving our smart ambitions forward, with the city facilitating open and transparent collaboration across public, private and academic sectors. It’s not just about technology, you must understand people to drive new solutions and this is what makes us different. We know that our smart, clean and digital technologies will enable cities to overcome both economic and social challenges for years to come.”

Sense my street

The Urban Observatory, home of ‘the largest set of publicly available real time urban data in the UK,’ which is linked to Newcastle University, is another example of how ‘smart’ Newcastle has become.

Besides being able to access all the data, residents are encouraged to ‘sense my street’, by contacting the centre to suggest why new sensors should be placed in their area. It also offers the data for developers to design new apps and as a tool for researchers and an opportunity for businesses.

This development comes hand in hand with the creation of the city’s new innovation district. Located on the site of a former brewery, the Newcastle Helix has been adapted to become a 24 acre site that brings together the tech and science industries with the local community in a bid to deliver smarter and more sustainable urban development.

The idea is to create a community, complete with whatever may be needed in the way of restaurants, bars, schools and other services, but to do so in a smart way. For example, construction of 450 solar-powered ‘smart homes’ is already underway.

The energy in Newcastle is clear, and the digital transformation is leading the city, and its partners, in a whole host of new directions. By focussing on challenges, and improving the delivery of public services, the approach that “it’s okay to trial things, it’s okay to fail,” as Nelson puts it, is bringing positive outcomes for all its residents.

One day perhaps all of Newcastle’s streets will be as smart as Mosley street!

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer