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CityNext: supporting cities and regions

An interview with Michael Wignall, Microsoft UK’s Government Industry Manager

CityNext is a worldwide initiative launched by Microsoft in 2013. Cities are home to 50 per cent of the population and generate 80 per cent of gross domestic product – but as urbanisation accelerates, they face increasing strains and challenges to deliver services and control costs, particularly against a background of economic austerity. The aim of the CityNext is to use technology to transform the way cities – its governments, businesses and people – live, work and deliver services. Through partnerships with local technology organisations such as NDL, it is delivering a wide range of products and technologies to enable people to live greener, healthier and more prosperous lives. We spoke to Michael Wignall, Government Industry Manager for Microsoft UK, about the programme, its aims, its successes and what it offers NDL’s community across the public sector.

How would you summarise CityNext?

Cities are key to economic prosperity across the world. Microsoft has recognised the need to bring together technology and services to support this: to transform operations across central government, local government and all public sector bodies. Our focus worldwide is ostensibly on cities, but in the UK we take a dual approach because of the way the country is structured: we also recognise the importance of regions in the country so CityNext here addresses these as well.

CityNext isn’t a revolution: it’s an evolution, building on the services we’ve been delivering for years, and capitalising on the existing great use of technology. It’s a way of delivering best practice in a consistent way, based on years of experience and use. It’s all about the additional challenges cities and regions face: providing better online access to services and information; responding faster to citizen requests; and finding energy-efficient solutions which will improve quality of life as well as saving money.

Tell us more about these two separate areas of cities and regions.

In the UK, one city example is Glasgow. In partnership with Microsoft, it won £24 million of funding from the Technology Strategy Board in a very competitive pitch to be the Board’s ‘Future Cities Demonstrator’. It is building a technology platform which will link systems across health, transport, energy and public safety, to make one single data marketplace for all public sector agencies and as a result improve the local economy and increase the quality of life for citizens. So for example it aims to enhance the Council’s service provision, crime prevention and transport infrastructure, and also reduce anti-social behaviour, through harnessing technology.

Digital Glasgow aims to make the city a world digital leader by 2017 firstly through a world class digital infrastructure – essential to supporting the wider transformation of the city to attract new businesses and jobs, and to support major regeneration projects. Secondly, it aims to ensure that Glasgow businesses and citizens have the skills required to create and access the opportunities the digital infrastructure offers. One key aspect is the creation of a BigDataStore, built on Microsoft Azure, which will collect and analyse information from previously unconnected databases and use this to influence city developments and services. It’s going to make a real impact on the ground for citizens.

A regional example is in Norfolk. This initiative brings together not just the County Council but also the university, the police and other partners. It’s focused on accelerating growth: fostering an environment which will support inward investment. It’s addressing the challenge of siloed information – the vast but isolated troves of data they hold on resources, citizens and services. We are helping organisations in Norfolk bring this together, using a cloud-based information hub. They are also rolling out Office 365, Microsoft’s cloud based productivity solution. This will enable them to connect these separate data sets into one bigger picture, to track citizen’s needs across every service and department, to understand how public and private service providers work together, and to turn that information into knowledge.

Microsoft has stated that CityNext is all about doing ‘new for less’, while a key message from our clients over the last few years is that the public sector needs to do ‘more for less’. How do these two aims come together?

NDL has done a fantastic job against the background of national austerity and lack of funds to enable people simply to do their day job with fewer resources. Through both its integration and mobile programmes, it is supporting this need to do more for less. It has recognised that there’s a lot of legacy around and that, by either integrating these systems or delivering them out to the community, citizens receive better levels of service at lower costs.

But NDL is also helping to deliver our key aim of ‘new for less’, which simply takes it to the next level. It’s all about enabling public sector organisations to think innovatively: what is it that they do today which they don’t need to do but will still be able to deliver better services. So, for example, in the mobile world NDL is helping to support the drive to keep more people in their homes. The main concern for local authorities at the moment is driven by a change in demographics with more people needing social care.

There’s the much-talked-about Graph of Doom which shows that the cost of social care will exceed total council budgets by 2020. One way of addressing this is to enable care to be delivered out in the community. And NDL is providing a fantastic way of doing that, through its mobile working applications: supporting home visits, enabling notes to be taken or data to be accessed, delivering real-time information – in short doing new for less.

Looking at integration, the UK is in a very different place to other countries. For example, China is building a bunch of cities every year, so there’s lots of greenfield development with no legacy. But the UK pioneered cities and these have lots of legacy: existing applications which are just not fit for purpose in today’s world. NDL can support innovation by recognising this legacy and pulling together all that data in a cost-effective way, once again enabling new for less. Integration should take complexity away from the citizen, allowing two-way communications around all services and enabling better engagement.

You’ve already mentioned the differences you face globally with CityNext. What do you see as the particular challenges facing the public sector in the UK?

Firstly, as already mentioned, it’s around social care and the demographic time bomb shown by the Graph of Doom. This isn’t an exclusively UK problem – it faces all western countries – but of course the systems are very different here. We are looking at solutions to help this and NDL’s technology is playing an important role.

Secondly, there’s troubled families. This is a huge issue: funding being spent on a few who are using multiple services. Integration is key to this – how do you pull that together? The UK has recognised the problem in particular and is putting funding into it: with early intervention through pulling together multiple services then these costs can be reduced.
Thirdly, there’s inter-agency working: this is an overriding theme. Cities and regions cover services from all agencies and people don’t care where they get those services from as long as they actually get them. We need to enable public sector workers to cooperate in order to deliver services to citizens in a more effective and cohesive way.

But recent events will have an impact. The Scottish referendum has changed the playing field, and will mean that more and more powers will be devolved locally, whether to councils or police commissioners or other public sector bodies. There won’t be such a powerful central body acting as a hub, so these local organisations will need to work together more. Take the city of Manchester: at the moment there’s a gap between the tax revenues it receives and the cost of the services it provides. If it managed itself, it could bridge that gap and be a net contributor rather than a net drain. We have already seen announcements around the appointment of a Mayor of Greater Manchester and devolution of further budgetary control, and this issue is going to be hugely important both leading up to and after the next election.

So what’s on the horizon from a Microsoft perspective?

Our new CEO – Satya Nadella – has recently said that the pace of innovation is being ramped up, with cloud as our key focus, and that we now have a key aim of bridging the gap between personal life and work. And to support this there’s lots of investment in Microsoft Azure and Office 365.

And consumables are also key to what we’re doing, particularly around the Windows Phone, Surface Pro 3 and Xbox One. In particular, we’re looking at creating a hub for the living room and linking from there: for example, to CityNext platforms to bring local services direct to the home TV. It’s an incredibly interesting time for Microsoft, supporting this move to bridge the gap between home and work.

And what’s next for CityNext

The key thing is that we will continue to deliver our CityNext services through best-of-breed partners such as NDL. As a result, the customer gets the best of both worlds: tested technology from a large enterprise which has been around for years and has a solid roadmap; and at the same time local partners who understand their business and who are available at the end of a phone. Ninety six per cent of Microsoft’s business is through partners, and it has 34,000 in the UK alone. The majority of those – like NDL – are SMEs who can respond and who are specialists. So from NDL’s customers’ perspective, they can be assured that NDL really understands back-office integration and mobility, it can take our technology and build on it, and it can deliver solutions which will overcome the significant challenges faced by the public sector.