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White Paper captures initial learnings of SMART innovation programme

7 October 2020

The ground-breaking ADEPT (Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Places and Transport) SMART Places Live Labs Programme has reached a significant milestone with the publication of the first of a series of White Papers. 

The quarterly papers are intended to make learnings and insights available as they happen, giving industry decision-makers the opportunity to capitalise on the work being done through the wide-ranging programme.

The two-year, £22.9million DfT-funded Live Labs initiative grew out of a desire to accelerate innovation in the local roads sector. This has rapidly developed to encompass use of data, SMART materials and energy, resulting in innovative pilots ranging from using drones to identify potholes and recycled plastic in road surfacing, to installing geo-thermal probes to de-ice carparks and heat buildings.

Developed through a series of one-to-one discussions with the local authority Live Lab project leads, ‘Mobilising an Innovation Programme (During the Covid-19 Pandemic)’ focuses on the learnings from the programme launch through to the start of the delivery phase. 

Being flexible with structure to build the right teams helped to get programmes off the ground quickly. They vary from project to project, reflecting the diverse and complex nature of the Live Labs programme – some are delivering as part of their day-to-day job, while others have brought in their business development colleagues, are supported by private sector consultants, or have created new roles. 

Given the fast pace of innovation, the teams have had to flex and re-think some of their proposed technical solutions. This need for agility came to the fore with the onset of Covid-19 - the pandemic caused equipment delays, supply chain closures and social distancing challenges, meaning the teams had to quickly adapt to new ways of working, and find different ways of delivering, as everything went online. Unexpected benefits, such as those brought about by reduced traffic volumes during this period, also had to be locked in straight away.

Collaboration between the Live Labs, sharing learning on sensor technology – what’s worked and what hasn’t – for example, has been a key part of the mobilisation phase. The dynamic nature of the projects also means that partnerships beyond the immediate teams are coming on stream all the time – some are working with universities on data analysis and algorithms, while another is working with its local police force on camera technology. An international dimension is also developing, with one Live Lab in conversation with a local authority in Canada about road surfacing materials.

Typically the nature of the public sector is very outcome-focused and the teams have had to adjust to a more unrestricted approach particularly in terms of finance and procurement – getting these colleagues on board as early as possible has been essential. Also, with such a broad range of materials and data innovations, different contractual models have had to be adopted within the same programme – one Live Lab is testing a number of infra-red and ground sensors from companies ranging from multi-national organisations to small local start-up businesses, which wouldn’t have been possible with out this approach.

Moving into the innovation at scale space has required a shift from a more risk averse mind-set to a place where failure is not only a possibility, but is ultimately part of the development process as boundaries are pushed. Ongoing internal communications has been key to bringing senior officers and members on the journey in this different cultural environment, through both pan-programme knowledge sharing and across other sectors within the authorities. A case-in-point has been the inclusion of adult social care outcomes within two of the Live Labs, capitalising upon highways infrastructure investment to deliver wider social benefits. 

Live Labs Programme Director, Giles Perkins said: “At the heart of the Live Labs programme is our commitment to take an open approach to our insights and findings. This will allow others to develop business cases that adopt similar innovations built on a proven evidence base. 

“We hope the White Papers prompt discussions with industry with a view to establishing new methods of working, services and solutions, so that these innovations become our ‘business as usual’.” 

Neil Gibson, Chair of the Live Labs Commissioning Board, said: “Covid-19 has been a challenging time for local authorities across service delivery, as well as supporting places and communities throughout the pandemic. 

“This first White Paper really captures the flexibility and agility required to get a multi-million pound innovation programme like Live Labs off the ground. It demonstrates how local authorities – with resourceful teams and partnerships – can move swiftly and innovate when given the space and resources, even under the most complex circumstances. 

“The innovations coming out of the Live Labs programme will not only be transformational for the highways industry, but also provide a platform for which the Live Labs concept can be developed and implemented in other sectors.”

ADEPT represents local authority, county, unitary and metropolitan Directors. The Live Labs initiative is part of ADEPT’s SMART Places programme to support the use of digital technology in place-based services. 

The eight Live Labs are being led by Buckinghamshire County Council, Central Bedfordshire Council, Cumbria County Council, Reading Borough Council, Suffolk County Council, alongside joint projects by Solihull Council and Birmingham City Council (West Midlands), and Kent and Staffordshire County Councils. The programme is supported by project partners SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business, EY, Kier, O2, Ringway and WSP. 

The White Paper, ‘Mobilising an Innovation Programme (During the Covid-19 Pandemic) can be found here.