About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Use case: Milton Keynes – a testbed for innovative transport solutions

  • Geography: Milton Keynes, UK
  • Facilitators: Milton Keynes City Council and various stakeholders
  • Timeframe: 2014–ongoing

Milton Keynes is the largest ‘new town’ in England, founded in 1967 as a commuter hub situated between London, Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge. The City Council recognised that it needed to look beyond traditional transport solutions to keep up with population and jobs growth and to manage challenges of expanding the current road network and a dispersed housing pattern. To meet their future transport challenges and support long-term economic growth, Milton Keynes’s urban infrastructure has been made into a real-world testbed, including testing of:

  • An electric bus fleet: A testbed aimed at delivering a clean and commercially-viable electric bus fleet using inductive opportunity charging.
  • Self-driving vehicles: The UK Autodrive consortium-based project, facilitated by a UK Government-backed competition to support the introduction of self-driving vehicles.
  • City systems data management: MK: Smart supports acquisition and management of data related to city systems such as energy, water and transport management.
  • Starship Delivery Robots: Testing robots to deliver food and goods.
  • Lime Electric Bicycles: Developing a dockless e-bike share scheme in MK’s urban areas.

Milton Keynes is not continuously operating as a testbed, but the city council uses the infrastructure for this purpose when opportunities arise. In addition, Milton Keynes Council recognised in their economic development strategy that the status of being a forward-thinking, smart city could be used to brand the city and enhance the sense of place. This could create a virtuous cycle of attracting firms to grow the local economy and using testbeds to solve the challenges of growth.

Milton Keynes

Key success factors and lessons

  • Use real urban challenges to design testbeds: Milton Keynes City Council has been focused on choosing technologies and co-designing testbed objectives and environments to be in line with locally-specific challenges (as opposed to ‘just’ opening the urban environment for any kind of technology).
  • Attract technologies based on local strengths: The Council is attracting testbeds that use MK's unique assets. For example, with a more recently-designed road and footpath system, autonomous pods and delivery robot testing has been easier to carry out. The city further plans to use its proximity to an Amazon distribution centre and university with a world-class aeronautical faculty to test the use of drones in the city.
  • Use real-world testbeds to improve the city: Through co-designing the properties of the real-world testbed – what the innovators should test in an area – Milton Keynes has learnt valuable lessons, not otherwise possible to anticipate, through testbed activity. For example, the autonomous pods were set to try to solve a particularly congested area. This has influenced the anticipatory planning of a transport system that is fit for the future.
  • Real-world testbeds can ease budget constraint challenges for public services and infrastructure: Procuring unproven technologies can be both risky and expensive. Milton Keynes's approach has been to provide some of its available urban infrastructure for testing. In return, companies get to verify their products and develop their business case, which is less risky and costly than directly funding such a solution.
  • Using the ‘brand’ of being a city open for testing to attract investment and activity: MK has built a reputation as a city open to testing as a direct result of the real-world testbed activity. This can be seen through media narratives and an increased number of businesses reaching out to the Council. This reputation, along with networks from previous projects, has led to companies seeking out Milton Keynes as a location for further testing and investment – a proactive inward-investment strategy.