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UK startups seek to lead the world in smart city technologies

Government trade mission to south-east Asia helps UK startups to target the region’s growing smart city projects

The face of cities all over the world is changing – cities where seven billion people are forecast to be living by 2050.

As the population influx continues, the world’s cities are gearing up for new kinds of challenges, integrating the real and virtual worlds to improve people’s quality of life.

In response to the increasing complexity of our human habitats, smart city technologies are addressing key urban challenges, such as the optimal use of resources, increased energy efficiency, intelligent traffic management and the provision of more effective healthcare services.

This is a very lucrative area for business. It is already a £280m market that will grow to £1tn by 2020, according to UK government estimates. The UK’s share of this global market is estimated at 10%.

It is therefore not surprising to see UK startups trying to make their mark in this area, not just in their own country but beyond – typically by focusing on technologies such as cloud computing, mobility, data-driven intelligence and the internet of things (IoT).

A report by the Future Cities Catapult identified more than 32,000 companies providing smart city solutions. Their expertise is focused on the convergence and integration of areas such as healthcare, transport, education, and smart grids and energy.

The UK government, working through initiatives such as the Connected Cities Trade Mission to south-east Asia earlier this year, is helping startups to increase the UK’s global smart cities footprint.

As a market, south-east Asia is bigger than the US or Europe. The region’s GDP is $2.6tn, and has been growing steadily for more than two decades.

In March, a British delegation of 10 startups landed in Singapore to raise money, find partners and assess the region’s sweet spots. Their trip was organised by Innovate UK and UK Trade & Investment (UKTI).

Computer Weekly talked to the British startups looking to establish themselves in the UK as well as in south-east Asia, to find out their hopes for the region.

UK smart city startups

Aralia Systems, founded in 1995, provides city-wide and national urban and transportation security systems. During the trade mission, Aralia demonstrated innovative cameras that provide greatly enhanced situational awareness, in conjunction with scene analysis systems.

Glynn Wright, CEO of Aralia, says the company has fewer than 50 employees but its turnover is already £1m-£3m.

Block Dox is a software platform and mobile app that enhances building management with real time and predictive intelligence, using the IoT. The company, founded by Nicholas Shulman, currently has fewer than 10 employees and a turnover of less than £100,000.

Shulman, who has a background in building management, says: “I saw an opportunity to make building management more efficient by leveraging the internet of things, and the opportunities that it brings to the building management space, which is typically not very innovative or technologically forward-thinking. That is how the idea came about three years ago.”

Shulman says the firm spent about two and a half years in research and development, and has a patent filed for the innovative technology. The startup moved to Hong Kong last September.

“The response in Hong Kong is very positive and we have a number of key clients we are working with,” he says. “That is why we came on this mission, partly because of the encouragement to look at Singapore with its smart nation initiative and vision, and [the hope] that people in Singapore will be really receptive to Block Dox.”

Bronze Software Labs is a UK-based software firm specialising in developing mobile and wearable applications. It has fewer than 50 staff and a turnover of £500,000 to £1m. The company was founded six years ago.

This pilot is trialling a new bottom-up, citizen-driven approach using crowdsourcing, sensor data and voting. It could change the way that highways issues in cities can be managed
Priya Prakash, D4SC

“We are a high-growth business and we specialise in IoT,” says CEO and founder Richard Howells.

“The technology we produce is an IoT framework, and in the UK that has generally been used in a couple of vertical markets – in local government and in the security industry around transportation, especially in rail, in collaboration with Cisco. It is also being used to manage flood control in the north of the country. It is quite a dynamic framework and has different use cases.”

Howells gives an example of what his company can do. “A traditional IoT solution would be that members of the public can report on issues like graffiti, potholes – things like that,” he says.

“We have that capability too. So, we receive information from members of the public, but our technology has the capability to update third-party data systems and then pass that task across to people to take action. For example, jobs could be passed to council workers or could be passed on to volunteer networks. In government, we clearly have a business case.”

Bronze has been running a project in collaboration with Strathclyde University, Scottish Water and Cisco. “We are taking all the information from a Glasgow city observatory around sensory systems that are reporting on, for example, Met Office data, water flow, rain, and we are taking information from various different sensors around rivers, flood rates, and so on,” says Howells.

