Posted on February 17, 2020 by staff

SmartTech – from buzzword to futuristic philosophy


Is it time to give up on ‘gut feelings’ about data and hand the job of analysis back to the machines?

James Backhouse, CEO of AI-powered forecasting service Skarp, certainly thinks so. Coming from a career in marketing for brands such as Evans Cycles and Carluccio’s, his experience showed him that firms have access to all the data they could need, but misattribute the causes.

“When things are going well, everyone’s trying to claim credit,” he told the audience at BusinessCloud’s BC Insights: SmartTech conference. “When things are going badly, what can you blame?

“For the last three years, the answer has been Brexit. I think you’ve probably got another 12 months of that, and then we might have to come up with a new excuse!”

Machine learning, on the other hand, is capable of finding objective insights and correlations which humans cannot. Skarp uses this technology to compare a company’s bottom line against factors such as the weather, pricing models and competitors’ movements. “No matter how smart they might be, it’s effectively impossible for a person to pull that data together with an Excel spreadsheet,” says Backhouse.

It puts the ‘smart’ into SmartTech by outperforming the existing, human-based forecasting of restaurant sales, call centre targets and even crime figures. “We are in the business of prediction, not magic,” he says. “We might be 15 per cent off, but if a client is currently 30 per cent off, we’ve made a massive difference to their business.”

Superhuman data interpretation is also the goal of Sheffield’s Slanted Theory. The firm, which on the same mission to banish Excel sheets, is headed by its CEO and co-founder Laura Smith.

The technology, already being used by the likes of Cisco, helps humans to dig into large datasets in a customised virtual reality environment with 3D representations of data. The technique, which can be accessed via a VR headset, allows one person or a group of people to ‘occupy’ the VR space at the same time and is intended to speed up the time to understanding and insight.

Smith claims that the time spent in front of a computer monitor looking at a data dashboard – be that sales figures or website analytics – is around three hours. With Slanted Theory’s ‘ALAIRA’ virtual reality environment, that number comes down to just over an hour. The saving, Smith claims, equates to over a million pounds every year.

“The average team in a large organisation is around 25 people. Over the year, you’re saving them a massive amount of time,” she says. “Visualisation creates understanding. Collaborative visualisation allows you to create even more understanding because you’re building upon collective intelligence.”

Donna Edwards, programme director for Made Smarter, said the ethos of SmartTech was simply to use technology to help people do their job better. Even, in her case, if businesses might at first be hesitant.

The Made Smarter North West pilot, now a year old, is designed to help manufacturing firms embrace digital tech to stay competitive and productive. Edwards says a lot of small manufacturers don’t engage with new tech because they feel they don’t understand it.

“The manufacturers that we start working with have still got clipboards with paper. Their documents are walked from one operator to another operator. They are in buildings where you can’t see one end of the process to the other,” she reveals.

“By putting in systems or sensors, and having enterprise resource planning or material requirements planning system in place, you start to capture data, you start to actually understand where you are in your own business. It all comes back to having the data for you to manage that organisation effectively.”

Edwards says there is “a lot of room for improvement” in the UK manufacturing sector compared to the likes of China, where tech is connecting suppliers and manufacturers to automate end-to-end processes.

The pilot has brought about a 40 per cent improvement in productivity in the case of its early adopters, who are plugging new technology into their factories and plants to reduce waste in materials and gain back time.

Lucy Lynch says it is vital to connect universities with companies to mould tech courses. Lynch is head of graduate partnerships at Eden Smith, a specialist data staffing and consulting company based in London, and works with data science and Internet of Things cohorts across the country.

Eden Smith’s Nurture Programme, which is led by Lynch, is working with 16 universities to identify talented data scientists.

“I’m encouraging data scientists to tell a story. I’m their least technical stakeholder, so I ask them help me understand what the data is telling them because that’s going to be their job in the future,” she explains.

“When they’re trying to get the next level of funding, they need to be able to make that math translate for someone like me, who is not going to understand it.”

When sensors are applied to every machine inside a factory, SmartTech begins to take on a different meaning. Applied at the scale of a whole building, businesses can look at the likes of energy efficiency at a macro scale.

Niko Kavakiotis, head of building performance and sustainability at Siemens Smart Infrastructure, describes the firm as an ‘energy solutions integrator’ which helps business to manage their energy and, as a result, their bills.

Kavakiotis says SmartTech is vital in the process of improving the energy efficiency of buildings because people wrongly assume that buildings already self-manage their energy, which comes at a cost to the environment.

“We did a study as part of the solutions we deliver and found that a nurse would spend approximately 72 minutes on his or her shift trying to find assets,” he explains. Approximately 20 per cent of nurse time was devoted to patients, and at a time when the country needs more nurses, increased exposure to patients could be allowed by SmartTech.

“We could reduce the time a nurse spends trying to find different assets in the hospital through new smart technology, which is paid for by energy savings. So all these things are interconnected in ways we never saw before,” he says.

