ITP Award Winners 2021 - Innovator of the Year Associates / Ian Neild
Can you tell us about your career journey to date? How did you get to where you are?
I was doing a Physics degree and BT Research gave me a summer job, this led to sponsorship and when I graduated, I joined BT Research working on fibre amplifiers and free-space optical wireless delivery. The work was quite far out as we were looking at Mbit and Gbit delivery when most connected devices were at kbit serial speeds. I really enjoyed talking to customers and end-users about what we were doing, and this led to me spending a few years with the head of BT research and ultimately I became a “futurist” looking at what the impacts of technology would have on our customers and our networks and services. This put me on the world stage at conferences and in the media including the 2008 “Future of Communications Conference” at the ITP!
You’ll find some of our “technology timelines” still on the web, so I’ve always been working on ideas that are ahead of the market.
What prompted you to develop the sensing technologies that were highlighted in your award entry? Can you tell us more about how this was developed and its impact so far?
I was developing IoT sensing opportunities for Openreach poles/cabinets to help diagnose broadband issues and other user cases when I came across air pollution sensing. I could see this was having a big impact on all of us and would continue to do so but it made more sense to do this sensing from BT Street Hubs on the high street, so when the Openreach work was delivered I started working on air quality.
Air quality sensing is complex, the UK air quality network is slowly growing but it’s expensive, clutters the high street and there just aren’t enough monitoring sites collecting actionable data, it’s primarily a reporting network for annual reports.
By utilising BT Street Hubs (future payphones) we’ve shown it’s possible to collect good actionable data in real-time to allow better models to be created and see in real-time how action plans are working, allowing fine adjustments to get the best benefit for all of us.
We ran trials to see how councils would use the data and spoke to academia about how they would want the data, it’s taken time to get them to realise that our data is good and that by having a consistent device at the same location we get a much better network, in fact, it could be the world’s best national network.
The new Street Hubs have just started to be rolled out, so we’re looking to see which city will benefit from the first launch of air quality sensing, I can’t say much more until DEFRA make announcements, but I’ll be at COP26 in November to show off what the Street Hub can do.
What are some of the trends you anticipate seeing in the next five years?
I’m probably not the best person to ask as my views are that from someone who was a futurist, so a lot of what people see as new is a technology I’ve been expecting. So, I’d say to readers to look at the old technology timelines (or the ITP conference magazine) and see what’s happened and what hasn’t then ask why not. COVID has been a real step change about how we do things and changed the value of certain roles. These shifts are going to keep changing as machine learning and robotics become more acceptable, so the crucial thing will be how we live with just in time training/learning.
What would you say has been your biggest achievement so far?
I think my recent work to make it possible to get air quality monitoring into BT street furniture has to be the biggest achievement so far, my work to date may have influenced the industry and the monitoring work I have done with Openreach has reduced faults but that’s largely hidden. Showing that we can collect good air quality data from payphone locations and surveillance poles means we have this opportunity to create the world’s best national air quality monitoring network and understand air pollution. With the actionable data, we have shown can be collected it will be possible for better models to be produced and make action plans actionable. With air pollution linked with 36,000 deaths a year, I doubt I’ll have a bigger achievement than this.
What would you advise young people who may be considering a career in our industry?
The T of ITP is “telecommunications”, that doesn’t mean phones, it’s about communication and distance, telecoms have removed distance and changed time, we can reach out and touch people around the world in ways that our parents and grandparents couldn’t. It’s an exciting industry that continues to evolve because as the world has become much more reachable, it’s become more social and yet anti-social and there are still many opportunities and challenges for people young and old entering our profession to work on.
What does winning the award mean to you?
It came as a big surprise actually, I’d started my application to become chartered with the ITP (don’t put it off people) and as I was filling in the forms, I thought actually the work I’ve done recently did look quite innovative, so I decided to enter. It was great for the work to be recognised and be listed as a finalist but when I won it just felt like validation that the work I was doing to promote air pollution monitoring did matter and I wasn’t just blinkered in my own views. It was a breath of fresh air 😉
See the full list of 2021 winners and finalists here.