By Ian Pulford, Director of Smart City Consultancy Ltd


Ian Pulford from Smart City Consultancy tells us more about the possibilities of 5G and how it can impact the future of Milton Keynes.

Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m Ian Pulford, Director of Smart City Consultancy Limited. I left school at 16 years of age; I was interested in things like maths, puzzles and computing in those days and I joined BT as an apprentice.

I then moved into engineering and different, wider roles, and eventually spent time in Hong Kong and Japan. I was over there for eight years, and was also CEO of a joint venture. After that I got involved with BT Smart Services and sustainability for a period and was the lead on the London 2012 BT programme for delivering the Olympics.

Ten years ago I left BT and I set up a couple of companies: one communications company and one consultancy company. I was able to employ my three daughters in the communications business, it ran for four years and had about 30 staff, but unfortunately didn't work out. However, I did have a good experience and learned a lot.

What is Smart City Consultancy?

It’s in the name: Smart City Consultancy is about consulting around smart cities! Back in 2012 it was quite a new concept but I saw it as an emerging opportunity and I set up the company. Its approach involves setting up a core set of enablers at a city level and then using those to enable us to solve the challenges that exist. It’s about bringing in data sets and having the capability to work with them, then change outcomes. It’s also all about making sustainable growth a potential opportunity.

As an example of this sort of approach, I worked with Sustainable Glasgow and the Low Carbon Living Programme. We put in a bid back in 2012 for £25 million from the central government for a project called the Future Cities Demonstrator project. Unfortunately, we weren't successful because Glasgow won through the Commonwealth Games activity, but we were then able to reshape that bid and create a new one through the OU, which we won valued at £16 million. That’s where it all started.

In addition to this consultancy work, I have built an extensive network of contacts. I also run events, most recently one in Bologna, and two years ago I did an event in the Centre:MK where we brought in robots.

What does 5G mean in Milton Keynes and how does it benefit a city?

Milton Keynes is a hotbed of innovation and we've got experiences like the Starship robots and extensive rollout of electric vehicles, among other things. You can’t see 5G on its own, but you can see it as an additional capability as part of these enablers. There’s the potential to grow the test bed, giving new ways of connecting things to other things; faster, quicker but also with new core capabilities that come from 5G. So I see it as just an evolution of the test bed and the innovation capability within Milton Keynes.

What are some of the practical uses for 5G?

The current way operators are rolling out 5G is allowing you to do things faster, get downloads quicker, get more content etc. It’s a more efficient way of connecting and doing things, but the really exciting parts of 5G come from its new core functionality, which includes things such as network slicing, which is the ability to split a network. For example, with fixed networks there’s an fixed amount of capacity which has guaranteed levels of service. This means that, if you expect something to happen, it will happen, and the network is designed to make sure it happens well. With 5G network slicing means that you can slice the network up and get guaranteed levels of service for certain parts of it. If you're a business customer, network slicing becomes quite interesting as an application.

Another use that's really interesting is the low latency scenario, where latency is all about the speed it takes for you to send a message/command in one direction and for it to be acted upon. So, if you start talking about the future of mobility as a service and teleoperation, low latency is very important for these types of activities.

This is not the way the operators are doing it; they're adding 5G to their existing network and just allowing you to move from a 4G connection up to 5G one. What we're doing is purely a standalone 5G network, and that means we're very interested in the core 5G functionality and targeting business-type applications.

Tell us about the projects you are running at the stadium.

There are five main areas. The first one is around what I'd called kerbside and safety management, and this is about trying to ensure that visitors get the best experience possible. As part of that, we're looking at using our datasets and scheduling tools to try and make sure that the information is readily available to people so they can plan their journey. From a safety point of view, we make sure that we can use all the available data sets to make sure that everyone is able to move around safely and we can monitor and check everything is working and in order. This includes the provision of things like the CCTV cameras across the stadium itself and the use of AI on them to detect vehicle and people movements.

The second one is teleoperation, which is about the idea of having an app, called Fetch. Using this, you can call a car to collect you. It comes to you without a driver, driven by teleoperation from a control room. You then drive the car as normal, leave it somewhere when done, and the teleoperator drives it back to a parking space – it’s really efficient.

The next project is autonomous vehicles. We have a range of these that, instead of being operated remotely by a driver, drive themselves. You can programme the car and it will follow a particular route it can do. We've got four-seater vehicles, pods and a larger shuttle, which is a 12-seater that moves autonomously around the stadium, but, as soon as it leaves the stadium, you drive it as a normal vehicle. There is also an autonomous security pod, which has a tethered drone that can go up and do surveillance.

Additionally, we are looking at service robotics delivering services in the lounge bar, and doing deliveries of room service in the hotel.

Finally, we’re involved with inspections of the stadium using drones, which they have to do regularly for insurance and safety purposes.

What are some of the challenges 5G will face in Milton Keynes?

Firstly, I think 5G will face a lot fewer challenges in MK than anywhere else, because I believe it has got a pedigree of innovation, with great leadership taking the city forward and citizens being open to it.

Secondly, my guess is that operators are very focused on the standalone side of 5G and therefore lots of money and investment is going into this. If you go and buy a phone off the counter that says 5G, it's not going to work on our standalone 5G network – there are only a couple of phones that will work in this area. This is because the investment is going into more of the same: just doing 4G faster. There are challenges in technology adoption, but these core functionalities will come through and will start to be needed by businesses and we've got that leadership position because we're already there with a standalone network.

How do you think 5G will affect the future of MK?

5G is one of the components of what I would call the test bed capability. I think you need to add 5G as an access technology to all the other things that we're doing around the data exchange, scheduler, core capabilities and the council approach to innovation, and try to identify challenges by city and then use these capabilities to solve them. I think it's all a very positive situation from the point of view of having a capability to work with businesses.

The opportunity within higher education is to use the core capabilities in the test bed as part of students’ curriculum and try to get some real development being done and real-use cases being deployed. The 30 MSc students at Cranfield that are studying robotics are now doing case trials at the stadium, using my robots. As part of this, students can then develop actual applications on real city data, so it’s a really valuable asset.

What do you have coming up that people can get involved with?

If anyone's interested to come and have a look, we've still got the autonomous vehicles running at the stadium and the robots will be there on trial during April. We've also got a showcase in Birmingham on 22 and 23 March.

We're looking to move to showcase to the MK:U premises by the end of April, so you'll be able to see the robots, some of the vehicles, the data exchange and the scheduler and all the city data.

We can also open up the test bed capability to people who have an idea to address a challenge and give them access to the data exchange in the scheduler and they can come on board and develop something.