By: Dominic Browne, Surveyor magazine
Oxfordshire CC is blazing a trail in future mobility. Its living laboratory approach, emphasis on collaborative procurement, use of intelligence clustering and willingness to push forward with ambitious schemes set it apart from the crowd.
What is innovation? Sadly, for many it has become little more than the latest buzzword. This is particularly heartbreaking in the engineering sector because at its very core engineering is about problem solving, and so its essential outcome should be innovation. If creativity is coming up with new ideas of value, innovation could be seen as the application of those ideas to realise their value. In the modern world, this can often have more to do with software than spanners, but the essential principle is still the same and stems from finding faults in the present to help redirect the future.
For instance, a new shopping complex called Westgate Oxford is currently being built in Oxford city centre and is due to open in 2017. The county council predicts that by 2021 the shopping centre, along with tourism growth, will result in 5 million more visitors coming to the city every year. The problem is how to match increased urban mobility within a finite road space. Before we look at how Oxfordshire plans to solve this problem, we need to meet Llewelyn Morgan, its service manager for infrastructure, innovation and development, and go back two years.
Mr Morgan explains: ‘About two years ago, within our business plans, we managed to convince our managers we should focus on a new approach to looking at transport. We could see there was big disruption in the market coming along and we were interested in getting involved in smart cities.
‘At the same time, there was a group of innovative business people, who had close ties with the universities. They were local entrepreneurs and wanted to look at Oxford’s transport problems in a different way. They had their own companies; one is Zeta Automotive, another Preston Motorsports. We worked closely with the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford University as well. So we brought a core group together to look at the problem in a different way. We realised that for a city like Oxford to develop solutions, you need to develop that living laboratory approach. We have to get closer to the research because things are going from research to implementation a lot quicker than they ever have. Previously you would be looking at 10 years in the transport world from research to implementation – now you are looking at 18 months to two years.
‘At the time, we were calling it a real-world Lean learning system. That’s what is missing to allow a city to really embrace innovation and do things in a different way.’
One reason this makes such a difference is the importance of intelligence clustering, bringing people together with different areas of expertise to share ideas and complement projects. It is also important in terms of ensuring that major stakeholders engage.
Mr Morgan sums up Oxfordshire’s approach when he says: ‘If you have a good idea in the transport world we will support you to come to Oxford. That’s why you need the connections into the authority as well as the R and D ecosystem in the area.’
This core group transformed into a community interest company (CIC), Mr Morgan explains.
‘We now have MobOx Foundation and set it up as a CIC because we found that the central core, which enables innovative projects to happen, needs to be neutral. So we set it up as a form of social enterprise. Its aim is to support, incubate and develop new ideas and new opportunities, to solve the problem of urban transport.’
MobOx is now in talks with a number of cities around the world on issues such as parking and transport systems solutions, including Buenos Aires and Mexico City.
So what has it achieved? Well, there is a long list but in the first instance this approach of collaborative working has boosted the council’s personnel numbers.
In the council’s research and innovation team there are seven members. This is small in comparison to other groups but, ‘compared to other authorities it is the biggest team I have come across that has this focused on innovation and research,’ Mr Morgan says.
Three of those posts are self-funded, as the team has expanded by winning bids and funding new positions through its collaborative work with private partners.
‘We are looking at developing long-term research. We have two PhD students named as MobOx PhD students and their remit is defined through the group. The idea is that if they develop solutions through the PhD for a commercial proposition, we can develop it so they have an immediate outlet to seek commercial applications and real-world testing.’
This is already bearing fruit in one particularly interesting research project that demonstrates Oxfordshire’s approach in practice.
‘Zeta has paid for one PhD student, and we are working with him and Zeta to develop an off-grid traffic control system. So it is powered off-grid. Also it’s only connected when it needs information, so it reduces some of the hackability.
