In 1851, the Crystal Palace was built to house the Great Exhibition, Britain’s first world fair. Through its iron-cast and glass-plate structure the building was completely transparent. It was about three times the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral, roughly the size of 10 football pitches. Picturing this might give you an idea of how deep an impression it must have left on contemporary visitors.
The world fair was held to make Britain’s role as industrial leader clear to the world and attract international customers for the largest producer of industrial goods at the time. It also sought to show technology as key to a better future. It is with the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace that the Siemens’ legacy in Britain also begins.
How William Siemens came to London
William Siemens, the founder’s younger brother, had come to the country in 1843 as a 19 year-old apprentice and in 1850 opened the company’s first London sales office on the occasion of the fair. It was here that he presented the first water-meter to the public to enable more efficient and less wasteful water distribution to the UK’s ever-growing towns and received a Council Medal for the Siemens’ exhibit of the pointer telegraph.
Today, we live in a globalized world, and at my office in London, I am delighted to work with colleagues from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, and engage in digital communication with Siemens employees dispersed all over the globe. Sometimes, when I go running along the Thames, I think of young Carl Wilhelm Siemens, as he was then known, striving for a breakthrough in marketing his family’s inventions. Two decades later, in 1872, he became the first president of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, a forerunner of the Institution of Engineering and Technology. I have been a speaker at the Institution. It was quite inspiring to see his name up on the board of former presidents.
Siemens’ breakthroughs in the Victorian Age
In 1863 Siemens opened up its first UK factory by Woolwich, south London, to produce submarine cables, an endeavour which eventually culminated in the laying of a transatlantic telegraph cable in 1874. I live within a few miles from the original site of the factory. Another pioneering feat of these days was the first electric street lighting and public power supply set up by Siemens in Godalming, Surrey, close to London.
The Victorians, in general, accomplished a great number of pioneering developments in infrastructure: the London sewer (after the so-called Great Stink of 1858), the world’s first tube (1863), the world’s first underwater tunnel (1843), and the Royal Victoria Dock (1855), which could easily accommodate all but the very largest steamships and became an instant commercial success.
Siemens today: Industry 4.0 and the smart revolution
Fast forward to 2019: With the boundless potential of digitalisation at hand and the advent of Industry 4.0 we find ourselves at a similar threshold as the Victorians back in the 19th century. Siemens is now mobilizing all its expertise to tread in the footsteps of these technological pioneers and bring forth an array of groundbreaking smart infrastructure projects to help propel London into the digitalized future.
Siemens developed the software for London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, which was launched in April 2019. Among eight other business fleets organisations it has signed the Clean Van Commitment, an obligation to replace a proportion of its van fleets with electric vehicles. The company has joined the London Business Climate Leaders initiative, a partnership with the Mayor of London, ten other businesses and global sustainability leaders to accelerate climate action for a zero carbon London by 2050 .
Siemens has provided state of the art signalling and automation for the Victoria Line, making it one of the most intensive metro services in the world with a train every 100 seconds. Siemens‘ trains and automation are helping to provide a metro style service of 20 trains per hour on the Thameslink route and five Desiro City trains are now in service on the Moorgate line, delivering a step change for passengers replacing the UK’s oldest electric fleet. This will help to take extra traffic load off the roads in a combined effort to reduce GHG emissions.
For those of you who have to rely on four wheels to get around London you know the ordeal. Vehicle traffic is in even more desperate need of optimisation than metro services. That’s why a smart technology solution like the Real-Time-Optimiser (RTO) is so exciting, enabling traffic flows to be dynamically optimised in real-time, and meet TfL’s objective of reliable and sustainable journeys through London’s entire road network.
Another great project is Siemens’ delivery with ubitricity of an innovative EV charging infrastructure using existing streetlights as charging stations for electric vehicles. Remember? Siemens installed the world’s first electric street lighting in 1881 not too far from London, as well as providing the first electric lighting in a British theatre – London’s Savoy Theatres. It gives you a palpable sense of legacy, it feels like the work that is being done today is still in tune with the vision of Sir William Siemens, who was knighted by Queen Victoria a few months before his death in 1883.
The Crystal: technology as the key to a better future
In 2012, when Siemens built The Crystal as part of its sustainable city initiative it bore this legacy in mind. The name and the transparent design of the building link to The Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition back in 1851.
The UK might not be the world’s leading producer of industrial goods anymore, but it is leading Europe in GHG reduction. Today, Siemens has 15 UK-based factories including a 3D Printing factory in Worcester and a new plant planned in Goole to build the next generation of London Underground trains. The Crystal was constructed at the Royal Victoria Dock to showcase the technology that makes cities sustainable and has helped play a vital part in the urban regeneration of the area.
At The Crystal, Siemens and its partners are setting out a blueprint for turning an existing city as old as London into a smart city. It is very different from the situation you might encounter in Dubai, serving as a brownfield to digital transformation, where smart infrastructure can be created from scratch.
What does the data tell us?
What are the key challenges for digital transformation in London? Looking at what the data of the Atlas of Digitalisation tells us, we see a need for optimisation in
- traffic time index and traffic related air pollution
- mobile connectvity (An average of 19Mbps is slow for a bustling metropolis like London, and reception is infamously poor throughout the city. Left without mobile connection at home I am personally affected by this.)
- metro automation (also taking into account that London has the highest number of annual per capita public transport trips)
- water loss (fairly high at 34% of total consumption)
Siemens is already involved in addressing many of these optimisation potentials. I have mentioned the Real-Time-Optimser for dynamic traffic control and Siemens work in signalling and automation for the Victoria Line. The company also has a deep portfolio in smart metering solutions to help manage water and energy. Would Sir William Siemens have seen this coming when he presented the world’s first water meter at the Great Exhibition in 1851?
The challenge of turning a city as old as London into a smart city
Narrow streets, old pipes, and a tube infrastructure with some of its layout and tunneling dating back to Victorian times form an extra challenge for London’s digital transformation. Considering this, it is an even more remarkable achievement that the AoD lists London with the highest score for digital readiness.
Before London goes fully digital, there are yet a lot of challenges to tackle. I feel fortunate to be working to help make London smarter, representing a technology leader with such a rich track record of pioneering engineer work from the Victorian days of the young Sir William Siemens to the creators of MindSphere today.
Let me know what you think! Where do you see the greatest digitalization potential in a city like London? Have you seen the exhibition at the Crystal? What do you regard as the greatest challenges for urban sustainability today?