Interview with Ceren Clulow: innovation, sustainability, place and technology

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10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

Rooftop view over Cambridge

Ceren Clulow is the Programme Director for Connecting Cambridgeshire, the digital connectivity initiative for Cambridgeshire County Council. Prior to taking on her new role in January, Ceren spent 15 years at Nottinghamshire County Council, most recently as digital connectivity manager.

Ceren is also chair of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT) Digital Connectivity Working Group. She was selected as one of Ericsson’s 5G trailblazers and won a Local Government Chronicle (LGC) award for her work on Nottingham’s Sherwood Forest project.

In the latest of our interview series with leading place professionals, Ceren shares her views on the role digital connectivity has to play in supporting local tourism, sustainability and economic growth.

Photos and job titles of Ceren and Jo Morrison

Can you briefly describe your roles at Nottinghamshire and now Cambridgeshire?

I’m currently responsible for shaping and achieving the implementation and delivery of the digital connectivity infrastructure strategy for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. My previous role at Nottinghamshire County Council was similar; I led the digital connectivity team within the growth and investment function, where I was responsible for driving the use of digital technologies to improve business productivity and economic growth in the county.

During my time there, I secured funding to extend super-fast broadband coverage, enabling up to 99% of the county to receive it. I also brought together a consortium for a 5G testbed in Sherwood Forest, which was the first time we had tested 5G signals in a woodland setting.

What enticed you to join Connecting Cambridgeshire and can you tell us a bit about the initiative?

I knew Connecting Cambridgeshire from the sector and collaborations we were working on at Nottinghamshire, and its progressive and collaborative nature really interested me in the role.

Connecting Cambridgeshire is a multi-agency programme, hosted by Cambridgeshire County Council and led by the Cambridge and Peterborough Combined Authority. Working in collaboration with government bodies, local councils and external organisations, the aim of the programme is to drive improvements to Cambridgeshire’s digital connectivity infrastructure, as well as use smart technology to promote economic growth and help businesses, and support digital skills and inclusion in the digital sector.

As part of the programme, there is a ‘smart’ initiative that brings together Cambridge-based universities, local authorities and businesses with a focus on the use of data and embedding digital solutions into our day-to-day council activities.

Can you tell us more about the 5G Connected Forest at Sherwood Forest and what it intended to achieve?

This was a really exciting project, although it had its challenges. The main idea was to explore how we can use the power of 5G to protect and promote the forest, focusing on both the natural and cultural heritage side. The project looked at how cutting-edge applications, such as augmented reality, can transform the visitor experience. It also tested robotic environmental management alongside live monitoring of the health of the forest to preserve the site for future generations. 

Councilor Kay Cutts and Robin Hood with two children enjoying the VR experience in Sherwood Forest. 5G Connected Forest

How did the team behind 5G Connected Forest at Sherwood Forest see digital technologies supporting local tourism and sustainability strategies?

The objective was to demonstrate the opportunities and benefits of attracting more people to visit Sherwood Forest, to stay longer and come back again. With this in mind, the project harnessed the power of 5G to tell the story of Robin Hood via augmented reality. This technology was also used to collect data to improve services, enabling organisations to make decisions from that data, for example how many people are coming in, how much they are spending, what the business impact is, potential revenue generation, etc.

Another part of the project was the creation of an augmented reality ghost walk, which is now becoming a commercialised, ticketed experience in partnership with Sherwood Forest. 5G is a key enabler for creating these kinds of experiences due to its bandwidth, low latency and the interest it generates for a new generation.

While market research raised concerns about whether our efforts to introduce digital experiences would make children more tech-dependent, rather than encouraging them to enjoy the forest without technology, we have been clear that this is not about trying to make every person do the digital experiences; it is about giving people options.

How did 5G connectivity support protecting the sensitive forest environment?

One of the project consortium partners, Birmingham City University, prototyped two remote-controlled robot dogs called Eric and Gizmo – named by school students through a competition. Equipped with cameras and sensors, they can collect data in the forest where certain areas are inaccessible, which can make it challenging for humans to obtain samples of trees to identify disease, or locate trapped animals. 

Unlike static cameras that can only focus on one area, the robots can navigate through harder-to-reach areas, capture images and report back on the condition of Sherwood Forest. These are complemented by drones, alongside advanced sensing technologies that can process the data and support the operational management of the forest.

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(L-R) Robin Hood, Dr Moad Idrissi, Cllr Keith Girling, project lead for Nottinghamshire County Council Ceren Clulow, Ahmed Osman, Phil Hasted, Little John and Maid Marian. Photo from Newark Advertiser

Earlier this year you spoke at #5Gweek about the great potential 5G offers in rural areas as well as in towns and cities. What excites you most about the potential?

