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CIO interview: Emma Frost, director of innovation, London Legacy Development Corporation

The former Olympic Park in London has become a hotbed – and a testbed – for data and technology innovation that could have a wider benefit for the urban environments in which we live

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It’s 10 years since London hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Yet for Emma Frost, director of innovation at London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the long-term impact of these global sports events remains at the core of her daily working life.

Frost’s commitment pre-dates the Games. In 2009, she joined LLDC, which was charged with turning the space used for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games into Queen Elizabeth Park in east London. A decade after the Games, the park is now home to five world-class venues, thousands of residents, and will provide work for 40,000 people by 2025.

As head of innovation, Frost sits at the heart of this continued transformation process. With her colleagues at LLDC, she’s using data-led innovation to create a successful and sustainable future for the park and the people who live and work there. Frost looks back on her journey with pride and affection.

“I feel incredibly fortunate. It’s been such an exciting and diverse project. The scale is massive and there are loads of different opportunities and work streams. It’s one that always keeps things interesting. The change and the challenge are different every year and that’s why I've stayed for so long,” she says.

“My role has changed six or seven times within that period. It’s brilliant to be involved in something that everyone can relate to and that had such strong, long-term commitments from the outset. That keeps you on your toes.”

Stepping up into new responsibilities

Until quite recently, Frost’s role also encompassed oversight of sustainability and communities, as well as innovation. While she recognises her portfolio was broad, she said it was important to have had oversight of all of those different interrelating parts.

“All too often they’re not working together, or they’re not seen as part of the mix. So that oversight involved everything from community development, outreach and education work that we’ve led around the park, right through to building new neighbourhoods and establishing new communities and integrating with existing areas of the park,” she says.

Frost says sustainability is paramount across all areas of her role. Key concepts, such as net zero and biodiversity enhancement, continue to inform the work she undertakes. Now, as she focuses more specifically on innovation, sustainability will continue to be central to the activities of the LLDC.

“We need to think about how we can use the fast-growing innovation economy, and the critical mass of different private, public and academic sector players that are now based on the park, to try to deliver better investments and innovations,” she says.

“That work will involve the way we design and deliver venues, the way we do facilities management, the way we build homes, the way we think about getting around cities, the way we think about the health of cities, and the way we think about wellbeing in cities and what it means to be an active citizen. So, it’s still a very broad-reaching agenda.”

Supporting a shift in emphasis

Frost says her new, single-minded focus on innovation can be explained by the launch of Shift, a new innovation programme and partnership for the park. A group of organisations based at the park have come together to create an innovation district.

“It’s about utilising the park as a testbed to drive inclusive innovation that delivers better urban futures. There’s radical need and disruption at the moment around how we move in cities, how we live in cities, the health and wellbeing agenda in cities, and the climate adaptation in cities,” says Frost.

“We’ve got a good spread of public, private and academic partners, all committed to the long-term outlook of the park and reframing its vision towards being focused on inclusive innovation”

Emma Frost, London Legacy Development Corporation

“We’re really hoping to push forward on those different themes by bringing together the different partners that are already based on the park – and they’re increasingly basing their activity on the park, too.”

Along with LLDC, the seven founding partners for Shift are Lendlease, Here East and Plexal, which are all private sector partners, alongside three academic institutions: University College London, UAL’s London College of Fashion and Loughborough University London.

“We’ve got a good spread of public, private and academic partners, all committed to the long-term outlook of the park over the next 10 years and reframing its vision towards being focused on inclusive innovation.”

Running ground-breaking trials

Frost says Shift aims to find practical answers to pressing questions through collaboration and creativity. She gives the example of an innovation trial that’s being run at the moment, which uses sensors and a technology platform to monitor audibility inside public venues.

“Hearing wellness is an increasingly important science – it’s something we’ve really not prioritised enough in lots of our building design and our disability design,” she says. “Hearing wellness and hearing abilities tend to be under-researched, so we’re now starting to monitor the audio quality of public spaces.”

Frost’s team has run a trial using sensors in five different venues on the park to assess the baseline audio quality of these public venues. The baseline will help people associated to Shift think about technologies that could be implemented to boost audibility via other acoustic specialists.

“That might include different types of panelling, surface design and the installation of sound-booth features to improve audio quality. So far, as a direct result of this trial, we’ve seen dwell times increase in public venues. We’ve seen retail rates and takings improve, and huge improvements in both customer and staff satisfaction,” she says.

“Already we’re seeing that using digital and data technology to complete tests in real time in public spaces on the park allows us to not only understand the agenda better, but make practical changes that have direct benefits to the operators and the users inside the venues.”

Using data to improve processes

Frost gives another example of a pioneering trial that has been undertaken by LLDC. For the past two years, the organisation has plugged 32 CCTV cameras into an artificial intelligence (AI) platform from computer vision specialist Fyma. Frost says this arrangement is helping LLDC to create new insights into how the park and its facilities are used.

“Fyma came to us as part of the Shift initiative,” she says. “They recognised that we were doing a lot of interesting things with innovation trials on the park and that we were using the environment as a testbed. We struck a deal for a trial over a six-month period that ran from May to November last year.”

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As many as 43 million objects have been detected in the park so far. Frost has been impressed with the ethics of the platform. Fyma blurs out human faces on images used to train its AI system, while camera-feed data is automatically deleted once it passes through the platform.

Insights from the AI system, which provides research on transport use and details on the flow of people across the park and associated retail areas, such as nearby Westfield Stratford City, will help LLDC in its continuing efforts to make the environment more accessible, user-friendly and sustainable in the future.

“The park is basically a new piece of city. It’s all been designed and built within the past 10 years. It’s changing rapidly. Our roads, our network, our layout, even some of the bridges, will change every other week in terms of being rerouted,” she says, before outlining how the trial will be extended in the coming months.

“In terms of where we want to take it, a good example is that we’re going to be using the next level of work to help inform our retail strategy. We’re trying to analyse the movement activity and trends of people walking in and around the park and how that can inform retailing,” she says.

Building a digital twin

While it might be 10 years since the London Olympics and Paralympics took place, Frost and her colleagues at LLDC still have many exciting plans for the development of the park – and digital technology and data play a key role in these explorations.

“We’re just at the very beginning of this work,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to over-claim that we are fully digitally enabled at this point. What we do have is all of the hard infrastructure in terms of the digital capacity and the provision.”

Frost says one exercise LLDC is in the process of undertaking is an audit of data capacities across the park. While she says the project should be simple, trying to identify the gaps and think about utilisation and optimisation is a significant effort.

“That piece of work will help us design a brief for creating a digital twin across the whole of the park. So, if you were to speak with me again in four years’ time, I’d love to say: ‘Well, this is how we run our data strategy across the park. And here’s our digital twin that allows us to do that and here’s how we optimise it to enable our innovation priorities’.”

Rather than just being a passive data storage facility, Frost envisages this digital twin as an interactive, playable platform, where LLDC employees and its partners can access, explore and manipulate data via a model of the park.

“There would be interoperability between data feeds, so everything can be seen in the same lens. An example would be one of our venues on the park: getting an accurate view of energy efficiency at the London Aquatics Centre – knowing what its energy efficiency readings are and how that fluctuates over a 24-hour period,” she says.

“We’d be able to analyse changes in response to weather dynamics or user dynamics, and be able to interrogate that data a little bit more and then apply innovation tests to it. That will help us potentially run the centre more efficiently. So it has a direct feed on facilities management, and cost savings or environmental efficiencies.”

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