The increasing pressures of congestion, major development around Oxfordshire increasing trips led to a group of innovative business people, who had close ties with Oxford’s universities; local entrepreneurs, who wanted to work with the Local Authority to look at Oxford’s transport problems in a different way. The County Council supported the development of a working group and we found that for a city like Oxford to develop new agile solutions, you need to develop that “living laboratory” approach.
Councils have to get closer to the research because user influenced solutions are going from research to implementation a lot quicker than they ever have. Previously you would be looking at, at least 10 years in the transport world from research to implementation – now you are looking at 18 months to two years for some solutions, particularly those that are user centred and software driven.
The graph from our world in data perfectly emphasises this change in speed of technology adoption moving from counting in decades to years even months in the last few years.
At the time, when we started to think about how we embrace this rapid change we were calling it a real-world “Lean Learning system”. We believe that is what is missing to allow a city to really embrace innovation and do things in a different way. While getting hold of data is important to the innovation process, a key reason the collective approach makes such a difference is the importance of intelligence clustering, bringing people together with different areas of expertise to share and challenge ideas that complement projects. It is also important in terms of ensuring that major stakeholders engage.
From this initial work we found that the central core, which enables innovative projects to happen in any locality of sector, needs to be neutral. So we have supported the development of social enterprises to enable this through the likes of Mobox that focuses on Mobility and more recently Living Oxford, which will act as a Living Lab Framework, connecting Living Lab projects, locations and organisations involved across the county. The aim is to support, incubate and develop new ideas and new opportunities, to solve the real world problems both in Oxford and elsewhere, but enabling Oxford and Oxfordshire to act as a supporting “test” facility.
Oxfordshire has now been part of over 60 exciting projects in a diverse range of sectors such as CAV, Drones, Hydrogen and EV, IOT, Smart Infrastructure, Air Quality, well being and Health care Innovation projects, the aim is to learn and where possible integrate these to learn and develop quicker while delivering towards a holistic solution. Sometimes, actually quite often you don’t get that initial funding bid, however if the idea is a good one and supported by partners perseverance can also pay off, one of the first proposals, that didn’t get funding was to develop a mobility platform that enabled functional user tools such as personalised journey planning, network management integration, feedback into more real time modelling. While we didn’t get funding we developed close working relationships with Research and industry to mutually support ambitions to deliver on these ambitions, one of those companies Zipabout is now helping to support Public Transport use in the UK, through Covid, through its Passenger Connect product that is an evolution (and lots of had work on their part) of that early work.
One of the highest profile areas that Oxfordshire is excelling in is; Connected & Autonomous Vehicles (CAV), we now have numerous companies in Oxfordshire working on CAV, including Street-Drone, Robo-Race, Arrival, Latent Logic and of course Oxbotica, while we also have RACE at Culham which is one of the UKs CAV real world trial sites. The Council has worked with these partners to support them and I believe we have played a crucial role in making Oxfordshire the centre of the new CAV sector in the UK and even Europe. While the CAV projects we have worked on often focus on the technology development for the private sector partners, for the Council, involvement is all part of learning, building up knowledge gaining foresight; what standards should we be looking at? how much regulation do you need? do we need new policy for autonomous vehicles? We’re also interested in the offshoots of this technology like LIDAR for assessing road conditions, or massive increase in data from vehicles to help manage our network more efficiently. Another area that is I feel is interesting is the real time assurance system, can make use of it beyond insurance world? In the future could it be a method for congestion management and road charging, one that may work as it isn’t a giant Government tech project, with its inevitable overspends, but merely a regulation and market reward system to piggyback on a developed Insurance tech solution?
Increasingly projects are being developed with a countywide application in mind, and even if they start in Oxford we want to see the learning from those project enable us to work with partners to implement across the county as quickly as possible.
For instance we worked with the City Council on a essentially Living Lab project around on street EV charging in residential streets in Oxford, while this is a very focused project, the learning from this and other projects is helping to inform procurement strategies for a Smart Infrastructure approach for the county to ensure our existing infrastructure is used to its best abilities to support smart applications and EV charging infrastructure in more rural towns and villages. It has also gone on to inform a county wide project Park & Charge along with an EV Infrastructure strategy and recently we were successful in a bid along with the City Council’s arms reach company; Oxford Direct Services to further develop a simple passive solutions to enable on street charging in residential areas without off street parking.
This approach to tackling “Council” problems, that started with Mobility as the challenge, enabled us to work with partners across the County and has in turn helped us, as a group, to also establish Living Oxford, which provides an even broader support network for that living lab approach and an ability to connect projects and develop innovative ideas that aim to tackle Oxford’s challenges
Integrating this innovation approach into day to day working of a Local Authority has taken time and to date has often been project and opportunity led, this approach has successfully built one of, if not, the largest innovation teams in any Council in the UK, it now has a core team of 24 staff from, which has grown from 4, and at no extra cost to the Authority and has embedded completely new skills into the organisation, such as lean project development, data science, AI, even Quantum (But don’t ask me about that its far too complicated for me!) also that entrepreneurial mindset that is often included in Local Government “Nice to Have” skills but in reality is very hard to attract into this sector, so I believe we have built it organically instead and this is an approach I’d advocate for other organisations, not just Councils. The “Build” process is hard work, it does take many hours of working extra hours, there are lots of set backs when you don’t win a bid or something just doesn’t come off, or when you’ve inadvertently landed in a sticky situation, but the reward for both the individual and the organisation is much greater which in the long run is a massive payoff.
In my opinion every Council, needs an Innovation team, not just one that looks at new products on the market and how they fit with the operation of the Council, but a true R&D team, as we have built, one that gets their hands dirty, works collaboratively across sectors, even helps build new sectors in their locality, and potentially can even build new tools/solutions in house from scratch. The development cycle of new technology, as I have touched on previously, is so quick that without some of those core skills in a Council, I feel it will lead to, on many occasions, being left behind, missing opportunities for improved services or left having to manage difficult situations when disruptive business models land on their doorstep without having that foresight that an Innovation team also provides as an offshoot of their work.