Why it’s time for cities to get smart

Grid Smarter Cities

Trade: With kerb space the ‘lubricant’ of so much city centre commerce, it is surprising that few people have yet given much thought to how this prime real estate is handled. Now one local business is changing that picture with a tech solution that has global appeal, as Mark Lane discovers

How do we make our cities easier to navigate and more user-friendly? How do we make them less congested and cut down on pollution? There are, in fact, all manner of proposed technological solutions aimed at making cities more pleasant, rewarding environments for Joe Public and businesses alike.

Many of these solutions focus, for instance, on drone technology which, in theory, could cut down on the amount of traffic on the road. And yet, drones have been around for many years now while the amount of traffic shows no sign of shrinking – if anything, the situation is as bad or worse than ever in most major cities.

One Newcastle technology business – Grid Smarter Cities – is focusing on the challenge of city management in a rather different way. Think, for a moment, about the issue of kerb space.

Hardly the sexiest of subjects, granted, and yet kerb space and the way in which it is managed has a huge impact on city centre environments. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that in the vast majority of the UK’s cities, kerb space is managed extremely poorly. Vans and trucks pull up when and wherever they like, regardless of time or existing congestion issues. This leads to more congestion, pollution, reduced traffic speeds and frustration all round. Cities, surely, need to get smarter.

What the team at Grid Smarter Cities has recognised is that kerb space is actually the ‘lubricant’ of so much city centre commerce. It is astonishing, then, that this prime real estate is handled in the vast majority of cases in such a haphazard and dysfunctional way.

Grid Smarter Cities is, essentially, an interconnected set of smart solutions which help connect communities and people with transport, parking, goods and services. The aim is quite simple really – to make lives easier and cities smarter, more efficient and inclusive.

The business has been funded by a combination of private investment and contributions from Innovate UK. A key application being developed by Grid Smarter Cities is Kerb which, as the name suggests, is a kerbside management solution which aims to revolutionise how cities manage their kerb space, allowing freight and commercial operators to book slots to load and unload rather than circling and competing for kerb space and causing congestion, which can have far-reaching effects on personal and business productivity.

Explaining his company’s proposition, Neil Herron, CEO and founder of Grid Smarter Cities (pictured right) says: “The vision for Grid was to create an ecosystem of interconnecting, interoperable solutions addressing practical problems that impact on cities, their residents and businesses and relevant to those cities but also adaptable and flexible enough to be replicated and scaled in other cities.”

 

 

Grid’s Kerb solution, which has already gained huge interest among town planners, allows kerb space to be dynamically managed through the use of a booking platform, and in turn meaning that authorities can offer permissions for commercial activities at times that least impact the network. Thus helping the city to move from chaos and mismanagement to a sense of planning and order.

Using Kerb, authorities are in a position to make available their kerb space at specific busy locations at times when such availability would have the least impact on traffic. Kerb is all set to go live in a number of London locations and other cities, and there is also considerable interest abroad.
The originality of Kerb and fact that it is filling a clear gap in the market has seen it gain huge recognition, as well as pricking the ears of the investment community.
Neil tells Contact that winning an Innovate UK SBRI-funded competition allowed Grid to develop the first prototype which was successfully deployed with DPD in Sunderland after testing in Wandsworth.

He says: “The solution has been included in Cubic Transportation Systems’ proposal to Sydney in Australia and we have completed a successful Phase 1 in Dublin. We are also working with a number of London Boroughs who are keen to implement Kerb to improve kerbside management in the capital.

“The proposition has been built into the London Mayor’s and DEFRA’s Air Quality Strategy as a solution to help improve traffic flows, manage congestion and improve air quality through operational efficiencies and better delivery management.”

Grid has also just been awarded a contract with Transport for London to deliver a version of Kerb to assist with street works management and is developing a Freight Traffic Control proposition for the construction sector to help development sites and local authorities better manage construction freight movements within the city.

And the current prospect list doesn’t end there, says Neil: “We have been approached by a number of cities in the US and are in discussions with a US-based global transport operator with a view to becoming a scale partner and a recent Future Cities Catapult and FCO-sponsored visit has opened up the prospect of deployment into South America.”

“The vision for Grid was to create an ecosystem of interconnecting, interoperable solutions addressing practical problems that impact on cities, their residents and businesses and relevant to those cities but also adaptable and flexible enough to be replicated and scaled in other cities”

Other recognition saw Kerb win the ITS UK (Intelligent Transport Systems) Annual Award for the ‘Most Innovative Application’ and Grid Smarter Cities is currently shortlisted for Parking Sustainability Awards in the UK and the US.

While Kerb has gained huge plaudits, there are a number of inter-connecting companies under the Grid Smart Cities umbrella.

These include Assist-Mi, which was founded in 2010 as an app to help people with disabilities and access needs to have a smarter engagement with service providers whether that be banks or supermarkets, government or council buildings or helping to streamline engagement with transport services and providers.

