Self-professed “ideaoptimist” – that’s an optimist with lots of ideas – Eric Van der Kleij has spent three years kick-starting London’s smart city revolution.
Van der Kleij is a technology entrepreneur and the head of Level39, Europe’s largest accelerator space for financial, retail and smart cities technology companies. Its Cognicity initiative is a pioneering future city project set up by Canary Wharf Group (CWG) to identify and accelerate the development of smart city technologies, helping to create one of the world’s leading smart city quarters within one of the world’s greatest capital cities.
A number of pilots with game-changing potential are already in the process of being put to the test across the Canary Wharf estate as a result of the Cognicity Challenge – a one-off foreuruner of the now permanent Cognicity Hub.
van der kleij
The Cognicity Challenge began early last year with 36 start-ups selected, provided with space to develop their ideas, and offered a series of intensive workshops and expert mentoring sessions with a team from Canary Wharf Contractors and others.
At the end of the programme each entrant delivered a business plan and pitched it to CWG executives, with the six winning projects offered cash prizes and the chance to move to the pilot stage. So high was the quality of the entrants that six more were also offered the chance to run pilots on the Canary Wharf estate.
Those highlighted by Van der Kleij include Strawberry Energy – which is piloting benches that charge your phone, Polysolar – which is piloting bus shelters that will do similar with thin film solar technology, Pavegen – which also generates energy, this time with a paving material, and Boldmind – which has the ability to use available data to customise special offers for retaliers.
All this data – internet of things data, really interesting sensor data –we have to learn what we can use
Each on their own sounds low key, but throw in Van der Kleij’s ideaoptimism and a very exciting future begins to take shape.
“Ideas need freedom or challenge to flourish,” explains Van der Kleij. “Sometimes both.
“When you allow creativity to mix with ideas, you fuel the spark of innovation, that either solves an existing challenge or occasionally – if you are very lucky, creates true novelty,” he adds. “For me, innovation is about furnishing the optimum conditions for creative ideas to flourish, and then doing something about those ideas.”
Van der Kleij was born in the Netherlands, brought up in South Africa, and moved to the UK at the age of 15. His interest in technology was sparked when his brother bought him a Sinclair ZX81 as a teenager. Deciding that he lacked the technical skill to be a programmer, Van der Kleij went on to study business, after which he began a career in technology by commissioning software to help golf clubs to keep track of their membership. Van der Kleij became a “serial entrepreneur”, creating several telecommunications companies.
In 2003 he was approached by the British Government to help set up its Global Entrepreneur Programme – an initiative to help UK-based technology companies expand and globalise.
He launched Level39 for CWG three years ago. Initially aimed squarely at the Fintech sector, it has made the leap into smart cities.
“Smart cities is a whole new ballgame,” he says. “CWG could be the test bed for the next generation. That’s what Cognicity was about,” he says. “Every one was relevant; every one was amazing; every one was absolutely brilliant.”
The six winners all have great potential, and there is big expectation that the pilots will take off and
make it as commercial products with the help of the CWG supply chain.
Take Polysolar. It won the “Sustainable Buildings” stream for its transparent, thin-film photovoltaic glass panels, which can be fitted, or retrofitted, into a building to generate clean energy. It is now working on a pilot bus shelter project using transparent solar film which will generate enough power for people to charge their phones.
It sounds modest, but apply some Van der Kleij ideaoptimism to it: “This might just be the licence for us to continue building buildings out of glass,” he states.
“Polysolar is this glazing company that actually generates energy and improves thermal efficiency of buildings. Now of course, that’s a young business that is based in Cambridge. But the real magic is where we start to introduce them to the CWG supply chain because, if they can develop this as a product that could be used in construction, the global marketplace is huge.”
Energy-generation is a feature of a number of Cognicity winners. There is also Strawberry Energy’s smart benches. Four interactive solar-powered benches are being installed across the Canary Wharf estate, combining somewhere pleasant to sit with free phone charging points and additional services such as relevant local information, air quality levels, and an emergency call button.
