How Future Cities Catapult is catalyzing the ‘smart city’ market in the UK and beyond

Future Cities Catapult CEO Peter Madden: 'Our job is to do cutting-edge innovation, and as the market catches up with us we’ll move on to the next challenge.' (Christopher Swope)

LONDON, United Kingdom — How do you run an urban innovation lab? Who do you hire? How do you get the latest “smart cities” technologies to work in the field — and scale up?

These are all questions Peter Madden has been wrestling with for two years. He’s the chief executive of Future Cities Catapult, an organization launched by the British government to help commercialize city-tech innovations. Through projects in the UK and around the world, the Catapult convenes cities, companies, universities and others to try new ways of solving city problems such as traffic, air pollution and garbage collection, and to spread the learning.

The Catapult is based in the Clerkenwell section of London, close to the many tech startups, architecture and design firms that are popping up in the area. Its headquarters are in a historic factory and warehouse building that has been converted into the Urban Innovation Centre, intended as a hub for London’s smart-cities industry. The Catapult’s 75 staff share offices with “resident innovators” that include Intel, #HyperCatCity, Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities program and Ordnance Survey.

I stopped by the Centre last week to talk with Madden about how Future Cities Catapult is progressing two years into its run. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Swope: What is Future Cities Catapult and where did it come from?

Peter Madden: We’re one of a family of ‘Catapult’ centers, and we were set up by the government because of a sense that we weren’t doing a good enough job in the UK of commercializing and making the most of our innovation. We’ve got amazing universities in terms of our research and science base. And we’ve got pretty good companies, but we don’t always do a great job of turning those amazing ideas into economic impact and growth.

The Catapults were set up in very diverse sectors of the economy — from stem-cell therapies to offshore renewables, to satellite applications. They’re all areas in which there is potentially a big global market, a strong UK capability in our knowledge base and our entrepreneur and startup sector, but some market barriers where something is stopping the innovation from happening. So our job is to remove those barriers and make innovation flow.

Our Catapult works in the ‘smart’ cities, or future cities, sector. We work both with the innovators, to try and encourage them to produce the things that cities need, but we also work with cities and those who are buying the innovation, to help them understand what it can do for them and how to use it.

There are so many amazing ideas out there to improve how cities function. A lot of the difficulty is: How do we deploy them at scale? Do they really work? What’s the business case? What’s the evidence? We try and accelerate the innovation by continually building the market and reinforcing that.

We tend to work via collaborative projects. So we’re often in the role of project broker to assemble a city, the tech companies, some finance, the local university and civil-society organizations, to find a city challenge that needs to be addressed. Then we look at the technologies that could be deployed there and go make it happen.

Q: How do those projects bubble up and how do you prioritize what to work on?

A: We scan the top issues that cities want to address across the UK and globally, and that gives us a good list of topic areas. We look at the technologies where we as a Catapult have expertise and also the organizations around us. We’re doing quite a lot in urban predictive modeling, big data, the deployment of sensors and internet of things in cities.

It’s a mixture of scoping what technologies are coming down the pipe, and also what are the demands and needs of cities and their citizens, and putting those two things together.

If you’re going to do an innovation project on smart cities, it always needs a place to test it. So we will always be looking for a physical context in which to do our innovation work. Sometimes cities will approach us because they have a problem or an opportunity. And sometimes we will go to them proactively because we have some funding or some technology or a collaboration for which we think they would be a good partner.

Q: In terms of staffing, what sorts of disciplines does this work require?

A: We’re 75 people today and my goal is we will grow to about 150 but no more. Our job is to do cutting-edge innovation, and as the market catches up with us, we’ll move on to the next challenge. So we will top out at about 150 people and then continually move into new and more difficult and challenging areas that need our intervention.                         

We have a lot of data scientists and people who can do modeling and data visualization in our Cities Lab. We have ethnographers and anthropologists who work with citizens to surface the needs there. Then we have architects, town planners, and city administrators who understand the context of the city. Because it’s about understanding how the technology is going to work for people in its local, political, and place-based context. We’ve always wanted to have those three disciplines represented internally because they’re the three we think you need to make these technologies work.

Q: What’s your budget like and where does the revenue come from?

A: Our budget this year is about US$20 million. That’s made up of money from a core grant from the UK government to invest in the building and the infrastructure and the people and the technology. Then we receive quite a bit of money from cities themselves who want to embrace and test and work on this technology. So we’re working with cities across the UK: London, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Leeds. And also cities internationally: We’re in Dubai, Malacca in Malaysia, Belo Horizonte in Brazil, Mexico City and Kolkata in India.

Then we receive money from companies that want to engage with us. Companies like Intel, Ericsson, Telefonica, who are interested in collaborative projects.

Then, we’ve been reasonably successful in accessing European Union funding because one of the big new aims is to see all the deep scientific research that’s being funded by the European Commission turned into practice and applied. And that’s the heart of what our organization does.

Q: Why the global push?

