In this article, Chloe Thompson, Consultant at Whitecap Consulting explores how Milton Keynes has built its unique reputation for being a testbed location for new technologies and how going forward, the city can continue to drive this key capability, positioning itself as the UK testbed location for tech and innovation.
Milton Keynes has a unique reputation for being known as a testbed location for trialling new innovations and technologies.
Testbeds can be used by the public sector, inward investment organisations or business representative organisations (such as chambers of commerce) to market an area to investors, talent and businesses, and support local economic development. Milton Keynes is different by design and has been building its testbed reputation since the 1980s when the city hosted the world’s first modern energy efficient housing as well as being the first UK city to have kerbside recycling.
In 2010, Milton Keynes was the first place to test public electric vehicle charging points and in 2018, as part of the UK Autodrive Project, (a government backed competition that trialled automated vehicle technology to support the introduction of self-driving vehicles into the UK), the final trials of autonomous vehicles took place on the streets of Milton Keynes, now becoming a regular sight for the residents.
As well as the Autodrive project, in 2018, Starship launched its emission-free delivery robots in Milton Keynes which have expanded ever since, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic as many vulnerable members of the community relied on the robots to deliver necessities throughout the multiple lockdowns. According to the Head of UK Operations, “the delivery robots have fully ingratiated themselves with the local community and the town has really embraced us.”
As well as delivering necessities, Starship Robots were also used throughout the pandemic to cheer up lonely citizens and in 2021, Starship launched its first singing delivery robot, a development that was so successful it has now been rolled out globally. Starship Robots provide a good example of Milton Keynes being used as a blueprint for rolling out new technologies to other cities as they have confirmed plans, in partnership with Co-op, to extend their robot delivery service to five new towns and cities including Upper Cambourne in Cambridgeshire, taking their fleet up to a total of 500 robots.
A noticeable strength of Milton Keynes and a key focus for the local authority has been optimising the transport system within the city.
A noticeable strength of Milton Keynes and a key focus for the local authority has been the transport system within the city. In 2021, Milton Keynes City Council began the roll out of a new demand-responsive transport system (DRT) in a bid to offer a more efficient and cleaner way to get around the city. The service, coined “MK Connect”, is the largest project of its kind in the UK and is an innovative public transport option for residents who aren’t served by a bus route, or when other choices like cycling might not be appropriate. MK Connect will be able to pick up passengers within minutes of their initial booking and take them to their destination.
A further example of Milton Keynes City Council focus on mobility and transport is the Lime Electric Scooters trial, an innovative national scheme which started in 2020 that had the ultimate goal of providing a more affordable and greener travel option for the residents of Milton Keynes. Recent developments have now seen Lime e-scooters integrate with the Uber app in order to make the service more accessible and to encourage the active take-up of more sustainable travel options. Not only do these transport and mobility initiatives help with accessibility throughout the city but they also contribute towards achieving the targets within the MK Sustainability Strategy by providing more efficient and greener ways for people to get around the city.
The most recent developments for Milton Keynes as a testbed location are MK:5G and MK:5G Create.
The MK:5G project is an initiative led by Milton Keynes City Council and a number of consortium partners which has led to the design and build of seven 5th generation (5G) masts across Milton Keynes, creating a private, standalone 5G network. 5G technology provides connectivity with vast improvements to bandwidth, latency and reliability, transforming a multitude of industries such as transport, manufacturing, health and tourism and supporting the growth of new markets and emerging technologies.
The project has led to the creation of a dedicated 5G infrastructure and data hub facility which will focus on trialling applications across three core themes: Mobility, Health & Wellbeing, and Energy. The focus of the 5G trials in Milton Keynes will be primarily on advanced mobility and hospitality logistics, driving research in the field of automation, with use cases including autonomous vehicles, drones and robotics.
MK:5G Create builds on the testbed facilities developed in the MK:5G project, with the aim of using 5G to support a major international and sporting venue. Connected Places Catapult, which is headquartered in Milton Keynes, is working with a high-tech consortium on the MK5G Create project, funded in part by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The host site is Stadium MK, and the project will install 5G infrastructure to support multiple 5G use cases including:
- Autonomous vehicles for moving people and goods across the stadium site and wider retail park.
- Teleoperated vehicles for moving people around the stadium site and the wider area.
- Autonomous surveillance vehicles and drones for enhancing security on the stadium site.
- Supporting hotel guests with robot assistants.
Milton Keynes City Council has been a key facilitator in the city being used as a testbed location for new technologies and innovations.
For Milton Keynes to have built this unparalleled reputation for being a testbed location for new technologies and innovations, the city has required a number of facilitating factors including the grid road system, which contributed to the successful deployment of autonomous vehicles and robots; Milton Keynes City Council, which has demonstrated continued enthusiasm to test and trial new technologies and innovations around the city and the culture of Milton Keynes, which according to MK Creative & Cultural Strategy 2018-2027, has been embracing of “creativity, experimentation and risk-taking with a bold and pioneering spirit.”
In summary, the key capability and unique reputation that Milton Keynes has developed for being a testbed location could be capitalised on going forward by positioning the city as the UK location for trialling new technology, innovation and tech-based projects. How Milton Keynes continues to drive this USP is a key a consideration for the next steps and future actions of this research, particularly when creating a dedicated tech strategy.
The research has drawn together data and insight from across the tech sector in Milton Keynes, combining inputs from interviews with over 40 stakeholders, desk research including analysis of economic data and an open online survey. The report analyses the strengths and capabilities of the tech sector whilst highlighting some of the challenges and opportunities for future growth.
The report also provides six recommendations for Milton Keynes to support the development of the tech sector and to help establish it on the national and international map.
The research has been supported by Mazars, Milton Keynes College/ South Central Institute of Technology, Milton Keynes City Council, Protospace, Santander, The Open University and University of Buckingham.