Natalie Duffield is chief executive of IntechnologySmartCities, part of Intechnology plc, and Vice Chair of techUK’s Local Public Services Committee
Who are IntechnologySmartCities? And, what is your key focus?
IntechnologySmartCities specialises in free public connectivity to boost digital inclusion. We have harnessed the power of 5G-ready technologies to deploy next generation digital infrastructure in 10 major towns and cities across the UK with more in the pipeline.
Our company, formerly known as IntechnologyWiFi, has rolled out the UK’s largest free public WiFi network in Edinburgh, attracting more than 1.12m users, and rolled out one of the UK’s first citywide IoT networks in Coventry.
Our parent company Intechnology plc has a proud record of innovation, including Planet Online, the UK’s first viable business internet service provider, Sports Internet Group, the internet-based content business sold to BSkyB, Freeserve, the UK’s first free consumer ISP, and Inhealthcare, a UK market leader in digital health and remote care technologies.
What is the Intech Connect platform?
Our IntechConnect platform helps local authorities to drive digital transformation of public services in an inclusive way. The platform allows organisations to design, build and deploy their own health, care and social services. We offer a choice of communication channels ranging from voice assistants to telephone landlines. This ensures every citizen is empowered, regardless of access to technology. Our data analytics capability helps local authorities to better understand the needs of citizens and deliver health, care and social services in a personalised and targeted way.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
We are proud of our pioneering work in Edinburgh. The network has provided a massive boost for digital connectivity for Scotland’s capital. To date, more than 1.12 million users have signed up for the network, representing a growth rate of nearly 900 people per day in a World Heritage Site.
We are also proud of our work in Coventry, the UK’s first truly connected City of Culture. IntechnologySmartCities is helping to improve air quality in the city with a new citywide network of sensors to monitor and record harmful pollutants. We are gathering data from known trouble spots to share with Coventry City Council to support its action plan to reduce pollution levels within the city.
Earlier this year, we rolled out a superfast free WiFi network at Portobello Market, providing a vital economic boost for traders at this world-famous retail destination. We are also doing some great work in places like Southend on Sea where we hit the headlines for helping to bring connectivity to Jamie Oliver’s end-of-pier cafe.
As an SME and a company, what have you learned from the current crisis?
One of the positives to have come out of the terrible Covid-19 crisis is the overwhelming show of support for public services and the people who deliver them. Everyone wants to help, which is inspiring to see. But for local authorities inundated with offers from tech companies small and large, it can be difficult to determine which solutions are the most suitable for the tasks at hand, especially when time and money are in short supply.
At techUK, we have come up with a novel approach to this problem, which we believe will help the transformation and delivery of public services for the benefit of those who rely on them the most. Our new approach promotes collaboration between innovative SMEs and large corporates to drive innovation and help tackle some of the big issues facing our society.
More generally, the crisis has underlined the need for powerful connectivity to deliver continuous public services to citizens during a time of lockdowns and social distancing. We are seeing strong demand for our platform and are proud to be helping the public sector to roll out digital health, social care and other Smart City services in a challenging time for everybody.
Why do SMEs excel at innovation but sometimes struggle to scale?
A common challenge for smaller companies is scale. While SMEs excel at innovation in the design of new products and services, they often lack the sales force to take their offering to the widest possible market. At the other end of the scale, big consulting firms offer exceptional professional services to a national client base but are typically less involved in research and development.
To bridge the divide, we brought together representatives from large and small companies for a virtual partnering conference. It gave SMEs the opportunity to pitch their proposals to corporates currently providing services to local authorities. And it gave corporates the opportunity to expand the range of SMEs they can partner with in the growing market for digital transformation.
How do you think SMEs can deliver tech for good at this time and what has ITSC done specifically?
We see huge potential in technologies that can shield and support the most vulnerable in society, tackle loneliness and social isolation and support carers and home care agencies. In my case, I shared details of our group’s work with health and care providers in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to scale up remote care for citizens at home and in care homes across the UK.
Our group company Inhealthcare pioneered the fully inclusive approach to digital health and care. IntechnologySmartCities is taking this approach to the next level with the digital transformation of other local services. Citizens have a choice of communications channels including landline telephone, Amazon Alexa, video, SMS and apps. This makes digital services accessible to the vast majority of the population, regardless of age and ability. This is digital inclusion.
How can SMEs really help to embrace innovation
We recently took part in a recent techUK event and had follow-up calls with three large corporates, including a multinational professional services giant, a global technology company and an international IT partner. They are working with local authorities across the UK and keen to expand their service offerings in support of their clients. Similarly, councils want to embrace innovation in their service delivery but minimise any risk with unknown suppliers.
The collaborative approach is a win-win-win: it works for the local authorities in that they can access the latest social care technologies; it works for big consulting firms because they can offer innovative new products and services to their customers and it works for SMEs by opening up the public services market. For us we think that SMEs can offer so much to the public sector but they must also partner and engage with large corporates.