Weekend interview: How to improve lives through simulation

One bit at a time, Dr David McKee is turning the world 3D – and he’s starting with Yorkshire. It’s a big county, but he reckons he’ll have it all looking three-dimensional by the end of this month.

Screenshot: Dr McKee says Slingshot’s platform is ‘like The Sims, but in the real world’. Picture: James Hardisty.

His company, Leeds-based Slingshot Simulations, creates “digital twin” technology that could help turn the region into a global pioneer in the field of smart cities.

“We define digital twin technology as the ability to model and mirror the real world,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

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“You can use that, with data from the real world, to do analysis and predict what might happen – to be able to run simulations through forecasting.

“The best analogy would be something like the [computer games] Sims or SimCity. Imagine that, but in the real world.”

Smart cities use sophisticated tech to reduce “friction” in urban environments, making them run more smoothly, cleanly, healthily, and sustainably.

That Dr McKee should run a company involved in the push for smarter cities is perhaps hardly surprising. His background speaks of intellect and commercial nous, but he’s also well acquainted with what can happen when civil society lets people down.

He doesn’t remember his native Northern Ireland, but he still has the accent, courtesy of his parents, who took him aged four to live in Greece. They worked for a charity which helped refugees from the Balkan wars and he lived there until he was 16 – he’s fluent in Greek – and also spent a month in Albania, which was “definitely an eye-opener in terms of poverty”.

He still volunteers with Calvary Chapel Bible College in York, leading a team to work with young people in his “hometown” of Thessaloniki.

As a boy, he ran financial projections in a spreadsheet – “just for my own pocket money, which sounds very sad” – and went on to co-found a couple of start-ups as an undergraduate.

“I’ve always been interested in algorithmic development and building things that are genuinely fascinating,” he says.

“With those start-ups, I was always interested in the data analysis side, even if I wasn’t necessarily consciously aware of it.”

In 2018, he was awarded an enterprise fellowship at the Royal Academy of Engineering, which allowed him to focus on building up Slingshot as a viable commercial proposition.

He says: “As soon as I’d come up with the original idea back in 2013, I had approached the university commercial team and said ‘Look, there’s something here’. So we started to work on it in our spare time and say ‘well how do we build this story?’.”

Dr McKee’s work 3D-modelling our region is part of the Yorkshire Geospatial Twin partnership, a Government-backed project led by Slingshot to improve the transport network in Leeds, York and Hull. It’s also tasked with investigating ways to improve logistics and deal with potential delays at the port of Hull – a very live concern in the wake of Brexit.

Slingshot generates virtual city simulations using petabytes of data from sources as diverse as local government and NASA, which allow planners to test different ways of boosting the capacity of transport networks, reducing congestion and cutting air pollution.

The 12-week project, which also involves Arup, BT Group and the three city councils, is one of the largest of its type in the world and if successful, the technology could be adopted globally.

It’s heady stuff, considering that Slingshot’s wizardry evolved from something McKee knocked up to save time during his PhD.

“I was watching my colleagues, who were doing research into the energy efficiency of data centres, and they were spending months doing these models and spreadsheets. And then, when someone got it wrong, that could be nine months of modelling down the drain. That’s a long time, particularly on a PhD,” he says.

“I thought ‘No, I refuse to do that.’ So within four months of starting my PhD I’d built the very first prototype of the simulator that is now our core platform, so we could do it in real time and run the simulations in seconds.

“It was actually not the core area of my research. My PhD itself never actually touched on it, which was curious.”

Slingshot now has 13 employees, but that could change very soon. If the Yorkshire project is a success, the company could see rapid expansion.

“That is very much our vision – to grow to show that this can be done,” says Dr McKee.

“The UK is actually a big player in this sector, with anything between 10 and 15 per cent of the global market. That’s a fair chunk.”

But his ambitions stretch beyond even smart cities. With Slingshot, he ultimately aims to bring digital twin simulation to the streets – not just in terms of the ones he models, but also where he sells it.

“These types of technologies are normally the preserve of the 100 million or billion-dollar companies. They are typically really expensive,” he says.

“But we want this to be in the hands of every local authority, every city, every town, and even small businesses.

“Take the corner shop. We need to get this to the point where a business of that size will be able to use it to some degree, for example for stock prediction. It needs to be a no-brainer for them – that is our aim.

“I won’t pretend that this is an easy journey I’m taking myself on. It’s absolutely going to be fascinating, terrifying, exciting – add whatever adjective you want.”