As Britain shifts away from manufacturing, a new generation of innovators are exporting their ideas to China in a bid to make cities smarter, writes Tom Pattinson
For centuries Britain has been exporting high-quality products around the world and we can see this tradition continuing today. However, as the number of manufacturing companies in the UK decreases, Britain is increasingly exporting ideas over products. Much of this comes in the form of creative industries such as film production and video games but also through innovative tech solutions.
A recent Future Cities Mission to China saw a number of British companies visit the country to showcase their products. The trip was supported by Innovate UK, CBBC and the Future Cities Catapult, and delegates were selected on the basis of their company’s commitment to innovation and how it would help benefit cities of the future.
“We’ve been working in the city space longer than anywhere else in the world,” says James Taplin, Urban Living Innovation Lead at Innovate UK. “Manchester was the first industrialised city in the world – our understanding of city processes is unparalleled.”
In China, cities are being built from scratch meaning many smart components can be fully integrated and China is looking to the UK for ideas.
“If you have the opportunity to start from scratch and build a new city, then it’s a blank canvas,” says Taplin. “But because of that, they might not have resilience. The UK has to retrofit everything as cities are already built. We have longer and greater thinking because our solutions have to be more robust.”
China is transitioning from a manufacturing base to higher-value production. Therefore, companies providing services and ‘ideas’ are becoming more in demand. Whilst China has a long and solid history of hardware production, the UK has its strength in ‘software’ production. And this transition provides a great opportunity for British companies.
“What became apparent when talking to companies in China was that the big Chinese companies are lacking ideas on how hardware can be used,” says Taplin. “When talking to Ping’an for example, who are huge and have significant financial reach as a financial services company, they said what that they don’t have is an ideas pipeline at the beginning. What they are looking for are partners who they can learn from and partner with.”
One of the companies who aroused the interest of Chinese partners was Hello Lamp Post – a public engagement platform that deploys their software on existing street furniture to allow the public to have a text-based conversation with it. What does that mean? Well, by scanning a barcode on a lamp post, a statue or any other item in the street an Artificial Intelligence (AI) dialogue with that item of street furniture is initiated.
“We are trying to solve the disconnect between the city and the citizen and to help cities better understand the needs and wants of their citizens,” says Tiernan Mines, CEO of the company.
They have significant financial reach but they don’t have an ideas pipeline
According to Mines, Hello Lamp Post gives people a voice and enables them to make decisions about the cities they live in, all whilst enjoying a playful conversation with the street furniture. The furniture might ask them questions or for their opinion as part of a public consultation or it might collect data for environmental, sustainable or transport reasons. It can also bring a heritage building or statue to life by providing historical or factual information that might otherwise be lost in the dusty basements of a museum.
Mines recognises that regardless of the age of a city, people tend to move through it in a similar way, whether that is on public transport or on foot – and therefore the technology is incredibly helpful wherever it is deployed. But in China, he says, there is “a new age of opportunity – effectively being able to build a city from scratch as opposed to retrofitting existing cities. What excited us is potential partnerships with the big players [in China] – there is a lot of stuff that we can easily integrate,” he says.
Blockdox is a real estate technology (or PropTech ) company that is also gaining interest from China for their innovative ideas. The company uses patented sensors to track the “metabolism” of a building or area.
“A building’s metabolism can say: ‘I feel full today or empty today or sick today’,” explains Nic Shulman, the founder and CEO of Blockdox. “This has implications for revenue generation and energy efficiency and so on. We help the facilities manager or owner operate the building more efficiently by giving them access to data that wasn’t previously available so they can do demand-side management more efficiently.
“When you start to understand how a building consumes its natural resources such as gas, electricity and water in its natural environment then you can start to understand its place in its neighbourhood and then see which parts of the city are consuming more resources.” Similarly, Blockdox’s work with transport systems allows managers to discover when the services are needed based on data rather than assumptions and can therefore operate more efficiently.
Blockdox is one of the first companies actually implementing Internet of Things (IoT) technology into their company and they have started working with a Chinese partner in Guangdong. “There is an openness to trying new technology in China and a willingness to embrace new ideas,” says Shulman.
Fredi Nonyelu is CEO of Brite Yellow, a company that maps indoor areas where GPS is unavailable. By using a cloud-based, wifi system, they create interactive maps of spaces such as stations, airports and shopping malls where they can track flows of people, wayfinding and engagement to improve the use of space and customer experience.
In China, says Nonyelu, there might be a lot of existing people-tracking software but the government owns much of that data and they are thinking about security, not customer services, he says. Brite Yellow are targeting owners who want to learn more about their existing customers and help them improve their services.
In a time of Brexit uncertainty exporting ideas is very much a priority for the UK and Innovate UK provides funding through grants to help build relationships between businesses.
“Innovation is the most exciting thing [the UK] can offer at the moment,” says Nonyelu. “With help from the China Britain Business Council and Innovate UK, we’re building on what we’ve done already, leveraging contacts and partners to source and identify prospects, and signing deals that we can work together with them to deliver.”
“I definitely commend a lot of the schemes that have happened in the last five years for entrepreneurship and what home-grown businesses and Innovate UK is doing. We’ve moved out of the manufacturing era and are moving in the right direction as we try to be an innovation nation,” says Mines of Hello Lamp Post.
“We’re helping the UK economy thrive by helping UK businesses have bigger international success,” says Taplin.