In our new City Lights series, we meet the people who are working to make smart cities a reality. From his previous role as a bookmaker to bird-watching and future-gazing, meet…Geoff Snelson, Director of Strategy and Futures at Milton Keynes Council.
Describe your role
The core of my work is creating a long-term vision for the city’s growth to 2050 and leading a suite of major transformational projects to deliver that vision – hence the “Futures” tag. Whilst our smart city programme is a big part of my portfolio, it is part of a wider approach to integrated city development.
What was your route to the position?
I’ve been working for Milton Keynes Council for some 20 years now, covering areas such as corporate policy, communications and economic development - so I’m very emphatically not a technologist.
I began to focus significantly on smart city projects around 2010 as an evolution of our low carbon living strategy and this became integrated into my role. I’m lucky we have senior managerial and political leadership at the council who provide the space for innovation and understand the value of strategy at a time of competing short-term pressures.
What’s a typical day like?
If I’m in the office I arrive before 7.30am and often have an 8am meeting in the local coffee shop where many a new initiative has been conceived!
My role is very outward facing so alongside the usual mix of emails and internal meetings I’m often on the train into London or in meetings locally with project partners such as the Open University and the Transport Systems Catapult. I present regularly at events, including the occasional international conference, and sometimes even virtually - last year I did a video broadcast to a conference in Astana, Kazakhstan!
What role does your job play in helping Milton Keynes become a smarter city?
I guess there are two main aspects. One is in helping create the vision for the city’s long-term development and how smart city approaches can optimise that. The other is acting as a convener to bring our many commercial, academic and community partners together to address our city challenges and opportunities.
I know lots of brilliant people who have great ideas and capabilities. What they mostly need from my role is the overall leadership to focus effort together with help to connect with service colleagues and navigate local politics.
What is your number-one priority right now?
I’m working closely with Cranfield University to create a new technology university in the city centre that we aim to open in 2023. The university is a key part of achieving our long-term vision to 2050 which envisages the city growing to 400,000 - 500,000 people. The university is being designed to deliver a distinctive smart city undergraduate curriculum covering key areas including digital, cyber, autonomy, robotics and artificial intelligence and to develop further our approach to the city as a living laboratory for innovation.
Another major priority is our programme of intelligent and driverless mobility as we need new approaches to movement if the city is to continue to thrive.
What is your biggest challenge?
Having more time and money would always help! I generally find the biggest challenge in taking innovation forward is having enough evidence or prospect of impact to make the solution investable. We’ve succeeded in securing many tens of millions of pounds over the years for innovation pilots but moving from these to sustainability and city-scale is always a challenge.
What we don’t lack is access to great people and ideas but it’s always tough to decide which of the many potential projects and ideas to pursue. We try to spend time with everyone with an idea but it’s often not possible to engage as fully as we’d like with those who approach us.
What do you see as your biggest achievement since you started the role?
Creating an extensive collaboration network of talented people who have together built a smart city programme that is at the heart of the city’s identity and long-term growth strategy.
What is the best part of the job?
Milton Keynes is a rapidly moving and ever-changing place. Like anywhere it has its fair share of challenges but in my experience the city is more defined by the many opportunities to be creative and ambitious on a grand scale. Couple this with the energetic and talented people that work here and you have a very stimulating and rewarding work environment.
What keeps you awake at night?
Projects typically involve multiple partners and lots of uncertainty, so there is always some anxiety about how it will all come together – though I’m told by some that I’m over-optimistic and don’t worry enough!
If you weren’t doing this job, what would you be doing?
Before local government I worked as a bookmaker and spent nearly three years making jam in a factory. But my real passion outside work is birdwatching so I’d ideally be doing something outdoors with a telescope!
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