‘This is a good example of the group. We started with a problem. I asked whether we could do this and Zeta, who are experts in solar energy, came back and said “actually we have most of the bits you need to build a test system”. Now we have the PhD student who can do the research element. The off-grid management system is being developed over the next six to nine months. And hopefully we can apply it in the Culham Science Centre. Culham has 2000 people working there and 10km of road network in an enclosed fenced site. But it’s quite a real-world environment to test transport technology. ‘Previously you almost stopped yourself doing something. But now we think why don’t we just do it. We don’t need government permission.’
Oxfordshire is also open to partnerships with other councils. With a large consortium including Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire county councils and Highways England, Oxfordshire is involved in the oneTRANSPORT project.
Supported by Innovate UK funding, the project aims to create a transport data exchange platform to enable multimodal transport information to be published by data owners such as transport authorities and third parties in a single location to be accessed by app developers and others. The consortium attached to the scheme is led by InterDigital Europe in partnership with Arup.
So in effect you develop a platform that brings in all the various transport data feeds in one place. This means an app developer doesn’t have to talk to every different authority individually about getting their feeds. This could deliver improved travel experiences as well as revenues for local authorities.
Another local project that won Innovate UK funding is CATCH! (Citizens at the City’s Heart) – a journey planning tool being developed by TravelAI.
TravelAI says: ‘CATCH! is a next generation journey planner that adapts to travel conditions in real-time to deliver the most accurate and stress-free routing. It works by analysing the movements of its community of users, building an anonymised dataset that is fed back into the journey planner. The data will also be offered to city planners and transport operators so they can make our transport systems work better and more efficiently for all of us.’
A demonstration version of the app is available and will be ‘most useful for city officials and citizens and transport professionals that would like to see CATCH! developed in their city’.
Mr Morgan tells Surveyor that the oneTRANSPORT project has helped fund ‘one and a half’ jobs at the council and Catch! about half a post.
‘In an ideal world TravelAI will get a feed out of oneTRANSPORT.’ Next there is Oxfordshire’s work with a startup company called Zipabout, which is due to launch a journey assistance app in the autumn. This will beta test an underlying software platform that Zipabout has developed, which gives users personalised travel information, fed from any app they might use. It uses sentiment analysis and overlays it with network data to give real-time information of what’s happening on the network, including proactive warnings. The software aggregates information and works without using your GPS, which would drain your battery. So it could integrate with your calendar and if you have a meeting somewhere, or your usual train is delayed, it can tell you, in advance, which way to travel. It can also team up with local businesses to offer incentives to modal shift, such a free coffee if you take the park and ride.
Daniel Chick, technical director at Zipabout, explains: ‘The approach we are taking is a platform that integrates with other outlets. We are trying to provide an underlying technology platform to help with travel, regardless which app or selection of apps you are using. That’s the general solution. We will trial in Oxford this autumn then hope to disseminate more widely next year.’
Personalisation is for many people the next step in transport and it is no surprise that Mr Chick and his partners have backgrounds in ecommerce, digital engagement and online advertising.
‘A lot of work on personalisation and personal engagement seems to have passed the transport sector by,’ he says. ‘It surprised me that train companies don’t know anything about their passengers; basically they are moving boxes that happen to have people in them.’
The transport sector might break people down into ‘segments’, such as commuter or tourist, whereas Zipabout wants to treat everyone as an individual.
Mr Chick adds that he has also talked to major consultancies and accountants about bringing in money to his business and working to develop innovation in the sector. He was not always impressed with what he saw:
‘One company had a 10-page flow chart for how to do innovation. We innovate by coming up with ideas as we sit around after work having a drink… Big companies will lose their business case [if they don’t adapt].’
He also gives some useful advice to local authorities: ‘Local authorities’ big problem is procurement. When local authorities tender, firstly they tend to specify the work themselves, expect companies to deliver it, and then the council wants to keep all of the intellectual property. That might have worked in the 90s but not now. Our intellectual property is ours. We license our software as a service, if you like. That’s the business model.’
