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How is Milton Keynes a ‘smart’ city?

Updated Wednesday 8th August 2018

What is a ‘smart city’, and how is smart rooted into Milton Keynes’ past and future?

50 years ago, the government authorised a unique experiment in urban culture, planning and transport - the New Town of Milton Keynes. The following video takes a look at MK, to examine how technology and innovation have shaped its past, and how the digital is set to change its future.


Hello, I'm Oliver Zanetti, and I'm a research associate in the geography discipline at the Open University. Fifty years ago, on the 23rd of January, 1967, the government gave the go-ahead for the development of a new town to be called Milton Keynes, or as it's now known by the locals, MK. Nearly 22,000 acres of land were set aside for its construction, including the land on which the Open University was built. 2017 is the year of its 50th anniversary, and the aim of this video is to take a look at MK and examine how new technology links the city's past with the city's future.

Milton Keynes has always been a forward-looking place. It's an urban area quite different from others in the UK, most obviously because of its street design. While conventional cities tend to have the city centre at their core and surrounded by a residential periphery, MK's design has created a cityscape inspired by the new technology of the 1960s.

The speedy mobility provided by the car and developing telecommunication systems meant that a central core wasn't felt to be needed. Instead, they built the city on a grid- residential centres, each about one square kilometre in area, nestled between the grid roads where cars travel at motorway speeds.

Today, MK is at the forefront of a new type of urban technology, a technology that's called the smart city. Researchers in the Open University's geography discipline, and in other parts of the university, too, have been investigating this new technology, its place in Milton Keynes, and how learning here can be transferred to other cities.

In this video, we'll be looking at two questions. First, we'll examine what's meant by the term smart city. Then we'll look at the way smart city technologies are shaping the future of Milton Keynes.

So what is a smart city? In fact, it's more of a concept than a thing you can pin down, so it's best to think it through by means of an analogy. There was a time when a phone was something people used just to make phone calls.

Today, smart phones are tools that we use in all sorts of different ways in our daily lives. In cities, we use mapping and transport apps to help us get around. Social networks give us recommendations of places to go and things to do. Some people use smartphones to turn city streets into extensions of their office, tapping out emails at bus stops or checking spreadsheets in cafes.

Digital technologies in urban spaces come together to make our lives better organised or more efficient, but what if digital tech could be used not just to organise our individual lives better, but to organise the life of the whole city better? This is what the concept of the smart city is all about. Using digital and computing technology, the aim is to make cities work better for the people in them. The kinds of changes smart city technologists have in mind are diverse, and they range from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Let's start with litter bins, the public ones you find on street corners all over the city. Perhaps, rather than having rubbish lorries driving around emptying all the bins on a route, what if each bin could tell the street sweepers to come only when it needed emptying. Then the city council could target its staff to go only where they were needed, saving time and keeping the city cleaner.

Or what if instead of personal vehicles, cities were filled with cars which drove themselves? They'd be able to navigate traffic more efficiently and so reduce congestion and pollution. Even better, they could always be on the road moving people around so we wouldn't need to waste precious city space with carparks.

Actually, neither of these examples are hypothetical. They're being tested in 2017 on the streets of MK. Data is crucial to smart cities. Just like people, computers need good information to make good decisions. So smart cities gather lots of data every day, like the fullness of the city's bins or the circulation of its traffic.

While these vast data sets are too big for people to handle, computers take them in their stride. They can quickly and easily manipulate this data to generate the best outcome in a given circumstance. However, while smart city technology is exciting, we should keep a critical eye on its development, too.

It's certainly true that smart city technologies are becoming more and more common and the possibilities for the future are profound, but deploying smart technology has not yet brought about the urban revolution that some in the world of smart tech would like us to believe. In fact, it's costly, and uptake could be slow. New smart technologies are likely to exist alongside their dumb counterparts for a few years yet.

Also, away from the hype, other voices warn the move towards smart cities could cause some people to lose out. Most smart technologies require access to a smartphone or a computer to make use of them. These devices aren't cheap or may be out of reach for some. They also require an ability to use that technology. This could be a problem for people with low digital skills or who lack experience with computers.

It could also be a problem for people with certain disabilities. For blind and partially-sighted people, for example, without special adaptations, accessing a smartphone screen can be challenging or impossible. Those developing smart city technologies need also to develop strategies that mitigate against those risks, and governments will have their part to play, too. As smart city's develop, it's vital that we don't create new types of exclusion at the same time.

So how is Milton Keynes becoming a smart city? Around the world, there are a few examples of brand new cities which have smart technologies installed in them from the word go. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is one such city. That's not a solution that'll work everywhere.

In the UK, like much of Europe and North America, the urban landscape is already well established. Even MK, a relatively young city, is now some 50 years old. This means that new smart tech has to be integrated within that which already exists. At present, around a third of UK cities have plans to become smarter. Each of those cities aspires to do so in their own way, a way which depends on how the city is now, as much as it does on the smart technologies which could be installed within it.

For the final few minutes, I want to talk about MK smart city developments. For MK, adoption of new technology is in the city's culture and its ethos. It was built from a master plan in the 1960s, led by the visionary urbanist Fred Roche, who was the general manager of the MK Development Corporation. From its beginnings to the present, its policy documents tell a story of flexibility and experimentation, accommodating to new ideas.

This has continued to be true in recent years. It was one of eight regions chosen for the Plugged-in Places electric vehicle scheme, an infrastructure programme which gathered data about how best to manage the charging of new electric car technology. It was chosen as the home for the transport system's catapult, a centre linking public and private research that aims to put the UK at the forefront of commercialising new transport technology.

So as smart took off, of course, MK wanted in. In 2015, it became home to MK:Smart, a 16-million-pound research project led by the OU with partners across local businesses, government, and research to develop novel new smart technologies and work out how to integrate them into the city. MK's infrastructure design has contributed to the smart city developments here, too. As Fred Roche said during the city's construction, MK's design has had no crystal ball telling them how the future will play out in the city. The best they could do was ensure their plans kept options open.

MK's urban form is characterised by a separation of cars, which travel on the roads, and pedestrians and cyclists, which travel on what are called the redways. That urban design has been criticised for its focus on cars, but that network of redways has made a city-wide cycle hire scheme more possible and has provided a space for the new driverless pods, which will begin circulating between the railway station and the city centre later in 2017.

Finally, MK's smart city aspirations have been helped along by its tech-savvy population. Hackathons, meetups, and tech groups like MK Geek Night run frequent events. Moreover, the city has cultivated high-value knowledge-based economy. In the UK, it is now second only to London for the number of startups relative to the city's population.

This is an exciting time for cities, and no one really knows what the future holds. In 50 years, I think, in many ways, our cities will look much the same, with the same buildings and streetscapes. But some aspects of our daily life will have changed beyond recognition. How? Who knows? But certainly, they will be a lot smarter. 





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