Bristol is Open: case study of an innovative smart city

By Steven McGinty

In May, ‘Bristol is Open’ was named as a leading smart city, just behind London, in Huawei UK’s Smart Cities Index. In the same month, Bristol is Open was also announced as Smart City Innovator of the Year by TM Forum’s Digital World Awards.

Bristol is Open

The project is a joint venture between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council. Several other partners are involved, including national and European governments and commercial organisations, such as Japanese technology firm NEC. This collaborative project will act as a ‘laboratory’ for research and development initiatives and will help shape the development of smart cities and the ‘internet of things’.

Paul Wilson, Managing Director of Bristol Is Open, explains what’s so innovative about the project:

We use a software-defined network (SDN) to run the city in Bristol and then we apply network functions virtualization (NFV) into that network, which is allowing us to have an elastic and scalable network that we can slice to thousands of different users.”

In simple terms, the city is in the process of creating a world leading digital infrastructure. This includes: 144 core fibres in the ground; a mile-long stretch of wireless connectivity along the harbourside, which will include experimental wireless technology such as 5G mobile broadband; and a selection of internet of things sensors and technologies, including 1,500 lampposts. All of which, will be interconnected and controlled by software.

A key advantage of this new model is the ability to splice up the network for different users. This provides the opportunity for new partners to become involved, including community organisations and small start-up companies. Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Project Lead and Chief Technology Officer at Bristol is Open, also explains that the network is “open, agnostic and programmable”, ready to be adopted for the technologies of the future.

Interestingly, the core fibres were installed in a network of redundant ducts purchased by the council over ten years ago. Previously, they had provided cable television to homes in Bristol in the 1970s.

The Data Dome

Last November, the project launched ‘The Data Dome’ at Bristol’s Planetarium.

The 98-seat Bristol Data Dome is connected to a high-performance computer at the University of Bristol (via a 30Gb/s fibre link). The Data Dome, supported by the network and high-speed computer, provides an opportunity to visualise complex experiments, create virtual reality environments and give audience members their own unique perspective.

The dome has been used to show content from earth sciences, as well as real time sociological mapping in cities. Engineers, at corporate sponsor Rolls Royce, have also used the Dome to visualise engines and to inspire young people about engineering.

‘No grand visions’

In a recent TED talk, Stephen Hilton, Leader of Bristol City Council’s Futures Group, states that ‘he doesn’t like to spout grand visions’.  Instead, he explains that the Bristol is Open team prefers to focus on tangible targets and introduce measures that lay the groundwork for smart cities.

He highlights that the project aims to:

  • reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2020;
  • create 95,000 new jobs, particularly in high growth sectors such as the creative industries and green technology;
  • have Bristol recognised among the top 20 European cities by 2020.

 Smart Cities Index

Huawei’s Smart Cities Index highlights five important themes for creating successful smart city programmes. These include:

  • the importance of leadership and vision
  • a need to focus on local priorities and strengths
  • the importance of engagement with local communities
  • building local partnerships
  • understanding the way in which the data revolution can improve services and boost innovation

Privacy

George Ferguson, former Mayor of Bristol, recognised the challenges surrounding data privacy. He acknowledged that privacy can lead to heated debate and advised that cities should help shape the debate, rather than leave it to technology companies. For him, understanding how citizens want their data to be used is an important part of the Bristol is Open project.

However, this may not satisfy those concerned about lampposts with “acoustic detection sensors” capable of recording noise levels, possibly speech.

Final thoughts

Bristol’s commitment to becoming a truly smart city has led to its award winning status. In the future, it will be interesting to see if it’s ambitious, yet pragmatic, approach will help to address some of the city’s key challenges, such as reducing carbon emissions. More importantly, it will be interesting to see whether the lessons learnt in Bristol, will be introduced in other cities, and whether we move away from the idea of smart cities to a ‘smart nation.’


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