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How this law graduate is helping to shape the future of Sunderland through technology

We caught up with Sunderland City Council’s Smart City Programme Chief Innovation and Growth Officer, Naomi Hutchinson, to find out how she is working to make Sunderland one of the leading smart cities in the UK.

Written by Rachael Nichol
Published 29.07.2022

In the technology workforce, women remain underrepresented with just 3% of females saying a career in technology is their first choice and only 5% of leadership positions are held by women.

But one woman who is making a change to that is Naomi Hutchinson who has recently joined Sunderland City Council’s Smart City Programme as Chief Innovation and Growth Officer.

We caught up with Naomi to see how she’s part of their mission to make Sunderland the smartest city in the UK – and we can confirm that it’s very exciting for our region.

What inspired you to get into this industry?

I kind of fell into the tech sector. Straight out of university I felt I needed some life experience before I could go into a career in law. I knew I was quite organised and loved that side of things, so I initially looked for project management roles and found myself at Sunderland Software City.

From the moment I stepped into the tech sector, I never looked back. It’s so fast-paced and exciting. It’s great knowing what’s coming over the curve before most people do, and then seeing people’s reactions to ‘new tech’. Some would argue I’m not in it (the tech sector) anymore because I work for a local authority, but I am absolutely on the tech and innovation side and that is my passion.

 

So, you actually studied Law at university, what made you switch to a career in technology?

I find it fascinating how technology can improve and change people’s lives for the better – as humans, we’ve always innovated to get where we are today and that won’t/can’t stop.  Technology is obviously a big part of that innovation cycle.

I love the tech community, it has such a fun supportive vibe and once you’re in it everyone knows everyone and wants to see each other, and new businesses, succeed. It’s a fantastic community to be part of in the region. I knew once I’d seen how exciting and fast-paced things could be, that I could never go back into a legal career (no offence lawyer friends)!

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

There is no typical day, and that’s the way I like it! Through a blend of home and office working, meeting tech companies, speaking at or attending events (local government or tech focussed), facilitating internal innovation workshops, speaking to organisations about the benefits of 5G – you name, it we do it.

I love how many different workstreams we have at the council, and because we are taking a full city approach, we really get to work across all sectors from manufacturing to health and social care, education and more.

What do you hope to achieve for Sunderland through your role?

We want to put Sunderland on the map as a global centre of excellence and a leading smart city. I think, as a team, we can really do this. We’re building momentum and it is exciting to see what is yet to come.

In my role, I’m really the conduit between Sunderland’s ‘demand’ – internal departments within the council and partners across the City looking for innovative solutions – and the tech sector, as I’ve built up a decent network of technology SMEs since I’ve worked in the industry. I want to create opportunities for the two to work together to make a real impact. So that Sunderland can be an exemplar, not only as a renowned smart city but for innovative approaches to engage with suppliers and SMEs to boost their capabilities, growth and success.

I want to see Sunderland achieve its ambitions. We have a unique approach in that we are focussing on the scale rather than just trials, and real-life use cases for the technology. This approach is city-wide so that we can make a real impact for all, leaving no one and nowhere behind. This ethos rang true when I first started conversations with my new colleagues and it is really important to me to fulfil this for the future prosperity of our residents and businesses.

Could you talk to us about Sunderland City Council’s Smart City Plan?

Our vision is to be a global centre of excellence for smart cities by 2030. It fits into our City Plan that is focused on building a dynamic smart city, a healthy smart city and a vibrant smart city.

Our City Plan is ambitious yet achievable – it was developed alongside partners from numerous sectors, spanning SMEs to large investors and educationalists to key industry representatives, as well as team members from across the council. It carries the voice of a wide variety of stakeholders from across the city to ensure it is fit for purpose and challenging and that the many stakeholders feel proud to own and deliver it.

What does this mean for residents and businesses in Sunderland?

It was quickly recognised that we weren’t on the rollout plans for private sector investment in connectivity in Sunderland and that the lack of connectivity was holding our innovation work back. So, the decision was made to invest in a long-term partnership with a 5G neutral host partner. From this, a world-first, smart city strategic 20-year partnership with BAI Communications (BAI) was born and plans to elevate Sunderland to the UK’s smartest city began to gather momentum.

Focused on delivering significant socio-economic benefits to residents and businesses, this unique partnership includes the design, build and operation of next generation wireless networks across the city, as well as a range of transformational digital and data solutions.

BAI is in the process of rolling out Sunderland’s ‘network of networks’, which will leverage the power of ultrafast free public WiFi, provision of LoRaWAN/IoT connectivity and a private 5G small cell network. This innovative combination will enable individuals and businesses to adopt cutting-edge 5G connectivity to boost productivity, access more and better services, jobs and opportunities.

 

Image credit: RJX Media

What do you love about your role?

I’m always learning and I am still wowed by what technology can do to improve people’s lives. I can really see how we are making a difference and that is really important to me. After all, we all spend most of our lives at work, so I’m lucky to really enjoy my job and feel it is potentially enhancing opportunities for others too.

I always said I didn’t want to dread a Monday and I never have; I really love being in a role that puts a spring in your step and gives you a real purpose. I also love how flexible it is. My work-life balance is great and this is something that is an absolute must for me as I enjoy my career and precious time with my young family.

What would you say to any women who are interested in getting involved in STEM?

Do it and don’t look back. I am not a ‘techy’ by any stretch of the imagination and my old schoolteachers actually laugh when they hear about what I do now. I didn’t even think about it as an active choice to work in ‘STEM’ but I am so glad I did. It is a growing industry with such a demand for new talent spanning a vast array of skill sets – it’s exciting and challenging in equal measure.

Things seem to be improving slightly in terms of the male/female split, but I remember it wasn’t that long ago when I started my career in the tech sector and I was often the only woman in the room. Imagine that a young, female and opinionated new person. But I liked to rise to the challenge – I used to say, ‘Well they are more likely to remember me and my ‘call to action’ as I am the odd one out!’.

 

What’s next for you?

I’m really excited for the future of Sunderland; it really feels like we are on a step change and it will be exciting to see what happens over the next few years. I’m interested in learning, adding value and getting my head down to do some hard graft in my new role. I love innovation and technology with purpose, so as long as I am in amongst those two, I’ll be there with a smile on my face.

If you’re interested in following in Naomi’s footsteps in shaping the future of Sunderland, the programme currently has a recruitment drive. Follow this link. 

For more information about Sunderland City Council’s Smart City Programme visit their website.

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