A: Cities in the developed world have largely been built — we’ve probably built 90 percent of what we’re ever going to build in our UK cities. There is obviously a retrofit challenge. But the huge opportunity and need is in fast-growing developing-world cities that are growing at 10 percent a year. How we grow those cities and how they’re developed and built out will lock in behaviors and practices for decades to come. Whether you’re concerned about outcomes for carbon or people, it’s the fast-growing developing-world cities that ultimately need to be the target.

Q: What have you learned about how ideas and technologies transfer from one city to another?

A: You do have to understand the context, that every city is different in terms of its culture and local politics and what it’s possible to do. But there are shared problems across cities. For example, mobility, the morning rush hour and congestion — most cities in the world face that. Air quality — a huge number of cities face that. Social exclusion, housing, and so on. There are priorities which are shared across cities, and there are technologies that can be applied and shared, but clearly there are different readiness levels and abilities to absorb and use those technologies.

One of the things we’re doing in some of our projects around the world is helping people to understand what data they have got, how they can collect and store it, and how they can use it to make life better.

In some places you may think you haven’t got the data or haven’t got the ability to instrument the city or put sensors out there. But around the world now there are more mobile phones than there are toilets — people are carrying around with them a sensing and communication machine. Satellites and drones give us the ability to fly over and map and understand data and how things move in cities.

With University College London we did a project where they flew a drone over Lima and used LIDAR to 3D-map the city. They turned that very quickly into a 3D digital model of the city, which we then printed out from our 3D printers and sent back to Lima a physical model of the city in plastic. It cost a few tens of thousands to do. Ten or 20 years ago, that would have been hundreds of cartographers spending years to do that. It allowed communities in Lima to cluster around a real physical model and start to see what was going on.

We do have to understand context and need, but we shouldn’t just say smart cities or the use of new technology or data is only for certain kinds of cities. I think there are opportunities to apply the benefits around the world.

Q: What lessons have you learned building this organization?

A: We came to this challenge a couple of years ago when there was a lot of hype around smart cities but nobody was quite buying the product. We came with an idea that we really needed to think about people and their problems as the starting point — rather than technology as the starting point.

If you’re a city politician, you have to be able to show and tell a story about how spending precious resources on these new technologies is actually going to deliver better outcomes. So I think the focus we have on citizen engagement as part of the innovation process, and user-centered design, has proved itself.

We also have had quite a good outcome from mixing qualitative and quantitative data. There is a real opportunity in user-centered design to find out what individuals need, and of course there is a real opportunity from the patterns and evidence that big data gives you to see different kinds of pictures. Putting those two things together as we do in our Cities Lab can generate insights in how to interrogate the big data, or how the lessons from the big data can be applied to individual citizens.

We’ve also learned that the business model and financing is a real issue that needs to be cracked. If you’re deploying smart-city technology, then the idea is you will organize things differently and come to better outcomes. It’s a little bit like energy efficiency was 10 years ago: Everyone knew that there was a win and a business case there, we just hadn’t worked out the mechanisms to monetize that. So a lot of our focus — and I have a team of economists doing this — is to look at these technologies and prove the business case. First of all for the companies that are investing in it and wanting to sell it multiple times. Secondly for the cities that need to pay for it and buy it. And thirdly, for the wider public good.

Q: If you go to any conference on smart cities, you’ll see hundreds of vendors selling stuff. How do you come to it from a neutral position?

A: I think our real power comes from that we are technology neutral. We’re not pushing particular platforms, or companies, or approaches. We are helping the cities to understand what the technology might do for them and how they can intelligently buy it and deploy it. Otherwise, if you’re sitting in a city and someone comes up and promises you this amazing solution that you’re going to get locked into and have to spend a lot of money on, and you don’t really understand what it is and how it’s going to work, you’re not going to buy it. Part of our job is to bring those parties together from a position of trust.

We have the economic modeling and do baselining around the question of what does a public service cost to deliver under business-as-usual? And then when we deploy the sensors and the networks and look at smart parking or smart litter bins or whatever, we ask how much does that cost? What’s the benefit to the company? What’s the benefit to the city in terms of savings? And what’s the benefit to the wider public in terms of less congestion or better air quality? We measure and track those so that we can make it replicable and scalable.

Q: How do you take what is learned through your projects and spread the knowledge?

A: We do case studies. We do films. We’ve brought a filmmaker into the staff. I think increasingly rather than doing reports we’ll try to make short films on what we’ve done and what we’ve learned. A lot of it is through seminars and conferences and so on that we run here in the innovation center.

One of the other things that we’re working hard on is standards. If the market is going to grow and develop then we need some standards to accelerate it and build trust and help the public understand what good looks like and how to procure it.

We’ve set up a thing called the City Standards Institute jointly with the British Standards Institute, who are a standardization body. And we have 15 cities involved, chaired by London, and then major companies and small businesses as well. What we’re doing is, in a kind of bottom-up way, first of all deciding which standards we need to work on. And then starting to develop them.

These standards range from the very high level governance standards for smart cities through to the very technical platform or data-protection standards that we might need.

The trick there is that it’s an emerging market and we’re learning all the time. We can’t jump to hard standards too quickly because we may not get them right. On the other hand, we do need to occasionally go ‘snap’ on the things that we’ve learned, what best practice is in order to share it and stop everybody from reinventing the wheel. 

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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