Manchester City Council CIO Bob Brown on how to make a city smart
Business Management

Manchester City Council CIO Bob Brown on how to make a city smart

From the textile workers that led to Abraham Lincoln personally thanking the people of Manchester; the first industrial revolution; post-punk and the Hacienda, the northern city has long had a global impact. Today, the local authority has aspirations to once again project the Lancashire city out to the world, and is hatching plans to make it one of the world's smartest - with the chief executive set to travel to China to better understand what truly makes a city smart.

Manchester CIO Bob Brown talked with Computerworld UK at the Nutanix Next event in London's Docklands this week, about the difficulties of balancing core civic services with introducing smart technologies - "bloody hard" - and forging a path that he hopes will draw international brands to invest in the city.

The local authority set a five-year ICT strategy in 2016, and while it went through all the usual tendering processes that necessitate government spending, it also wanted to be ahead of the curve in its investments, future-proofing the city, albeit on a limited budget where every pound had to count.

"We had the foresight to recognise that the infrastructure that we have today wouldn't be fit for the future - scale issues, all sorts of age issues associated with the technology," says Brown. "Quite a legacy environment, and we also had some risks in that environment we needed to take care of. Remember, in local authority terms you have to recognise that the services we provide are not just inconvenience factors if they're not working."

The critical nature of some of the local authority's services such as those for children in care or adult social care led it to set system availability as its number one priority. One of the earliest moves it took was changing its data centre infrastructure to a more cloud-based model, while also having to take into consideration consumption costs and carbon emissions targets.

"And of course, modernising our infrastructure we also needed to consider what innovators were out there in the marketplace," Brown explains, adding that the authority went out to market in early 2017 and all things considered picked Nutanix as a provider, which now hosts almost all of the organisation's services - Nutanix Enterprise Cloud Platform running on Nutanix Supermicro and comprising 64 nodes in total.

"We got advice from Gartner, we see Nutanix in the top-right hand in terms of aligning ourselves with some real innovators and disruptors in the marketplace, and for us the decision to go with Nutanix frankly aligned it to our strategy very much so. But also crucially aligned us to a partner who isn't stopping at just providing hyperconverged infrastructure and the ability to go from there to there, but to reduce your footprint, help save power costs, all those sorts of things.

"Inevitably it meets our business case, but for us it's actually about the other developments of where Nutanix wants to go in future as well, and how we could potentially leverage some of that."

Early business wins following the deployment include reduced power consumption costs that are expected to translate to hundreds of thousands of pounds in savings on a yearly basis.

The organisation also found relative plain-sailing in moving its workloads over to Nutanix, with a quick turnaround of about five months (minus some legacy applications that aren't yet cloud-ready). While the council has enjoyed the simplicity of getting Nutanix up and running it's also using the provider as a springboard to explore working with some of the public cloud giants in the future.

Brown brings all technology partners together every four months where the CIO outlines strategy, challenges, potential spending and where there is a need to collaborate, also asking those partners to work together.

He notes that as a local authority the organisation "doesn't have the luxury" of having an R&D function, although there is an enterprise architecture team led by a chief architect who makes technology recommendations. "But the reality is we need our partners who are investing hugely in a roadmap around their technology base," he adds.

While there is of course a core foundation service it has to provide in the here and now for the city's nearly 600,000 residents and Brown's 7,500 colleagues, currently the organisation is trying to figure out what the internet of things can do for Manchester and how to exploit advances made by its technology partners in the area - Nutanix has, for example, just this week announced its Xi IoT cloud for edge computing. Possible areas of investment for the local authority might include things such as assisted living technology in adult social care.

"Manchester aspires to be one of the smart cities recognised globally," Brown says. At the moment, however, he explains that as well as being heavily invested in researching how the best-performing smart cities are doing globally, social and infrastructure challenges have to be addressed before a smart city can thrive and attract investment.

"Manchester has inevitably had to recognise its aspirations, we have to recognise also the desire we want to attract international brands to be part of the journey that Manchester is going to," he says.

"You're not going to do that if you've got fundamental challenges around your road network, an inability to be able to provide a home for people because there's not enough houses, an inability to be able to provide an education for people because there's not enough schools, and an inability to be able to look after you if you get old and frail and the services there are broken. This is an enormous aspiration that we have, this isn't just about ensuring that a light comes on with a sensor in the room as you walk into it. That's absolutely almost given as something that will happen."

The organisation is looking "outwardly at the moment", to get a big-picture view of how other leaders are achieving it. There are also still connectivity challenges to solve - as evidenced by recent support from DCMS around guaranteeing more broadband fibre in the region.

"We are considering what 5G is going to mean in the future and how that's going to transform the working environment that many have," Brown says. "But also recognising that right now in Manchester there are elements where because of our densely populated building infrastructure it's sometimes quite difficult to get a 4G signal in the environment.

"Yes, automated cars are a thing of the future but let's not get too ahead of ourselves, we've got some foundational stuff that we need to do first - if you are going to put in smart road networks, smart traffic controls, give the ability for things like ambulances and police to be able to get through the city by having a direct influence with the travel as they drive around, by us being able to record the size and scale of potholes in our road networks...

"We need to address some of those by a car going over it rather than a human going in to inspect or somebody in the community looking to call us to say 'there's a big hole in my road'. These things are still fundamental for us so at the same time as we have aspirations we should recognise that there are still quite a lot of core things we have to do."

In the meantime, the local authority has held consultations with the mayor of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, the small but digitally savvy Balkan country, and Manchester's chief executive is set to travel to China to view the smart technology that's been integrated into cities there.

There are also plans to have a more digitally integrated health service in the region in the near future, while British spy agency GCHQ will be locating its northern headquarters in Manchester.

For his part, Brown has just recently appointed a risk and resiliency officer - in private sector terms something along the lines of a CISO - who will report to the CIO's office while also driving an IT security strategy to safeguard the local authority's data.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that while all of these initiatives sound socially useful and economically viable, Manchester has long been in the midst of a homelessness crisis, although this is admittedly being addressed by mayor Andy Burnham who has had a manifesto pledge to completely rid Greater Manchester of rough sleeping by 2020. And the authority faces much of the same financial challenges that almost every public body has faced since the coalition government of 2010 introduced austerity and public defunding measures.

Brown concedes that striking the balance right is "bloody hard" and adds that his team "absolutely needs to make sure that every pound we spend is going in the right way".

"There are people that rely on us for that, not least the people who frankly pay our salaries, so we have to make crucial decisions," he adds. "Our service fundamentally believe that as an enabling function we can help transform the public sector, we can help bring technology forward to help unburden people with some of the fundamental day to day activities they might have to do, so they can spend time focusing on caring for somebody or supporting somebody in a different way."

He adds that with the dawn of wide-spread automation looming that technology could help allow the council to move care models "away from worrying about the technology and being able to transact" and instead "give them the time and effort back to be able to spend doing other things".

"I think we've got a long way to go with that," he says. "In some cases there are some culture changes we'll need to be adopting throughout this, it's not going to be a light switch, it's going to happen over time.

"There's no getting away from the fact that the public sector is hugely constrained by financial challenges that are plaguing every local authority around the UK. But we have to do what we can."

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