How Essex is trying to become the smartest county in the UK

Image: Jason Kitcat, Executive director at Essex County Council
Image: Jason Kitcat, Executive director at Essex County Council

We talked with Essex County Council about the future of a connected 'smart' world, from the local level to the global

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Essex may not be a city, but that hasn't stopped the progressive county council from pursuing various smart city pilots, from smart street lamps to smart care homes and rural broadband.

The man tasked with pushing the county council into the 'smart era' is Jason Kitcat, executive director for corporate development at Essex County Council, but he wasn't in the mood for bold predictions.

"I think 2020 probably isn't going to look that different to be honest," Kitcat told Computerworld UK when we sat down with him at Essex County Hall in Chelmsford earlier this month.

"The thing is no one really predicted how transformational or big the smartphone is going to be, but there have been predictions since the 50s of some kind of handheld computer.

"Things like autonomous cars, I don't think they'll be here in 2020, maybe 2030 or 2040 but even a little bit of that could have a dramatic impact," he added in response to Cisco's latest predictions that there will be 50 billion connected devices in the world by 2020.

"The UK has a big challenge because we're an old country that hasn't had a big war or revolution to demolish lots of our cities, so we've got a lot of very old infrastructure and the reality is that newly developed parts of the world, or parts that have had tragedies with the ability to re-build, have got easier ways of getting this infrastructure in the ground," he said.

Before joining the council, Kitcat was a local politician and most recently the head of policy and public affairs at fintech startup Crunch.

According to Kitcat, there are opportunities for the UK to develop smart cities but with a range of old lamposts and buildings across a number of areas, there is infrastructure that needs to be renewed first.

"I think it can be done, I just think the products and the markets are still immature - that's our challenge. The plus side is that we've got amazing skills and talent. Fibre optic was invented here in Essex; Marconi was here in Chelmsford, so we've got a lot of history and skills to build on.

"So can Essex do it? Yes, Essex can but I think in bite-size chunks. If we did a mass rollout we may jump too soon. I think it's better for us to do experimental stuff, learn, test out hypothesis and if we change this junction in this way it becomes a behavioural science thing," he said.

In a report by Public.io, Essex was listed as "a leading example of a county council driving change strategically across districts" for its ‘Smart Essex' strategy.

The Superfast Essex broadband rollout programme to over 24,000 homes and businesses remains its most successful achievement to date. It received a £24 million investment in partnership with BT in 2017 and is expected to be completed by December 2019.

As a county, not a city, Essex can suffer from a marketing problem in its bid to be recognised as 'smart', but Kitcat isn't too fazed.

"Essex is a really interesting geography. It's quite different to the classic smart city - so London for example, we're not like that. We've got Basildon, Chelmsford and Colchester which are sort of mid-sized towns.

"There are quite a lot of rural areas in the space, so it's about how we can use tech to deal with those challenges and give people a good quality of life. It's really early days and we're still at day zero of this stuff, there's very little of it that's beyond trial phase," Kitcat said.

Read next: Best smart cities in the UK

The journey so far

Transportation is an area that has progressed well across the county, with several innovations being introduced over the years, with more to come.

In 2017, Britain's first 'smart' streetlights were added to Essex highways in plans to monitor pollution, create Wi-Fi hotspots and guide the expected driverless vehicles of the future.

Essex County Council was awarded Transport Local Authority of the year for 2017, following the rollout of its smart LED streetlights and other transport developments.

CrossRail will of course make a big impact when it eventually arrives too. It is expected to deliver high-speed connections to London from Essex, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.

Essex Council also takes pride in its ongoing work with ultrafast broadband, which it claims to be developing in preparation for 5G. "The West Essex and Eastern Hertfordshire digital innovation zone, the core bit of it is getting some really high-quality internet connectivity and try and attract some businesses around there," he added.

"So 5G we're really keen to do something with, I know West Midlands just got awarded the 5G test bed but from my perspective, it's been really painful. We've been doing all this stuff about enhancing internet in rural areas but it's not just about digging holes in the ground."

Kitcat says building a smart city is more than just ultrafast broadband and connected transport though, and there is still a lot to do, with an important role to play at local government level to drive better use of data.

"For me, the big kind of early opportunity around smart cities is instrumentation, so getting more data in more useful ways which is more current because there's often a big time-lag on data at the moment, where you wait six months to a year.

"I don't know, but we need to get to a level of insight because at the moment we are doing pretty 19th, maybe 20th-century stuff responding to some of our challenges," Kitcat said.

"I don't think local government like a county council can do it top-down, but we can create regulations, safety and infrastructure because without roads or street lights a lot of this isn't possible so maybe part of our job is making sure that BT, Vodafone or whoever provides quality network connections.

"From a rural perspective we're very interested in 5G, but obviously if we can do things like mesh networking and micro-cellular devices on things like street lamps or bins to give you better network then that's interesting as well but we need to understand how that makes sense to us on a large scale," he added.

Read more: First-ever London CDO Theo Blackwell lays out smart city plans

Essex County Council believes strongly in making developments that will make living situations better for people. This includes the safety and efficiency of houses and road networks.

"We're trialling a bunch of things more in adult social care, such as putting gadgets in people's homes to see if they fall over so we only visit when they really need it," Kitcat said. "I see that as a kind of broad smart home."!

In terms of vendors, Kitcat is taking a broad approach to partnerships. "We've partnered with Philips for lighting and big contractors like Amazon, Google and Microsoft. We're in a five-year partnership with Microsoft, working with some of their latest stuff that hasn't been publicly released yet to see if it will work in government settings," he said.

Kitcat also emphasised the importance of open standards and thinking ahead when launching pilots.

"If it is going to be a 25-year investment what happens? Because a lot of these companies aren't going to be around in five years time. People might say their technologies will last 25 years but how would they know if it's only two years old?

"There's a massive win all round but it's also got to be open. I'm not going to have a different app for every town I go to, it's got to be in a standardised way - at least for England," Kitcat said.

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