“We will seriously ‘productise’ CityVerve”, says Cisco, as seminal UK smart city pilot winds up
Cisco has said its so-called ‘platform-of-platforms’ has been proven as “procurable and replicable,” as Manchester’s ground-breaking CityVerve smart city pilot in the UK gets set to wind up after two years. Cisco will develop a commercial proposition for cities out of the final ashes of the original CityVerve blueprint, it said.
“We wanted something other cities could replicate, and that has been achieved. We have something that can be deployed in any city,” said Nick Chrissos, director of innovation for Cisco Europe, speaking at the final CityVerve summit in Manchester, before the project’s official closure at the end of June.
“If we had ended up with something people cannot rebuild and replicate, and scale up and down, then we would have failed. This has taken huge investment from Cisco. My internal commitment has been tod= create business for the company. All of this innovation-engagement has had amazing impact in terms of branding and relationships, but it has to have amazing business impact as well,” said Chrissos.
The final output from CityVerve is a blueprint, however, rather than a product in its own right. “There is not a single Cisco sku,” said Chrissos. “But can it be rebuilt somewhere else? Yes, it can.” Other cities can follow the CityVerve model by re-assembling its component parts, which also comprise essential ingredients from BT, Ordnance Survey and Asset Mapping, with or without Cisco itself.
Even so, Cisco will run the CityVerve workings back through its own product development engine to offer a commercial ‘platform-of-platforms’ proposition to city authorities around the globe. It will also, with the project’s other stakeholders, including BT and Siemens, alongside Innovate UK and the city council itself, pick through the bones of the pilot to share its successes and failures.
“We are planning to seriously ‘productise’ CityVerve. We will milk the branding and the findings. We have created a story that has lots of life, and we want to tell people about it. The city feels the same,” said Chrissos.
Manchester won the Innovate UK tender, spurred by £10 million of UK government funds and £6 million of private investment , to create a global blueprint for smart cities back in 2015. The resulting demonstrator project, under the CityVerve header, started in earnest two years ago around a consortium of 20 organisations from the public, private and academic sectors.
A detailed review of the project’s vision can be found here, as part of a state-of-the-market report on the emerging digital topology of cities, which also considers the unique approaches of Guadalajara in Mexico, Barcelona in Spain, and San Diego in the US.
Cisco’s ‘platform-of-platforms’ has been at its heart, and created a means for cities to accommodate all of their organisational disarray in a single developer springboard. Its wizardry has been to map every network asset in the city in a common geo-spatial language in order to create the illusion they are part of the same city network.
On top, Cisco has connected a hyper-catalogue of around a thousand data sets, exposed via a single API, which can be modified to obey case specific usage terms and privacy regulations. The platform works with both legacy systems, and new networks.
Public and private partners have been able to plug their infrastructure in; developers have been able to innovate around the data. This crossover of systems is essential to the market’s grander vision of ‘optimised’ smart cities, and where CityVerve has claimed to be different.
The project has set out around 130 uses cases, loosely bucketed under four themes: transport and travel, culture and the public realm, health and social care, and energy and environment. Its scope has been remarkable, reckon its chief protagonists, in attendance at the final ‘market-place’ event in Manchester on Wednesday (June 20), at the project’s finale.
“If you had any sanity as a city leader, you would not look to do what CityVerve has attempted. The aim of this has been to force together an ecosystem to also show the cracks, so that other cities can learn,” said Jonny Voon, digital innovation lead for Innovate UK.
At the ‘market-place’ event, described by one sage city executive as a kind of digital car boot-sale for the project’s best innovations, there was a lack of clarity about the next steps, except to disseminate a bounty of best-practices and essential watch-outs among city and council authorities. Significantly, the heads of the 20-strong CityVerve consortium said the primary objective is to keep the band together.
“It’s a demonstrator, which ends at the end of this month; but do we just wind it up, after two years? I don’t think so. We’ve created a phenomenal partnership,” said Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council. Certain of its start-ups are in talks to commercialise their pilots, he suggested; the best components should be deployed smartly across the rest of Manchester, beyond the CityVerve’s limited Oxford Road testbed, he insisted.
Importantly, CityVerve will inform future policy development, notably how to square open innovation and data access with intellectual property, commented Rowena Burns, chair of Manchester Science Partnerships. “We have a fantastic partnership. The depth of trust and mutual understanding is not something we are about to give up,” she said. “There are some interesting ideas to contribute to the wider debate, because it is not something anyone, anywhere has solved yet.”
The project’s findings will also underpin Manchester’s incoming digital strategy, set to be announced by Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, before the year is out.
In the original 2015 tender, the bidders were requested to come up with a smart-city treatment that put citizens at its heart, which solved the challenge of technological interoperability, and which could be replicated and scaled in the rest of the country. “The breadth of that vision remains spot on,” said Burns. “It was a very ambitious ask, and the learnings from it have cast light on how projects like this can help redesign cities and city services in future.”
Leese commented: “You don’t start with a piece of tech; you start with people. And the development process has to go beyond needs, which imply some deficiency; you start with your strengths – what people can offer and what people want. That way, we get to the same place, but with a much richer set of solutions.”
The headache of public-private partnership, multiplied out in the CityVerve context, has been the sharpest of all. “We have never been involved in a partnership of that size before, and may never be again,” said Chrissos. “It has been quite a meeting of cultures, perspectives, and capacities, which has brought its challenges.”
He joked, half-aside, about the bureaucratic and legal red-tape. “Imagine weekly conference calls with 50 lawyers.”
There are lessons from the CityVerve project about planning, as well; in the end, the first 14 months of its two-year cycle were spent in negotiation. “We had the ambition to do more than we did,” said Burns. A belated open innovation strand, around the combination of data-sets, has sparked a rush of new creative energy. “It has pointed the way to go next. And there will be a next for CityVerve.”
But complexity has been kept in check by its management structure. Indeed, the project’s most crucial aspect, and its most immediate legacy, has been its governance, which has layered in a partnership, an assembly, and a steering group to keep discipline and rigour.
But in the end, the elegance of Cisco’s ‘platform-of-platforms’ solution is arguably the most striking aspect of the whole Manchester affair. Burns said: “The platform was to be the underpinning technology layer that would bring all of it together, and be used to trial new services and innovations. And three years on, it is a wonderful and glorious thing.”