Joe Warren, director of bespoke energy management and trading systems firm ZTP, is an expert in the business of energy, with experience in procurement, contract management, business development, conservation and software design. Using machine learning, Warren’s firm predicts where electric and gas prices for the UK and Europe are going to go over short periods of 24 hours or over a year.

“What we’re trying to do is give energy managers the ability to manage the energy and make efficiencies and reductions, rather than what we often see, which is that they spend their entire working life collating the data, cleansing it, and starting again after a month,” Warren says.

On green energy and carbon neutrality, Warren said the last year has seen a sea change toward renewables as more stringent targets are set.

“A focus on green energy is helping businesses invest in the technology side. It makes it a much easier journey for energy managers to hit their targets, rather than it being a fight just to be heard and make the right decisions.”

Jordan Appleson founded Leeds-based Hark to provide sensors and monitoring to the life sciences and drug development sector, where stringent standards require temperature to be constantly monitored. Hark has since expanded to provide sensors in radiation and uranium mines, and also provides real-time energy monitoring.

“We made the platform connect to any building management system, any sub meter, any energy meter, any industrial process, manufacturing line,” he says.

“We can stream in real-time all the data out of the assets. For a supermarket, we might be monitoring the energy of every physical store, but not just the building in general – every individual asset in real time. That might be bakeries, refrigeration systems, lighting.

“We use that data to then predict what the assets should do. If there are any anomalies, we alert people: for example ‘this asset has 20% more energy today than we think it should have’.”

The firm now controls the assets in stores, sending back down control signals. The technology has the power to save supermarkets from the threat of huge bills during the ‘triad period’, which runs from November to March, and can increase costs by 1000%.

“Essentially, it’s kind of a tax on usage,” says Appleson. “There’s a possibility that the price of energy for that day, for that site, on average will increase by a thousand-fold.

“A supermarket might spend £100m a year on energy. Those triad taxes can cost anywhere between £7-12m a year.”

From 2019-20 Appleson says he saved one of his clients’ buildings a bill of £1m through anomaly detection and power usage monitoring.

As buildings become smarter, so do our cities. The utopian ideal of the green, connected smart city is one Jon Corner, chief digital officer of the City of Salford, is trying to realise.

As part of an organisation called Digital Salford, he works with hospitals, universities and councils to collaborate on smart city goals.

“I get all of these people around the table and ask them how we can make Salford the most connected digital city in the UK,” he says. “Salford is the fastest-growing economy in Greater Manchester, as well as the most connected.”

Salford’s MediaCityUK, home of the BBC and ITV, is a key exemplar of a smart city, says Corner.

The area was ‘future-proofed’ during its build with 20,000 miles of dark fibre installed and distributed Wi-Fi in every room of every building.

“On top of that, you have this distributed antenna system and the largest broadcast teleport in the UK,” adds Corner. It also has a commercial 5G network. “We have every piece of the connectivity jigsaw puzzle, as well as an IoT network.”

Corner is treating MediaCity as a 40-acre mini smart city and will take its successes to the wider Salford area. He believes a successful smart city begins with two pillars.

“On the one hand, there’s asset management and the efficient management of your physical assets. When you look at cities around the world, a lot of smart city dialogue is around command and control; controlling traffic, energy, environments.

“The other way of thinking about smart cities is to look at data and people. How do we get smarter with our data? How do we start to aggregate data in ways that we can look after people and better?”

A truly ‘smart’ city is one which simply delivers a better service to its inhabitants through tech, argues Tzvete Doncheva, in charge of ecosystem and PR at PropTech VC Round Hill Ventures.

A practical example of this might be capturing data from cycle lanes to analyse how roads are being used and then to look at ways of encouraging people into alternative modes of transport.

Dawn Embry of Mobica, which delivers software engineering services to technology customers, believes we should be using the term ‘smarter cities’ rather than ‘smart’.

“I think as human beings we tend to get attracted to the extremes. In the media, it’s all about the green-field smart cities, going into areas where there’s limited infrastructure and doing end-to-end development,” the firm’s director of strategy and performance says.

“But actually, we can do a lot with ‘smarter’ cities.”

Embry says that citizen-centric technology which allows smart parking or smart lighting doesn’t require huge infrastructure change or building locations from scratch.

“I think we can have a really big impact now, and we shouldn’t get caught up in the end-to-end change that requires a big ecosystem, but prevents the progress that we can be making,” she says.

“Most buildings waste 30% of their energy through inefficiencies in lighting, heating and cooling. If we can just make small incremental marginal gains in that it makes it a smarter city.”

New 5G technology, often synonymous with enabling smart devices and cities, isn’t always necessary either, she says.

“It’s about going back to the humans, and what we can do, and therefore what we need in terms of information and innovation. You need to go back to the use-case.”

Dr Joanne Phoenix prefers the term ‘sustainable cities’ to ‘smart cities’.

Dr Phoenix, who is interim executive director at Liverpool’s cutting-edge sensor and IoT hub Sensor City, stresses the importance of ensuring all available sensors are actually being used in modern buildings – and also of adding sensor tech into older properties.