You would not necessarily picture Greenwich in a line up including Milan and Lisbon. But the London borough known for its parks and views of Canary Wharf is involved in an EU initiative with the two cities to test new technology – from using the River Thames to heat homes to creating a driverless car network – which could be rolled out across the capital and beyond.

Significantly for Greenwich, this drive to stimulate new ways of living comes at a time when it faces an undersupply of homes compounded by strong demand from purchasers and tenants alike, according to a new Knight Frank report on the area.

The borough’s journey to become a smart city innovator began when it started to look at competing against Shoreditch to attract new tech businesses to the area, says Trevor Dorling, Director of Digital Greenwich and Managing Director of DG Cities, the commercial arm of the council’s in house digital team. This was in 2010 when Greenwich council had convinced digital and fashion focused Ravensbourne University – whose alumni includes David Bowie and Stella McCartney – to relocate from Bromley to the borough.

“It was difficult for us to get a significant profile as everything was focused on the Old Street roundabout. But then the Olympics happened and we realised we were in a part of London that was being transformed and we had the advantage that new regeneration was happening, new homes were being built and new commercial areas were appearing.”

The council opted to focus on cities and digital innovation to drive economic development in the area, which led to Greenwich joining forces in January 2016, months before the Brexit vote, with several European cities as part of a Eur25million programme to trial smart technology. In 2017, Greenwich was recognised as a Smart City Innovator in the UK Smart Cities Index.

“It’s pretty cool to think of the leading cities as Greenwich, Milan and Lisbon. It’s good company. It’s really of course London and the demonstrator area is Greenwich,” says Dorling.

Over five years later, and despite the disruption of both the UK leaving the European Union and the advent of a worldwide pandemic, the ‘Sharing Cities’ programme remains intact and in its final year. It was delayed due to the effects of Covid-19 and will now complete in December 2021. “It was very clear way back at the beginning of the Brexit negotiations that the money was secure for those programmes. So for this programme Brexit doesn’t present any particular problems,” he says, adding: “Where Covid has impacted is our building projects and heating systems. The lockdowns have slowed these down, but this hasn’t changed significantly the direction of the projects.”

Residential projects underway are focused heavily on sustainability. “It’s a significant underpin for the work we do. The council has declared a climate emergency and has an ambition to be carbon neutral by 2030. We’re testing smart energy systems focusing on water source heat pumps.”

Testing included trying to extract water from the River Thames gravel bed to heat homes. “But it turns out that we couldn’t do this. So what we’re doing now is not that conventional but has been done, which is to extract water from a deeper level which has more expense associated with it to drive a district heating system.”

For all its trial projects, the council is focusing on social housing which Dorling says makes up around 50% of the borough’s housing stock. Other initiatives include the Internet Of Things in the home to monitor information and predict information so the council can anticipate when boilers need to be repaired, for example.

It is also looking at generating its own local electricity supply. “Any surplus electricity has traditionally gone back to the grid, but economically that isn’t very rewarding these days so we’re looking at local storage that could then be used for electric vehicle charging. There has to be a business case for this so we’re trying to put commercial elements in such as charging for the use of the EV chargers.”

The next step is to make its energy supplies for housing more flexible, sustainable, and cost effective. “It’s very conventional now that there are smart energy systems which switch energy supplies depending on demand and cost in real time. If you’re big consumer of energy, a big factory, you can imagine how valuable that is and what we’ve tested is the use for that in the residential market. So we are aggregating demand and then actually looking at whether we can switch where we get that energy from at any one time to make it cost effective and also balance the grid.”

Going forward, the ambition of the ‘Sharing Cities’ programme is to facilitate Eur500million of investment into the smart city marketplace “We are talking to the GLA about how we can embed the legacy of this programme. There’s no obligation on us to raise that money but we want to stimulate investment into smart cities, it could be from government but what we are really focused on is commercial funding. We want to help cities clarify what’s possible and draw up their needs and help the private sector understand what cities want.”

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