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Sharing Cities Update: What on earth is a SEMS and why does it matter?

‘SEMS’ (Sustainable Energy Management System) is a key deliverable of the Sharing Cities programme. At its simplest, SEMS is the joining up of smart energy infrastructure and services (e.g. a river source heat pump and associated district heating scheme) with a data platform (in the case of Sharing Cities, our Urban Sharing Platform).  Achieving the join up will, we hope, allow us to optimise the test district’s energy use via advanced predictive control software. In turn, this will bring multiple benefits to the Sharing Cities districts in which it’ll be implemented:

  • Decarbonisation and increased use of renewables in the local energy system through improved energy management of renewables and grid supply
  • Reduced energy costs by integrating supply and demand
  • Removal of energy silos and reliance on single suppliers and technologies
  • Enhanced citizen engagement around energy use

A simple view of the SEMS architecture:


But what on earth is a SEMS, really? And how do we turn the Sharing Cities vision of SEMS into a practical reality? Here, the GLA’s Rick Curtis shares 4 lessons learnt after 6 weeks in the role of SEMS global task leader.

1.) So what is SEMS Rick?

On taking on the SEMS task lead role, my first natural question was ‘What is a ‘SEMS’? To which it soon became clear: It doesn’t exist yet. As a concept perhaps, but not in practice. Cue deep breath. The first step therefore was to arrange a cross city workshop to establish a common understanding amongst all stakeholders. This led us to a first high level definition: ‘An overarching advanced control strategy and data system focusing on city-level energy system integration and optimisation’. It’s not catchy, nor perfect, however it provided a solid foundation to build from and critically, establish buy in. The definition has since evolved, and a more refined and granular definition is being circulated to WP3.2 stakeholders for discussion.

 2.) How are we similar and how are we different?

As well as establishing common principles, it’s equally important to understand where differences lie. The SEMS design must allow flexibility to meet individual city needs, while also ensuring core principles are adhered to in order to allow learnings and sharing across cities. Only with common methods to design and evaluate can outcomes be reliably understood, quantified and evaluated, providing the foundation required for technologies and concepts to be explored in different combinations. Simplicity is key too: An easily understood SEMS that’s designed to meet end user needs is much more replicable and attractive to potential investors. This is critical for the 80 or so interested ‘scale up’ cities that are ready and willing to replicate our new business models as they emerge.

3.) Remain flexible – Adopting an open, agile approach

SEMS could be designed in a number of ways, shaped by the vision of its architects and interdependencies from other work streams – the smart city infrastructure that will feed into it, and the city data platform that organises and shares its data. Waiting for clarity from other work streams for evidence of successful final outcomes is not feasible however, meaning we must evaluate success as we go. Adopting an agile approach via short sprints (regular iterations of a SEMS design, followed by feedback and revision) allows quick feedback on certain outputs which can help inform decision making. These ‘quick insights’ sit well alongside the longer term KPIs set up to evaluate overall programme outcomes.

4.) Collaborate and Share Learning

Just as the SEMS work stream needs to continually progress, so do all others within Sharing Cities. Constant communication and open collaboration across all partners is therefore critical, and has been the single most important learning for me about how a programme of this nature must work. Through weekly and fortnightly meetings across interdependent working groups and cities, experience and knowledge can be harnessed to challenge current thinking, and improve designs as we go forward. This also means staying alert and open to better ways of working and learning. Only a few months into a five year programme, there remains much to address around SEMS: including the system architecture, connections with city infrastructure, and how to scale it up. However we continue to look inwards and outwards, open to solutions from outside of the project that we can ‘steal with pride, share with passion’!