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21.12.17

Not just shipshape: Bristol is the UK's smartest city

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2018

As part of Bristol City Council’s ambition to build a burgeoning and inclusive digital community, Alex Minshull, its city innovation, sustainability and civil protection service manager, runs through the exciting innovations taking place across the region.

Bristol City Council has steadily been building its reputation as a key leading local authority in the development of ‘smart city’ solutions and digital technology. It benefits from having hugely successful tech and creative industries in the city and has been able to pilot several schemes that have since led to mainstream adoption and widespread praise. 

This has been most noticeable over the past 18 months; in May 2016 Bristol was named a leading UK smart city alongside London in a Huawei report covering 10 major cities in the UK. This year, Bristol overtook London in Huawei’s report of 20 cities across the country, confirming it to be the most pioneering, innovative and exciting place to live, work and play in.

The accolade comes after much hard work, which has seen the council move its ambitious concepts forward through a wide-ranging plan for Bristol delivered through the City Innovation and Sustainability team at the council.

A flagship smart project has been Bristol Is Open, an initiative between Bristol City Council and the University of Bristol which has created an impressive digital research infrastructure within the city. The joint venture has connected key business research locations around the city centre, such as the university, business incubator units and media studios, and is now being developed into the wider city and region. The fibre and wireless infrastructure is currently being used for a range of research projects with academic and business partners to address existing city challenges and future technology opportunities such as 5G.

But it’s not all about the future, as much of the groundwork has been put into place for use now. Recently, the city council deployed smart city technology to create a new state-of-the-art City Operations Centre which is helping to manage the city. It brings together and enhances the council’s traffic control, community safety and other capabilities. Linking with partner agencies and other service providers such as a large bus company, the centre not only provides minute-by-minute operation of the city centre, it also gives the city a strong capability to manage emergencies.

The City Innovation and Sustainability team has also been instrumental in getting several other projects off the ground, addressing key city challenges such as improving business connectivity, creating smart energy and transport systems as well as opening up the city’s data. Having a small dedicated team working across the council and with partners has secured significant national and European funding. The team has also shared the learning from its innovation work with other cities around the UK as well as globally, and has identified new partnership opportunities that will enable the city to accelerate its smart cities initiatives – delivering even more value for the people of Bristol.

Futuristic living

The smart city concept can conjure up many ideas about futuristic living which may seem unattainable or even intimidating to some; however, the council is not only making this a reality, but is working with partners across the city to make it more appealing to a wider range of residents.

This includes two connected autonomous vehicle trials (better known as driverless cars) which consist of partners in academia as well as in the public and private sector. VENTURER is a three-year project investigating the barriers to the adoption of autonomous vehicles in the UK, which includes looking at the legal and insurance implications of having autonomous vehicles on the road. FLOURISH, also a three-year project, is developing an understanding of user needs and expectations of this technology, with a strong focus on providing mobility options for an ageing population. Both projects are testing the technology at the Bristol Robotics Lab based at the University West of England, which is co-run with the University of Bristol.

Both driverless car projects are reliant on being connected to other similar vehicles as well as the city infrastructure itself, which is where Bristol Is Open fits. With the network expanding into Bath and South Gloucestershire through the Open Programmable City Region project, this will enhance the city’s position as a leading test bed for smart city solutions. 

Linked to this is the council’s work on open data, which is making complex data sets, for example on traffic, air quality, public transport and other elements, available for people and application developers to use. This means residents can get an inside view of key issues affecting them whilst also helping them to conduct their own research. This has enabled companies to develop new services for citizens that make it easier to use public transport – such as the hugely successful BusChecker app, which provides real-time information on your smart phone.

Another partnership project which the council is heavily involved in is REPLICATE (Renaissance of Places with Innovative Citizenship and Technology), which began in February 2016 and runs until January 2021. Based in East Bristol, it is working with residents to research using integrated energy, mobility and smart city solutions. This will include installing smart energy appliances in people’s homes, making them more energy-efficient through insulation, and using solar panels so residents can generate their own renewable energy. In addition, there will be e-bikes, electric cars and on-demand electric mini-bus services as well as new e-car charging points.

The learning from this research project with citizens will enable Bristol to understand how ordinary citizens can benefit from using technology in their everyday lives, and provides a model which can be replicated elsewhere in the UK and abroad. It will provide crucial learning for how we integrate technology to create a smart grid, which will enable the city’s goal to be powered entirely on clean energy with zero carbon emissions.

Beyond the usual suspects

An integral part of Bristol’s success has been the council’s willingness to go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ to create interesting, fun and meaningful technological solutions in the city. Being tech-savvy is not just the remit of the many developers, agencies and tech companies based in Bristol, but the spirit of this has also rolled out to neighbourhoods that may have been previously forgotten. By combining cutting-edge technology with community engagement, Bristol has been able to break down the barriers that may intimidate some residents and has helped build a burgeoning digital community that means the smart city concept is seen as something that everyone can be part of.

Key to achieving this has been through the Bristol Approach, a way of working developed with the Knowle West Media Centre in the south of the city. One example of this is the Damp Buster, a frog-shaped sensor that people can use in their homes to measure the levels of damp and which thereby encourages them to deal with any problems head-on. Empowerment through education has been key to this, and by including local people in the creation of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, this has helped many develop skills they had never considered would be relevant to them.

Bristol City Council would probably not have become the digital pioneer that many see it as were it not for the willingness of its staff and partners in the city to try new things and take measured risks. This method of working has benefitted countless projects and is a reason why Bristol is now a leader in areas such as IoT applications, smart city initiatives and 5G research. Ultimately, though, Bristol City Council is committed to improving the lives of the city’s residents, and making sure it is technically advanced, forward-thinking and resilient will go a long way to make that happen.

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