Assist-Mi was consolidated into the Grid Smarter Cities group structure in 2014 and has developed a number of pilots and proof of concepts, the first with Barclays in the banking sector and latterly developing a proof of concept for the rail industry, recently winning a Highly Commended Award in the national Rail Business Awards.

Dash, meanwhile, is an Innovate UK grant funded project to address inequity between large national and international food delivery companies and local independent traders.
The service connects customers to local independent traders through their smartphone to create an efficient, green, connected marketplace for everyone.

Explains Neil: “The vision behind Dash is to create a simple, easy to adopt digital marketplace for independent traders and customers alike – addressing issues affecting the high street.
“Dash offers customers the opportunity to get deliveries of fresh produce from city markets and local suppliers, straight to their door using a smart and simple phone app.”

Grid has completed a successful Proof of Concept with Sunderland City Council and traders from the city’s Jacky White’s Market, developing an app for traders to post daily specials – the customer app allows people to buy and pay for the goods. Drivers use an app to accept the order which is then delivered by an electric van.

Adds Neil: “The Dash application offers traders a very low-cost digital platform, access to a virtual footfall as well as their shop-based physical presence, and sustainable deliveries using local people and EVs. Tied in with a healthy eating and well-being strategy and a way to take on the ‘food deserts’ or areas heavily populated with fast food outlets Dash also allows local spend with local traders which allows money to recirculate in the local community as opposed to leaking out of the area to national and internationally-owned corporates.”

Other applications developed by Grid include SkipTrac, a proposition to streamline skip permitting and enforcement and aligning with DEFRA’s desire to be able to track waste across cities from origin to destination; and OneLane, an app-based family transportation service employing vetted female guardians to drive children to school and activities, easing congestion and saving time.

Grid Smarter Cities is growing fast, its clients being local authorities, who Neil describes as the “problem owners and the ultimate solution providers”, while “beneficiaries are the commercial operator and city residents and businesses.”

“Critically, congestion, air quality and pollution are major critical drivers for councils, not just in the UK but also internationally and Grid’s solutions help target problem statements with layered and practical interventions,” he adds.

Grid Smarter Cities’ staff numbers at present are 14 but Neil expects this to almost double this year on the back of increased turnover and growing interest in Grid’s services at home and abroad.

And yet it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Grid offers complex services which approach a problem in a different way to what we have seen in the past. The market, as such, has not been immediately receptive.

Neil elaborates: “One of the main challenges has been waiting for the market to catch up – so a lot of the work to date has been readiness and preparedness for managing kerb space and other smart city desired outcomes streamlining mobility and transport.

“Anticipating policy changes and influencing direction from awareness and insight has not only allowed us to build significant foundations of insight and thought leadership across the smart city and intelligent transport space but we have ensured that all new innovation, ideas and strategy, wherever possible, are protected. In that regard Grid now has over 15 granted patents both in the UK, US and various international territories.

“The other main challenge has been securing investment which has taken a lot of effort to ensure the vision and expectation of what is a new and emerging market place is conveyed to funders, whether they have been the private individuals who have supported the company and followed their money on subsequent investment rounds or the institutions running competitive grant funding programmes.”

Grid is very much an international business in that its products and services have universal applications – after all, city centre management and the issues it brings are very much a global problem.

“For Grid 2018 has been an explosive year,” Neil says, “as the interest in what we are trying to achieve has gained some serious traction, not only in the UK but also globally leading to the ground being prepared for international expansion.

“The Innovate UK and DIT Mission to Sydney and Melbourne in March followed a February trip to Singapore. Success in Australia has developed from being included as an innovation piece in Cubic Transportation’s successful bid to Sydney. Cubic were awarded a contract by Transport for New South Wales to provide Sydney, Australia with one of the world’s most advanced transport management systems.”

In May Grid was chosen, along with two other UK companies, by Innovate UK and the FCO to present at the Global Tech Start-Up Challenge in San Francisco in which it came second attracting interest from the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as a number of global operators in the intelligent transport and smart city space.

Discussions are now underway with other cities in the US after this initial trade mission and one later in the year with the DIT, North East England Chamber of Commerce and Northern Powerhouse to Boston.

In October and November Grid was on two separate Trade Missions to China, while in February another opportunity, this time to look into the South American market, was offered to Grid as one of only three UK companies taken on a trade mission to Sao Paulo with the Future Cities Catapult. Again, investment and expansion of Grid will help expand into another emerging territory.

Neil continues: “We are currently preparing for a trade mission to Atlanta with the Chamber which is going to tie in with a meeting with the Mayor of Chicago’s Task Force, attending the US Parking Today’s Parking Awards where we are shortlisted and then down to Atlanta and back to the UK for the panel event launching the new Contact magazine.”

As a member of the Chamber, the export services offered by the organisation have naturally been of huge interest to Neil and his colleagues. Neil concludes: “We are new members and from the engagement to date we cannot speak highly enough of the Chamber and its support. We intend to play a very active role going forward and ensure we continue to drive the business forward on an international stage championing the North East.”

Grid Smarter Cities
www.gridsmartercities.com
@gridsmartercity