Navigant Research Blog

Bristol, U.K. Plans To Be Open, Programmable City

— May 20, 2015

The City of Bristol’s selection as the European Green Capital 2015 is an example of the increasingly visible role that U.K. cities are taking in the evolution of smart city ideas and solutions.  The title may be largely symbolic, but it is one that many European cities covet as a validation of their innovation in sustainable living and development.  As with all such awards, there is plenty of skepticism as to how far the realities match the rhetoric, but the scope and ambition of the city’s program are impressive. Bristol has been keen to build on the award and use it to add significant momentum to an already impressive list of projects cutting across the energy, transportation, building, and technology sectors.

A good example of Bristol’s ambition is the recently launched Bristol is Open, a joint venture between the city council and the University of Bristol to develop an open, high-speed network that will foster innovation across multiple city applications. The project has funding support from the U.K.’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport and Innovate UK, and is also building on the supercomputing capabilities of the University of Bristol.

Experimentation as a Service

A core element of the project is a City Operating System (CityOS), developed by the University’s High Performance Networks research group. The CItyOS will manage the machine-to-machine communications across the city using a software defined network (SDN)  approach to improve manageability, integration, and accessibility.  The network is being developed according to OpenDaylight standards as part of the project’s commitment to openness, which extends to procurement and data management, as well as hardware and software.  All the data generated will be anonymized and made public through the city’s open data portal. The project team will also proactively share its findings with other cities, technology companies, universities, and citizens. The network will be used by technology companies, research organizations and small and medium-sized enterprises to develop and experiment with new solutions in urban mobility, energy efficiency, environmental monitoring, and health. The team has defined its approach as City Experimentation as a Service.

The project will make use of three networks: a 30-GB  fiber optic network, a series of Wi-Fi wireless networks along the Brunel Mile area of the city, and a radio frequency mesh network based on city lampposts.  The aim is to eventually expand the networks beyond the city center into the wider city region, creating an open, programmable region covering one million people. Among the partners already signed up for the project is Silver Spring Networks, which is providing the  mesh network technology to connect the city’s streetlights and to provide a platform for other applications, such as traffic monitoring, air quality control, and safety cameras.

Creating the Digital City

The Bristol project is an example of how  the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart city concepts are coming out of the labs and small-scale pilots and onto the streets of major cities.  Other examples include an extended smart street lighting network in Copenhagen and Barcelona’s plan to develop a multi-application Urban Platform.

If successful, the Bristol model could be a showcase for how network infrastructure and a CityOS can provide a shared capability for access and innovation.


Congestion Charging Makes a Comeback in Major Cities

— March 31, 2015

Congestion charging—and similarly ambitious programs for traffic management—are once again on the agenda for the mayors of large cities struggling with traffic jams, rising pollution levels, and shortfalls in transport funding. The fact that a traffic pricing scheme is again under discussion in New York is a significant indicator of the changing mood, and there are reasonable grounds to believe that this time it might happen.

Other cities are also stepping up their programs to manage or reduce private vehicle use. The mayor of Paris is considering a series of restrictions on high-emission vehicle use in the city, starting with a ban on older diesel engine vehicles. Madrid—another city suffering from poor air quality caused mostly by diesel vehicles–has introduced intelligent parking meters that charge higher fees for more polluting vehicles (there is no charge for electric vehicles [EVs]), and there are plans to extend the current controlled areas for vehicle access to other parts of the city. Beijing’s city leaders are also considering a form of congestion charging, though public resistance continues to be a considerable barrier in the Chinese capital.


Singapore led the way on road user charging in cities in the 1970s, but it was the introduction of the London Congestion Charge in 2003 that seemed to herald the wider adoption of such schemes around the world. However, enthusiasm waned after similar projects were rejected in cities like New York, Manchester, and Edinburgh. For most city leaders, such large-scale projects were seen as politically risky. So although road charging is used on many highways around the world and is becoming more attractive as an alternative to general road or fuel taxes, the reference cases for urban congestion control remain relatively few. Alongside London and Singapore, Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Milan are still the most notable examples.  While many cities still grapple with basic arguments over congestion management, Singapore continues to evolve its approach and is now proposing a new system, which will give it almost total visibility on vehicle movements in the city.

Political Courage

Gaining acceptance for a congestion charging scheme requires strong, even brave, political leadership and the willingness to engage with citizen and business concerns. Apart from a common resistance to paying for something that was previously free, many citizens and businesses are wary of schemes that are not linked to improvements in the transport system. The London and Stockholm schemes, for example, were both linked to funding improvements in transport infrastructure, and this is a key part of the recent proposals for New York, as well.

It’s also important that a city can offer viable alternatives in terms of connected and reliable transit scheme. The growing acceptance of EVs in cities (which are excluded from many charging schemes) and the availability of electric car-sharing programs like Autolib’ Paris means that there are now ready alternatives to commuters who can’t or don’t wish to abandon their own vehicle.

Congestion charging schemes today are part of a much broader debate on the nature of urban mobility, with better information and more alternatives available for many city travelers. Once again, we are looking to see if New York will pick up the baton.


Crunching the Data for Urban Mobility

— March 3, 2015

One of the hottest areas of urban innovation is mobility. Cities are grappling with ways to reduce congestion and vehicle emissions while enhancing the transport options for citizens. Infrastructure improvements are, of course, critical to this strategy in the form of new mass transit systems, the deployment of EV charging networks, or the creation of bicycle sharing schemes, for example.

However, a less expensive but critical piece of the puzzle is the delivery of better information so residents and visitors can make the right choices about their journey options and to enable the better management of the existing road and transport systems. As a consequence, a host of new players are entering the market to deliver services to both travelers and cities.