He reiterates the first point: ‘Fundamentally, if a council tells us how to implement something to solve a problem it stops any innovation. Councils are not innovators, they don’t have the technology knowledge.’
This point is echoed by Mr Morgan, who suggests one way for councils to innovate is to go to market with the problem and seek solutions: ‘We are moving towards what is almost a collaborative procurement and trying to make the world move as well. So you are almost committing to a set of objectives. “Here is the budget we will put in, we are expecting you to put in x, y and z but also bring some innovative thinking.” So we end up with the best solution we can and that might include things that are not in the scope right at the beginning. Over a project, the way technology is changing so quickly, a new product might come along that could be applied or a new form of thinking.’
Working together for Oxfordshire: Zipabout promises ‘the future of intelligent mobility’; TravelAI’s CATCH! service; the Culham Science Centre
He gives two examples. One is a project for electric charging in terraced streets where the council is working with Oxford City Council to ask the market to provide solutions to the problem, and will tender based on outcomes. He also references the fact the council is looking for new parking meters but is doing ‘soft market testing’ to find a smarter solution that could let residents know their parking options and possibly provide dynamic pricing.
‘Trying to fit that into traditional procurement is a bit of a challenge. How do we procure in this way? Procurers like to think: “What does a parking metre look like, let’s buy 100 of them”.’
Bidding for funding from the likes of Innovate UK, is variously called ‘a nightmare’ and ‘horrendous’ by Mr Chick, who complains that the system is far too prescriptive, bureaucratic and ends up giving far too much cash to major companies that don’t need such R and D seed funding. It also pays money quarterly in arrears, leaving small start-ups with cash flow difficulties.
Mr Morgan complains there is nowhere to go to bid for both capital and revenue funding at once, with the financial division itself described as a barrier to implementation.
The MobOx group is also working to develop an on-demand system for Oxford University’s internal trips – its many buildings stretch across the city and outside. The idea being that this is a perfect case study to test the market for ondemand transport for trip volumes often larger than a car but usually smaller than a small bus, Mr Morgan says.
There is also a hush-hush project with one of the world’s largest companies on the smart cities theme. All of this is brought together under the Smart Oxford smart cities group. Representatives meet up once a month to discuss new projects and opportunities for joint working.
‘Our ambition with Smart Oxford is we would hope in the next two to three years to have a good number of projects that test our principles and build on each element. So you have the building blocks of the living laboratory there with partners and data platforms. We are just launching our open data platform very soon. That should be next month.’
From better traffic management to travel personalisation and multi-modal platforms, all this work will help with Oxford’s congestion problems. However, we could not leave you with mentioning driverless cars.
Mr Morgan reveals: ‘We are putting together a big bid for the Local Growth Fund that is in partnership with Oxbotica [driverless car experts], RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) and others. We are bidding for cash to develop autonomous pods in particular, as the last mile of the transport system, including interchanges at Oxford and Culham stations in the first phases. The Oxford one will link up with the new Westgate shopping centre, and then the Culham one will link between Culham and the Culham science park. The extended plan is to also connect to Didcot, to Milton Park, Harwell and around Bicester.
‘The idea is that the bid will develop Culham as its living laboratory element for autonomous vehicles and pods in particular. The pods will be open to the public but they will pay for the service, and we are looking at price structures. How much should it cost? Should it be dynamic pricing? We are also looking at the size of pods and there is also the option of doing freight exchange and using the pods to carry people’s shopping back to stations.’
Oxfordshire began by looking at its problems and developed a better market for solutions. It also found tricky questions like how much to charge for driverless pods and how far to take such autonomous vehicle plans. The moral of the story is that innovation will still leave you with problems, but many of them will be good problems to have. What is innovation? Turning bad problems into good ones.
Working together for Oxfordshire: the Culham Science Centre; the oneTRANSPORT project, and Westgate Development plans continue apace
This article was first published in Surveyor, in August 2016