UC meets Ian Hawthorn: Councils need to work better together

Ian Hawthorn talks to urbancontrol about one of the biggest challenges Local Authorities face in the roll out of smart technologies across the UK.

Being part of the smart city journey is incredibly exciting. We know that this technology will revolutionise the way we interact with our urban environment and the resulting benefits for those who live, work and play in our cities will be immense. No one knows how or when it is truly going to take hold, but it is clear that we are well on our way to a smarter way of living.

As a local authority, we need to make sure that we are not only facilitating the change but driving it. The success of smart cities is heavily dependent on us understanding the needs of our citizens and joining up the dots that lead to a more efficient and sustainable environment. Of course, the technology innovators have a significant part to play, as do the smart city solution providers. But, when it comes down to ensuring the right solution is successfully implemented – well that’s down to us.

“We know  this technology will revolutionise the way we interact with our urban environment and the benefits will be immense.”

That is an exciting prospect – but also presents its challenges. Success requires a new approach from all of us. Put simply, we need to work better together by breaking down silos and building stronger bridges between organisations and even council departments. The current reality is that daily challenges are often shared, yet seldom solved as one.

For example, our highways department must find common ground with the departments delivering services across a wide range of other areas. Highway design plays an important part in people’s lives – including how other services are delivered. And these other services may know that there is a problem before the highways department does, so having smart channels to communicate this back through the chain is vital to ensure we keep our city moving.

A smart city is much more than just street lighting controls. The very nature of smart technology dictates the need for interdependence across our entire city’s infrastructure. In other words, there are huge benefits in sharing the data from one asset with those who make decisions about another.

“We need to work better together by breaking down silos and building stronger bridges between council departments.”

Promoting a culture of sharing knowledge and data among organisations and departments is vital – even if right now the challenges seem unrelated.

To illustrate this point I like the example set by the healthcare service. The team responsible for the resuscitation of newborn babies at the University Hospital of Wales recognised the similarities between neonatal resuscitations and Formula One pit stops. Both scenarios require a team of people to work seamlessly in a time critical and space-limited environment. By inviting the Williams Formula 1 team to talk about their techniques, the neonatal team could directly apply the learnings to their situation. This open-minded approach resulted in vital changes being made to the way the resuscitation team performed their tasks and ultimately led to life-saving results. An excellent example to illustrate the power of joining up the dots between seemingly unrelated areas and learning from each other.

At a wider level, we can apply the same logic from one council to another. Each with their own, distinct challenges but all with knowledge that can be shared for the benefit of others.

With this in mind, it is worth looking back at some of the previous schemes rolled out across London as there are many learnings we can apply to today’s smart city challenges. Take, for example, the roll out of the London Permit Scheme (LoPS); LoPS is designed to control access to road space on the authority network with all works promoters having to secure a permit for their works. But critically, it was the first permit scheme to be introduced across all London Boroughs and initiated a step-change in council culture by promoting a closer working relationship between all 33 councils.

“We must learn from the past in order to navigate the future”

Its success was largely down to adopting a phased approach, whereby a core group of authorities agreed to participate in the scheme and then invited other councils to learn about the roll out and the associated benefits. Over the course of four years, every London council signed up and thus resulted in a successful initiative that benefits the whole city.

This same principle needs to be applied to the introduction of smart technology. There will always be councils that look to lead and innovate. They must be encouraged to share their findings with others and help to prove that the technology works and the benefits are real.

To bring this piece to a close, I want to touch briefly on the ever-present elephant in the room that laughs whenever we suggest that organisations, departments – and indeed councils – should be working closer together. That elephant is, of course, the ongoing fight for a slice of the budget. This can only be solved through the clear dissemination of vision and strategy throughout the council and being transparent with the budgetary priorities that will enable us to achieve our common goals. Every department and indeed, every council, needs to know the part they play in enabling their city, town or borough to embrace this new, smarter way of living.

Ian Hawthorn is Head of Highways Maintenance and Projects for London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. With over 25 years in Local Government, Ian is responsible for over 413km of highway, 45,000 items of street furniture and 21,000 street lights, illuminated signs and bollards, including three of the bridges across the River Thames.