And then there is Pavegen. “Pavegen is very cool,” says Van der Keij. “When you walk on it it generates a very small amount of energy,” he explains. “The potential is enormous.”
Pavegen’s innovative kinetic energy-harvesting floor tiles have already won widespread praise and media coverage.
The energy harvested by the Pavegen tiles can be used to power local lighting systems, digital advertising displays, wireless systems and wayfinding solutions.
The greater the footfall and the larger the number of tiles installed, the more Pavegen can power. The floor tiles can also be used for data analytics, monitoring and analysing footfall traffic for use in crowd control and traffic analysis.
Pavegen will install 10 tiles in the heart of the Canary Wharf district, to demonstrate it to the public, powering two streetlights in the heart of the development.
Van der Kleij’s biggest buzz is reserved for Boldmind though. Again it’s a small team with a big potential.
Its product, Flow.city, is aimed squarely at retailers and gives access to data such as office occupancy and footfall gleaned from sensors and CCTV to help them choose the best time to publicise special offers on their big screens.
Take a Canary Wharf sushi store. The owner wants to manage queues at lunchtime and also to tempt in customers towards the end of the day to minimise waste. Using Flow.city he or she can see when the estate is emptying and when to launch a half price offer.
But Van der Kleij is already thinking bigger. What if the software also accesses Tube occupancy and queue time data from London Underground? And what if it uses that data to unleash special offers in stores when the queues for trains from Canary Wharf are at their peak – luring in customers and spreading the peak load on the station?
“What Boldmind has is a very good screen-based content management system which means it can show our community here special offers and things like that,” he says.
“But by providing them data on the volume of people using the escalators in the Tube station, what they can do is help with traffic management and people flow management by providing special offers that are likely to be taken up at the moment when there is going to be a crush. You can put on offers that slow the move to the Tube and even the flow.”
It shows the way Van der Kleij thinks.
“I always take a signal from what people like Google are doing. Google’s Sidewalk Labs is a lot about this kind of use of data,” he says.
Quality of life
Google launched Sidewalk Labs last summer. It’s been quiet about exactly what it intends to do, other than saying it will be an urban innovation company that will “develop technology at the intersection of the physical and digital worlds, with a focus on improving city life for residents, businesses and governments”.
“They make a very clear acknowledgement that they have woken up to the relevance of data and the ethical custodianship of that data in an urban environment,” explains Van der Kleij. How do we ethically use that data to give us a better quality service; collectively reduce our energy burden?
This might just be the licence for us to continue building buildings out of glass
“All this data – internet of things data, really interesting sensor data – we have to learn what we can use,” says Van der Kleij.
“We said at the outset we were looking for three things – tech that offers an improvement in performance; tech that differentiates; and tech that makes our citizens happy.
“OK, happiness is a little abstract, but we all know it when we feel it,” adds Van der Kleij. “And it’s really important.”
Can the UK deliver this kind of concept?
Slow to accept change
“The UK construction industry is very slow to accept change as it has structures around supplier/procurer with penalties if you get it wrong.
“That needs to be reconsidered,” he says. “I personally believe state-funded procurement has an innovation quotient mandate in it.
“As a taxpayer we want to see an industry with a global impact.
“That might mean there is an additional cost. At Canary Wharf there is no question that Cognicity had an additional cost. But we know the return on investment from just the pilots has already exceeded that cost,” he says.
Which makes what is happening at Canary Wharf all the more important. As Van der Kleij concludes: “The industry will behave in a way its competitors are seen to be behaving.”
Eric Van De Kleij resume
Created and implemented strategy for the British government’s Global Entrepreneur Programme
Founded Adeptra, the company that pioneered automated credit card fraud detection. Sold to tech firm Fico for $115M (£80M) in August 2012
Appointed first chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation, charged by prime minister David Cameron with accelerating the growth of London’s “Silicon Roundabout” technology cluster
Launched Level39, Europe’s largest financial, retail, and future cities technology accelerator space at Canary Wharf. Launched Cognicity London