“So, if rain flows are increasing, our platform has the capability to notify specific geospatial groups of users and ask them, for example, maybe firstly to push the information to a volunteer network, which can start putting sandbags in the area to protect the infrastructure [from flooding].”

Global opportunities

The Carbon Trust is a medium-sized organisation with about 250 employees that runs an international low-carbon cities programme, working with selected cities in Mexico, Chile, Malaysia and the UK. The programme gathers data on carbon and energy use, and determines the best-value strategies for climate change mitigation at city scale. The company’s turnover is more than £3m.

Demand Logic provides a central console to monitor the health of commercial buildings. The monitoring is used to manage buildings, helping to improve comfort, reduce energy wastage and maintain the site more efficiently. It employs fewer than 50 people and has a turnover approaching £500,000.

Design for Social Change (D4SC) is an urban innovation company based in London, Bangalore and Berlin. It develops collaborative urban technologies to co-create smarter cities. It was incorporated in the UK in 2013, has fewer than 10 employees and its turnover is £100,000 to £500,000.

City authorities in Malaysia, Portugal and Denmark are exploring using D4SC’s citizen engagement and smart city planning tools.

Read more about smart cities

According to D4SC founder Priya Prakash, one of the company’s most successful initiatives has been Changify SmarterStreets, a next-generation data platform that combines bottom-up citizen data – what he calls “little data” – with top-down statistical and historical city data (big data) to co-create smarter cities in real time.

“We are technically piloting this in Plymouth with an active local community of cyclists and local Amey maintenance crews to co-create intelligent service provisioning for road infrastructure through real-time feedback loops using social media,” says Prakash.

“This pilot is trialling a new bottom-up, citizen-driven approach using crowdsourcing, sensor data and voting. It could change the way that highways issues in cities can be managed.”

The £29,000 pilot will be completed by the end of 2016.

Multipass UK provides customers with a seamless ticketing system that aims to allow users to forget about paper tickets, simply using their bank card for travel.

Its CEO, Alexander Peschkoff, was born in the Soviet Union and has lived in the UK for 27 years, during which time he has run businesses in areas such as commodity trading, publishing and financial trading.

He began working on Multipass in 2009. A friend of his, the CEO of a mobile company, advised him to develop technology that leveraged the growth in the telecom sector.

As a result, Peschkoff developed a technology called Multisim – a software-based virtual Sim that allows the user to go to another country and use a local Sim card, while still keeping their home country Sim card.

Peschkoff met resistance to this idea from telecoms firms, so re-applied the idea to the transport industry. “Five years ago, we conceived Multipass, and it took us five years to reach a point where we can launch the product commercially,” he says.

Currently, the company has fewer than 10 employees and its turnover is less than £100,000.

Smart city applications

Preliminal built its Mantle platform to create rapid 3D built environments in near-real time from standard vector map data. Mantle’s software supports virtual cameras, geodata overlays and direct interaction. It is a micro-business with fewer than 10 employees and a turnover of below £100,000.

Telensa makes wireless smart city control applications, including a widely deployed smart streetlight solution. Chris Johnston, the company’s international business development manager, says Telensa provides a low-cost platform to add multiple city-wide sensor applications.

“Our smart parking solution includes some of the world’s largest deployments, such as Moscow and Shenzhen,” he says.

“Fundamental to Telensa’s success is its low-power, wide-area, ultra-narrowband radio system, which has the unique combination of low cost, long range, long battery life and two-way communication for massive numbers of devices.”

Telensa has more than nine million devices across 30 countries, about 250 employees and a turnover of £3m.

There are also UK companies based in south-east Asia that are already involved in designing and building future smart cities in the region. These include Arup, a design solutions company; engineering giant Atkins; Blippar Singapore with its augmented reality platform; Broadway Malyan, which offers architecture and design; and Invaya, which develops advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning platforms.

With Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, among others, leading the way in smart city development, south-east Asia promises to offer lucrative opportunities for innovative UK tech startups.

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