Ubiquitous connectivity for all is a major enabler for everything. It will be the glue that holds everything together, unless it is left unaddressed, in which case the digital divide will only get wider. The services enabled by digital technology are the economic drivers and job creators. As we expand digital connectivity, more jobs will be created because younger generations are increasingly interested in tech and digital, and they are talent magnets. We can export those talents to other countries too. 

With over 750,000 rural businesses across the UK, this is where the importance of increased connectivity in rural areas comes in, and why it is key that digital and communication infrastructure is upgraded. It isn’t just rural businesses that will have success through the digital economy; rural consumers will also benefit from having access to the same innovative content as urban areas – from more digitally-enabled visitor attractions, to jobs that come as a result of attracting small/digital businesses to the area.

How are digital technologies influencing the ways that local residents, visitors and potential visitors engage with the area?

The digital network is fundamental to make our area an attractive place for people to both live and visit. A new generation of wireless network will increase, for example, the security of airports and the accuracy of passenger information on the boards at stations. It will have a significant impact on self-driving vehicles because we need to make sure they are safer and more autonomous.

In the hospitality industry, the integration of technology into hotels is becoming more essential for them to offer customers unique experiences. With 5G technology and the improvement that brings to artificial intelligence and IoT solutions, hotels can offer things like connected rooms and voice assistants.

For outdoor gatherings and festivals, 5G has a critical role to play in easing network congestion and allowing people to share their experiences with friends and on social media. We plan to test this soon at a music festival in Cambridge; but rather than putting a big mast in the middle of the festival area, we are looking at options for small, portable, flexible 5G devices to provide the connectivity needed for that area on that one occasion, which can be easily transferred to another place when needed.

Cambridge Club Festival copy
Cambridge Club Festival

With the trials of the self-driving shuttle buses in Cambridge, what’s Connecting Cambridgeshire’s approach to innovation on live streets?

Cambridge is among the first smart cities in the UK to trial autonomous vehicles, with the first original autonomous shuttle bus arriving in Cambridge in October 2020.

Building on that, the Connecting Cambridgeshire Smart team is supporting the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) with research into autonomous vehicles. A large-scale trial is currently being tested with 13 shuttle buses, with the aim of investigating the feasibility of the technology being used as part of the public transport service in future.

Our role is to explore how data, emerging technology and digital connectivity can be used to transform the way that people live, work and travel in the region. We have identified some potential advantages of autonomous vehicles, including: expanding services, improving first- and last-mile transport, better mobility and accessibility for travellers with disabilities, reduced operational costs, tackling bus driver shortages.

After the two-year testing phase, we will come up with a business case based on people’s experiences and lessons learned. Ultimately, it needs to be an evidence-based decision.

Are there any words of wisdom that you would pass on to other Councils, or places, seeking to develop their own digital infrastructure? What’s the recipe for success?

Firstly, local authorities have a key role because we are the brokers – the enablers – for sustainable services. Another success factor is establishing trusted relationships with internal and external stakeholders. Bringing together a range of people, combining their expertise and local knowledge, is what will help to tackle complex issues.

Internally, we need to be joining the dots, liaising with relevant stakeholders in different departments – from highways and planning to property and legal. This allows us, as an organisation, to address policy gaps and make sure we can adopt policies and processes to bring our strategy to life. 

Externally, we must ensure the information is available to make it easy for mobile or network operators to invest in our county. It is also paramount to have an accurate record of public assets so they know where our assets are, whether lamp posts or properties, and we can work together to build 5G networks around those.

People pointing to places on a 3D brass map of Cambridge
Photo: Craig Whitehead

What potential do you see for digital innovation supporting environmental development strategies in towns and cities?

It is essential, especially with the net zero targets that we have to achieve. As populations grow and environmental monitoring and management becomes more critical, it has been necessary to find a balance between slowing down the impact of the changing environment on our planet and meeting human needs – not only in rural areas, we can deploy IoT-based environmental monitoring systems in high-density populated areas such as cities and town centres as well.

Sensors are a key enabler here. In Cambridge, we have air quality and flood monitoring sensors to investigate and potentially improve the environmental parameters. We’re looking at water quality, noise pollution, smoke detection – all things that affect quality of life in a city.

We also make sure the data collected from those sensors is shared with the relevant department to use as evidence before they make future decisions, for example on how they build a house or road. We must all work together, especially in a smart city environment.

Thank you Ceren for sharing your inspiring insight and experience!

 

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