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18 March 2015

Edinburgh’s city deal bets £791m on technology

Innovation in data and robotics are at the heart of the Edinburgh deal as the city looks to become the “data capital of Europe”.

By Sam Forsdick

While the majority of people travelling to Edinburgh last week had the Fringe Festival in mind, Theresa May arrived in the Scottish capital on Tuesday to sign off on a £1.3bn city deal that commits hundreds of millions in investment to technology and innovation.

The Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Deal will create five new innovation hubs in universities across the south-east of Scotland and the city council to improve the training, infrastructure and job creation in a number of sectors – primarily data science and technology.

As part of the deal May pledged £300m in investment to the Edinburgh city region, an investment that will be matched by the Scottish government. With a further £730m being invested by the regions local authorities of Edinburgh, East Lothian, Fife, Midlothian, Scottish Borders, West Lothian; its universities and members of the private sector, bringing the total to £1.3bn.

 Of this, more than half – £791m – will be invested in research, development and innovation, including robotics, bio-tech, health sciences, agri-tech and food and drink development. Five innovation centres are also being constructed, including the UK’s first “Robotarium” – a testing space for engineers and entrepreneurs to create new robotics companies.

Some £270 million of the innovation funding is set aside for “data-driven innovation” with the aim of establishing Edinburgh as the “data capital of Europe”.

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Sethu Vijayakumar, Director of the Edinburgh Center for Robotics and one of the people who helped inform the city deal proposals, told Spotlight it’s no surprise that the investment focuses on data and technology. “It nicely complements our existing strengths; Edinburgh is well known for tech and digital innovation, so we are building on our existing success.”

According to Vijayakumar, part of their ambition is to capture and analyse data from across the city to help inform policy makers. “When the government makes investment decisions, whether that’s building concert halls or creating more green spaces, they need to be informed by data driven analytics. That is our core strength and why we want to be the data capital,” he said.

“We want to create an example of how to use these innovations to drive decision-making. It doesn’t matter whether you are making policies on social care, health or education – the core is the data analytics.”

Vijayakumar said the city deal will do two things: “It will drive inward investment through big companies into Scotland and Edinburgh and, as the city is going to be a lab for many of these ideas… Scotland will be the first to benefit from many of these innovations.”

When drawing up the proposals for the city deal, Vijayakumar said, his team estimated that the Edinburgh city deal would return £23 for every £1 of government investment.

Other, more conservative estimates from Fife Council, anticipate the £1.3bn deal to generate over £5bn worth of gross value added to the areas economy.

One area where there is already a return on that investment is the Bayes Centre at Edinburgh University – a new robotics and AI research centre, opening this September, in which Vijayakumar has been directly involved. He explained that the vision was to bring researchers and businesses together under a single roof to help inform the research and “try to tackle some of the bigger problems that are facing today’s society”.

The bottom two floors of the Bayes Centre will be dedicated “living labs” – research facilities to test robots working in extreme conditions such as nuclear decommissioning, space and the harsh environments of offshore oil and gas. Other research will collaborate with Edinburgh University’s medical school to see how robots can help in healthcare and care homes. Vijaykumar explained: “We will look at ways that robots can help do people’s jobs more efficiently and more reliably. It’s not about replacing people it’s about using robots as a way of augmenting some of their capabilities.”

The third floor is available for companies to work on practical applications for the research happening below. Vijaykumar described the Centre as a place in which business can “conduct very blue-sky research that normally they wouldn’t invest in.” IBM, Intel and a number of SMEs will all have a presence at the Bayes Centre.

He hopes that the city deal investment will bring more companies and councils on board “to start accelerating our science output and to have a more significant impact in everyday life”. Vijayakumar added: “We have already established ourselves as one of the centres for the study of robotics in the UK and Europe, we want to now multiply that effect to help Edinburgh, Scotland and the UK in general to compete globally.”

Some of the data-led research that the city deal will fund is already taking place, with analytics being used to help the Edinburgh Fringe Festival run more efficiently and sensors collecting crowd data across Edinburgh’s green spaces. As the city looks to the future, this spirit of innovation and investment in facilities such as the Bayes Centre will help keep Scotland on the cutting edge.

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