The city of Bristol, in the UK, has launched a £75m initiative to create a futuristic smart city urban experiment. Major elements of the project are already underway, turning the city into a high-tech test-bed for innovation and positioning Bristol among the most exciting smart city projects in the world. Memoori speaks with Stephen Hilton, Futures Director at Bristol City Council:
Q: The ‘Bristol is Open’ initiative is making the city a pioneer of smart technology, culture and creativity. What makes Bristol such a progressive city?
There are a number of factors that make Bristol quite progressive in this regard. We have an elected independent mayor, George Ferguson, who very confidently sees the city as a place of experimentation. He is an evangelist for many things; he’s an urbanist, an architect, someone who values sustainability, social enterprise and social inclusion at the very heart of his policies. He sees the city as the unit through which we can develop new models for living, working and doing business that are about better, more sustainable, more innovative outcomes, for citizens.
There is an understanding the technology and low carbon, are strengths of Bristol. It’s not all high-tech however, some of it is low-tech or no-tech, such as an initiative closing streets to traffic, for example, or “opening the city to pedestrians” as the mayor would put it.
Q: Is the progressive nature of the elected mayor and city government not just a reflection of a progressive community in Bristol?
You could certainly make that connection. Part of the reason Bristol has developed this reputation around future sustainable cities is the nature of the community. It depends when you start that story, at one point many people would have recognised the sustainability aspect of Bristol’s community, but at certain stages that was not always represented in local government.
Over a decade ago Bristol was seen as the place people came to retire, after a fast-paced life in London. There wasn’t a sense that, liveability and quality of place was actually also an economic opportunity and innovative urban solution. The shift is that innovation, technology and sustainability have now become part of the city’s ambitions.
Q: We have read a lot about the smart city plans, specifics on street level technology, fibre optic infrastructure, but how would you say smart buildings fit in to the city’s plans?
Buildings fit into Bristol’s plan on a number of levels. Perhaps the main element we have in process at the moment is around energy use in buildings. We have delivered a number of experimental projects in buildings in recent years, we trailed smart meters in social housing, for example, where we achieved 13-15% savings and reinforced the benefits of giving users more information and control. We currently have an innovative project with Siemens, installing energy storage + solar units in homes, a school and an office.
We are seeing a strong trend between buildings and care in Bristol. We have a program called Sphere, which looks at advanced sensoring in homes, in order to monitor patient health. Exploring whether energy use and behaviour in homes can give indications of the health of occupants. People, care and energy seem to be the key elements of residential and community buildings.
There is also an agenda around Bristol’s office buildings and work places, not least our own offices at the council. We have incorporated technology, which allows staff to work wherever and whenever. Our offices have become open-plan, flexible use; they promote a sense of flexibility and the use of buildings in different ways to support different forms of work.
Q: How is the private sector in Bristol being encouraged to take part in this movement and make their own activities smarter, greener and cleaner?
We see private sector involvement in two main ways. Firstly through collaboration; we have worked on projects with large corporations like Toshiba, Siemens and NEC, as well as small and medium sized enterprises. Such corporations want the opportunity to trial and demonstrate the benefits of their products in a real world environment.
Second is in terms of encouraging the private sector to be part of the experiment and movement. Bristol is European Green Capital for 2015, an honour based on our environmental performance and ambition. One of the strands within that is our Go Green program, which encourages businesses to engage in a transformation of how they do business. This not only looks at buildings but at business in general, addressing topics like circular economies, making use of waste streams, and of course physical work spaces.
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Q: One of the major hurdles for smart city initiatives around the world is concern over privacy, from an ethical governance standpoint but also from a cyber security perspective. What have you encountered in this regard and how have you overcome it?
We see some risk in the “big brother” perception when applying some of these monitoring technologies. We are at an early stage of our maturity around this topic at the moment. We are yet to develop a sophisticated view of what’s right and what’s wrong.
While the privacy concerns are present, they are coupled with the benefits of this type of technology and society structure. Beyond Bristol, in general society, we already give away a lot of information in return for better service, be that entering an email address or accepting terms and conditions without reading the accompanying 40 page document. However, as we move into an age of more information, and the potential for that information to be pieced together, allowing the measurement of everything and everybody, it certainly raises these ethical questions.
We have chosen to work along the lines of “informed consent”. We actively engage people at the formative stages of projects, allowing them to balance the benefits against their concerns. Once we start moving forward with such projects, at scale, then I believe we need to develop certain mechanisms to help us make those decisions in an accountable way.
We are poised, along with the University, to set up a data ethics type structure, helping us to discuss, in principal, some of the things we could measure but may choose not to. We recognise this is not just a technical discussion but also one which covers right and wrong, as well as citizen comfort.
From a cyber security perspective there is a need for a robust, secure system. We don’t have all those skills within local government so we have created partnerships to address those issues. However there are also issues associated with the lack of information out there, while we must pay attention to security and data ethics, we must also consider the benefit which come with open systems.
Q: We see a number of targets for Bristol in 2020 and beyond. If we were to conduct another interview in 5 years from now, what would be the key topics of that conversation?
I believe, as a city authority, we are at a stage where we recognise that the future will work around a dispersed model of doing things. We are moving away from a model where central and local government, along with energy companies, deliver everything, to a model of government as a facilitator.
In five years time I think discussions will be about how we use technology to share things; about circular economy; about investments through crowd mechanisms; it 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.