The city of Bristol, in the west of England, is continuing to develop its status as a test bed for smart technology. The forward-thinking city is not simply placing smart cities infrastructure on top of the existing city and encouraging citizens to adapt; it is adapting the city to its citizens by allowing them to play with smart city elements in these experimental phases. This bottom-up approach has put Bristol at the forefront of smart city developments.
“We are looking to give people the ability to interact, work and play with the city that they live in. Connectivity is key: most broadband or wireless providers have tended to provide connectivity based on what businesses’ currently need rather than providing additional capacity, where people can gain access to more bandwidth than they need to get started”, said Stephen Hilton, Futures Director at Bristol City Council.
Part of Bristol’s success as a test bed for smart city technology is a state of the art connectivity platform established with £75 million ($100 million) of funding just over a year ago. Through the ‘Bristol is Open’ initiative, linking the city council and the University of Bristol, the funding was partly used to develop a 30 Gigabit per second fibre broadband network upon which applications can be developed. “We are using high performance fibre available for research, as a foundation for new digital services around the city”, said Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, chief technology officer of Bristol is Open.
Speaking to Memoori soon after the funding announcement last year, Hilton said the future of the ‘Bristol is Open’ initiative “will be about the idea that people, citizens, businesses and communities have much more direct connection to the things that are most important in their everyday life. The role of the authorities will be to act as the honest broker and facilitator of those new opportunities”.
Now, just over a year later, we are seeing those ambitions begin to take shape. Tracking technology is being utilised by the city’s health, education and transport departments to monitor and manage the city’s traffic congestion problems. While a free-to-use “app store” has also been created to gradually open up digital infrastructure for community and commercial exploitation.
As a visual demonstration of smart developments the city has developed an emulator in its 180 person capacity spherical planetarium. Originally built in 2000, as a millennium project, the unique space has been retrofitted with 4k projectors and a fibre-optic connection to Bristol University’s high performance super computer, allowing it to project real time data on top of a 3D printed large scale city model, named ‘the Bristol Brain’.
“We want people to be able to leap into the city model, to experience an immersive digital environment that will use virtual reality, augmented reality and haptic technologies to allow people to experience new developments before they are built – meaning that future different scenarios for the city can be explored and their impact on transport, air quality, noise, light and other factors fully understood before any physical development takes place”, said Hilton recently.
The Bristol Brain is more than just an artistic project, it could fundamentally change the way we plan cities in the future. “It will provide a single, holistic planning tool that will be open for all”, according to Hilton. The project will help people better understand the technology and how it can be used to improve the city they live and work in, enabling citizens, local businesses and planners to work more closely together to make better decisions.
“We need to avoid allowing big business, which will look to standardise technology in order to optimise services, to dominate the smart city concept. A very efficient city is a sterile city and we want to use Bristol is Open as a platform that encourages not only big business, but creatives and innovative start-ups to contribute”, added Hilton.
The developments in Bristol are being followed by smart cities around the world looking to emulate many elements of the ambitious and open-minded British city. Indeed Bristol is not the only smart urban Guinea Pig that sees smart communities as the path to a smart city.
Hundreds of smart sensors and wireless gateways have been deployed across the Belgian city of Antwerp to create what is in effect a ‘living laboratory’ for the IoT. “Our aim is to connect citizens across the city with solutions that will improve their quality of life”, explains Professor Steven Latré, an assistant professor at the University of Antwerp and iMinds. “We’ve turned Antwerp into a large test-bed where data will be collected and analysed on a large scale. We’ve created a real life testing environment, rather than use the constrained and controlled environment of a more traditional research environment”.
Latré described Antwerp’s plans as ‘the quadruple helix’ that is intended to ‘combine and safeguard public interests while at the same time facilitating and supporting creativity’. “We want people, through the intelligent use of Internet-based communications and applications, to have far more control over their lives,” he said.
While in Singapore, Professor Low Teck Seng, CEO of the National Research Foundation, described his city’s developments as “trying to virtualise the whole city and looking to build 3D models of each building, including glass, cement and the internal geography of the building. We are looking to integrate live data from cameras in order to use it for traffic or disaster management”.
Be it through 3D models, high-tech projections or other forms of visualisation, the most forward-thinking cities in the world beginning to understand that giving citizens greater familiarity with smart technology will bring about innovative and sustainable development. Projects such as the Bristol Brain are giving citizens the knowledge to contribute, which in turn gives cities access to the innovative power of their people.
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