X-Ray Specs

Urban Engines is one of the most notable new players. Formed by a group of former Google employees, it developed its first advanced analytics solutions were aimed at city operators for improved management of transit systems. The company has now launched its first app for travelers, which provides transit options and map data across seven U.S. cities. In addition, an augmented reality overlay called X-ray mode maps transit information against a real-time image of current surroundings provided on a phone camera. Urban Engines not only uses spatial analytics to provide journey planning, but also wants to use behavioral economics to help cities incentivize citizens on the most efficient forms of travel.

Urban Engines does not have this market to itself, of course. CityMapper, for example, has been building its portfolio of city travel apps for a number of years and currently covers 12 cities in North America and Europe, plus Mexico City and Tokyo. It provides analysis of alternative options for user spanning walk routes, cycle routes, public transit, and taxis.

The Next Wave

Journey-planning applications are just one aspect of the changing landscape for transportation and travel data in cities. A new wave of start-ups is trying to expand the range of data that can be captured on city activities in order to provide new services and insights into movement across urban spaces. Some notable examples:

  • Veniam, founded in Porto, Portugal, provides networking technology that turns vehicles and infrastructure into Wi-Fi hotspots. By adding its networking technology to vehicles, it hopes to create a massive network that will generate a vast new range of data on the city as well as enhancing the communication capabilities for people and things.
  • Placemeter, a New York-based start-up, is paying people to use their old smartphones to monitor their neighborhood for people and traffic. This anonymized data can then be used to inform people or businesses about current conditions (for example, traffic levels or queues for restaurants), as well as for analysis about general trends in activity in the area.
  • TravelAI, a U.K. startup, has developed software to exploit crowd-sourced smartphone data to develop new levels of insight into travel patterns and mobility options for cities and citizens.

Of course, cities also have data from their existing traffic management systems, transit information systems, and bike-sharing schemes. And to this picture, we can add the recent announcement that Uber has agreed to share its journey data with cities, starting with Boston. These rich seams of data are increasingly available for cities and entrepreneurs to develop new services and new tools for urban mobility management. The data gold rush for urban mobility has just begun.


The Case for Smart Grids Grows in Britain

— February 11, 2015

We are reaching a tipping point in the movement toward smart grid deployments in Europe. There is growing agreement among stakeholders—utilities, regulators, and suppliers—that the benefits of the core technologies have been proven but that structural barriers still remain. The challenge now is to establish the right investment models, regulatory frameworks, and methods for appropriate cost and benefit sharing. These messages are reinforced by a new report on the results of one of Europe’s most ambitious smart grid pilots and by a new study of the impact of smart grids in Great Britain undertaken by Navigant Consulting.

Low Carbon London (LCL) is a £28 million ($43 million) smart grid and energy efficiency project led by the distribution network operator UK Power Networks. It was one of the first and most expansive of the projects enabled by the Low Carbon Network Fund, which was established in 2009 by U.K. energy regulator Ofgem. The £500 million ($768 million) fund has supported projects sponsored by distribution network operators to test the viability of new technology and operating and commercial arrangements.

LCL focused on four core issues: demand-side response and distributed generation; network planning and operation; electrification of heat and transport; and the future distribution system operator. The project was completed in December 2014 and UK Power Networks has now produced a summary report titled DNO Guide to Future Smart Management of Distribution Networks.

A Green Light for Demand Response

One of the most important elements of the trial was its examination of the potential for demand response (DR) programs to ease pressures on the distribution network and provide financial benefits to customers. The industrial and commercial DR program had 18 MW under contract at its peak, running across 37 customer sites, and provided more than 300 MWh to the London grid at peak times. The result has strengthened confidence in the capability of DR programs to contribute to the better management of the distribution network.

The residential dynamic time of use (TOU) trial was one of the first of its kind in the United Kingdom. The trial was used to examine the role of dynamic TOU to support constraint management on the network and to balance energy supply to reflect the availability of renewable resources. During the trial, 95% of households saved money compared to the standard flat rate of the non-TOU control group. Another important finding was the high level of approval among customers for the TOU program, with 81% believing that “it should be the standard tariff for everyone.”

A Changing Landscape

As a result of the commercial DR program, UK Power Networks has been able to include demand-side response as part of its business-as-usual model and expects to save £43 million ($66 million) on the cost of its service to customers (£12 million, or $18 million, on the London grid alone) over the next 8 years. These savings will be made under Ofgem’s new regulatory framework for network price controls, which begins in April 2015. Through the RIIO (Revenue = Incentives + Innovation + Outputs) model, Ofgem aims to encourage network operators to make use of technologies such DR to reduce costs and improve performance.

In the future, we will see a greater role for DR at the distribution level in the United Kingdom. Today, the main program for DR is the Short Term Operating Reserve (STOR) program run by National Grid, the United Kingdom’s transmission system operator. However, modelling by the LCL team suggests that, by the mid-2020s, energy suppliers could be equally significant players as the grid operator, particularly as they seek to manage the impact of much greater renewables generation.

Overall, the findings from the LCL project reinforce the message from a recent Navigant study, prepared for SmartGrid GB, on the potential benefits of smart grid innovations to the United Kingdom.  That report, Making Smart Choices for Smart Grid Development, estimates that smart grid development can deliver £2.8 billion ($4.3 million) of value to Britain’s economy by 2030. These studies are part of a growing body of evidence for the importance of smart grid innovations to meeting the country’s energy needs. The challenge now, as both reports emphasize, is to continue to develop the right mechanisms for funding and benefit sharing to ensure that the momentum toward large-scale deployment is maintained.


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