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Author: Yvonne Cook

Welcome to the future

Updated Tuesday, 3rd June 2014
How The Open University is leading a project that is transforming Milton Keynes into one of the world’s first ‘smart cities’.

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The Open University is leading a project which looks at how our urban landscapes can develop in a sustainable way, utilising technology to solve problems which arise when living in a modern city. The guinea pig in this research is its home town, Milton Keynes, which is being transformed into one of the world’s first ‘smart cities’.

The £16 million MK:Smart project is developing new and smarter ways of managing transport, water and energy supplies by harnessing the power of the internet and ‘big data’ – the vast flows of information available when numerous devices and systems are connected online.

MK:Smart is one of a number of initiatives in the Milton Keynes Future City Programme which reached a new milestone in May when plans were unveiled for a city-wide ‘internet of things’ – a public network able to support Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communication and to integrate information coming from a large number of static and mobile sensors.

The network will combine low-power sensor technologies with low-power data transfer, making it a world first, bringing data into the MK:Smart Data Hub to enable novel services to be created for the city.

Carparking and waste recycling will be the focus of the first practical trials, due to start later in the year. City parking spaces will be fitted with sensors to indicate which are full and which empty. Drivers will be able to access the information via their smartphones or satnavs, and be guided to the nearest empty space.

The aim is not just to make drivers happier but also to cut traffic congestion by reducing the time spent circling around looking for somewhere to park.

The city’s commercial waste recycling collection bins are also receiving a smart make-over. The bins are being fitted with sensors which will relay the information back to base when they are full of waste, so the council can schedule bin collections only when needed.

The network will eventually be extended to other devices and systems, such as water meters and heating systems.

Dirty washing? There’s an app for that!

The OU’s Department of Computing & Communications, in cooperation with energy firm E.On have been looking at how digital technology and data can support households who generate their own energy.

Domestic microgeneration – typically through solar panels, heat pumps and wind turbines – is on the rise, but more needs to be done to help householders make the most of it.

OU researchers have developed an internet-connected washing machine for Milton Keynes homes fitted with solar PV panels.

The washing machine taps into a digital home energy network and uses data ­on energy generation and consumption, weather forecasts and length of daylight to work out when the most solar-generated electricity will be available to do the washing. It then recommends the most energy efficient laundry times to residents, either using the machine’s display panel or by sending a message to resident’s mobile phones..

The OU will collaborate on this project with its MK:Smart partners BT and Milton Keynes Council, as well as with Cambridge technology firm Neul, the Connected Digital Economy Catapult, and the Future Cities Catapult

The project draws on the knowledge of a range of OU experts in intelligent systems, advanced data management, cleaner transport technologies, and the design of computing systems for addressing sustainability challenges.

MK:Smart is funded with an £8 million grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Catalyst Fund, match-funded by partners in a consortium led by the OU. The investment aims to demonstrate how universities can apply their expertise to support cities’ economic growth.

MK:Smart is a consortium of organisations led by The Open University. Its Project Director is Professor Enrico Motta, of the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute.


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