Sunderland’s year as the UK’s smartest city


In October 2020, Sunderland was named the UK’s smartest city at the Digital Leaders 100 Awards. Sunderland’s journey to the top spot has been a fast-paced and collaborative one, which continued to gather momentum throughout 2021.

The evolution of the Smart City Programme has witnessed Sunderland achieve success in becoming one of the UK’s first smart cities and is on track to positioning its residents and businesses as leaders, digitally equipped to succeed well into the future.

The Sunderland Our Smart City Programme continues to arm the city with the digital capabilities to improve the economy and quality of life via digital access, support and education.

This has, to date, involved improving connectivity across Sunderland by connecting people, places and businesses through 5G technology, upskilling businesses and residents, plus the development of digital resources within the region.

Ongoing success has also involved the nurturing and growth of many partnerships to drive city-wide investment in next generation digital infrastructure, to continue to grow the city’s capabilities.

Patrick Melia, chief executive at Sunderland City Council, is leading the city towards a brighter, digitally-equipped future. His motivational leadership and the successful initiatives he continues to pioneer have been recognised with Sunderland City Council successfully gaining the title ‘Digital Council of the Year’ at the Connected Britain Awards in September 2021.

Patrick’s appointment to the UK5G Advisory Board further cements the city’s forward-thinking direction and leadership. Announced in July 2021, this appointment sees Patrick join a national network of experts, striving to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of global 5G development.

Patrick said: “Sunderland has worked tirelessly to become one of the first cities in the UK deploying a 5G ready operational network to deliver ultrafast Wi-Fi to key city centre locations making our city smarter, opening up a world of opportunity and cementing our reputation as a digital leader.”

Sunderland’s Smart City achievements over the past two years are vast and continuously expanding:  

Sunderland’s smart city journey began in April 2019, with stakeholder engagement to inform an ambitious vision and digital strategy. Since then, the following has been achieved, transforming its reputation as a leading smart city:

  • Upgrading to digital infrastructures that have better connected the city through the rollout of free ultrafast public Wi-Fi, with download speeds that surpassed the first 5G cities
  • Supporting Hudson Road Primary School by increasing their internet speeds from 13Mb to over 650Mb. This enabled virtual teaching and reliable digital streaming
  • Facilitating ultrafast connectivity for social housing tower block tenants in Sunderland city centre
  • Introducing traffic-mapping transport solutions to allow real-time traffic management and inform traffic flow
  • Expanding a successful assistive technologies pilot which saw the delivery of solutions to more than 1,791 properties for safer living and reduced social care intervention
  • Winning a government bid for £5m to support smart city infrastructure including fibre and 5G networks, enabling some of the UK’s smartest homes to be located in Sunderland
  • Gaining significant investment to secure plans for ubiquitous connectivity to all Sunderland premises, including a £62m investment from CityFibre, £10m investment from Netomnia and Virgin Media completing an upgrade to the existing footprint of 80,000 properties to 1GB connections
  • Winning the Harvard 2020 Civic Innovation in Technology Award for advancements in Assistive Technology
  • Forming a partnership with Digital Catapult to deliver two local innovation challenges around transport and smart building solutions, which will see technology being used to support the City’s carbon neutral ambitions
  • Establishing a partner to deliver a programme of works to educate young people in Sunderland to understand, explore and access digital career opportunities
  • Establishing a partner to design and deliver a range of activities to support technology business start-ups, moving closer to the City’s ambition to create 500 new technology start-ups within the next five years
  • Creating various programmes and initiatives to address the digital skills gap, ensuring digital inclusion and that no-one and nowhere is left behind
  • Being selected as one of only two location partners to deliver the Homes for Healthy Ageing Programme, which will see the implementation of a test bed exploring how technology can be used to deliver healthier homes in the City
  • Winning the Digital Council of the Year 2021 Award at the prestigious Connected Britain Awards, recognising a forward-thinking approach and transition to embed fully-digitalised departmental operations, digitally empowered team members and extending reach into local communities

The City Plan continues to future-proof Sunderland via a connected, forward-thinking approach. This is underpinned by innovative developments and widespread opportunities set to benefit individuals and businesses alike to promote a healthy, vibrant and dynamic smart city of the future.

£4.9 million 5G CAL (Connected and Automated Logistics) pilot is supporting a huge stride forward in the north east, with focus on establishing a unique centre of excellence and operational test facility to deliver the first autonomous HGV, powered by 5G.

What’s next

The developments around Sunderland Our Smart City continued into 2021 and beyond. Plans have been announced to transform the city and improve ways of living for all who work, live and study there.

This includes giving residents access to full fibre broadband in their homes and schools, connecting businesses to Sunderland’s gigabit network and allowing the improvements of digital healthcare solutions to better diagnose, treat and support patients.

The new full fibre infrastructure will allow seamless mobile connectivity for residents across the region, with improvements to public services that will introduce efficiencies and reduce costs and our plans for next generation wireless networks. The benefits this will bring will ensure Sunderland’s bold ambitions can be realised.

Our smart city initiatives will provide the perfect foundation to implement solutions from city-wide WiFi, traffic control, high-definition CCTV, an e-Mobility hub and much more.

Predicted economic impacts[1] should see:

  • £60m from private household benefits via increased house prices and household wealth
  • £13m increase in business productivity
  • £16m for new business start-ups
  • £15m from healthcare technologies
  • £58m from smart city infrastructure

Digital investment continues to be crucial to nationwide recovery from Covid-19 and in continuing to attract inward investment into our cities. Sunderland has the outstanding commitment to ensure that nobody gets left behind, and will continue with ambitious plans alongside an agile and impactful approach.

[1] Source: CityFibre

Liz St Louis is the Assistant Director for Smart Cities at Sunderland City Council. Follow Sunderland’s smart city journey at or check out the Sunderland Our Smart City entry on the Smart Classes Innovator Directory to discover more! 

Feature CGI Source: Sunderland City Council asset bank 

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