How Bristol is leading the UK in Smart City development FEATURE
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A look at the Smart City initiatives of Bristol.

More than half the world's population resides in urban areas, and more than 80% of global GDP is produced in cities. Thanks to the advent of IoT generated data, cities can predict crimes, prevent traffic accidents, build health solutions informed by real-time information, and create better communication systems between governments and citizens. It's no wonder the race among cities to be smarter and more connected stretches to the far ends of the earth. In the UK alone, strengths in design, research, finance and engineering could contribute to 25% of the global Smart Cities market, which is expected to be worth $408 billion by 2020.

See also: Justice #BetterExperiences

A recent report commissioned by street lighting expert Lucy Zodion and conducted by DJS Research, indicates that 80% of UK councils have little to zero engagement with Smart City implementation in their respective communities. But that's far from the case for the city council of Bristol, which is developing several Smart City projects. The Bristol/Bath region has more than 62,000 people working in digital technology, more than anywhere else in the UK outside of London.

What makes Bristol smart and open? 

In the UK alone, strengths in design, research, finance and engineering could contribute to 25% of the global Smart Cities market, which is expected to be worth $408 billion by 2020.Home to a number of digital projects tackling social and economic issues including poverty, waste and education, the Bristol Is Open initiative is developing a Software Defined Network using Network Function Virtualization, which allows multiple projects to use the network at the same time without interfering with one another. Bristol is currently positioned to be the first city in the world to use its own digital infrastructure this way.

"Today, most networks are provided in a fixed architecture, which is rigid and requires manual intervention to reconfigure the network," says Bristol Is Open Managing Director Paul Wilson. "A Software Defined Network is very exciting because it allows you to combine computing, networking and telecommunications. You can apply it into every facet of life be it health, mobility, entertainment services or smart homes."

Wilson says the concept has been proven to work in labs and in research and development environments, but never in the "wild," also known in this context as "cities." 

"It's a little like when you create servers, and you virtualize the server to create the cloud, which gets you computing capability on demand," explains Wilson. "So what a virtualized network will do is give you the connectivity you need on demand when you need it. When you don't need it, it will go somewhere else." 

What parts of the city make up the Bristol Is Open network? 

Bristol Is Open is comprised of three networks working together. One is a fiber network running underneath the streets. Another is a wireless mile, which includes conventional wireless connectivity such as 3G and 4G, as well as a trial experiment using 5G equipment that's capable of transferring a gigabyte per second around the center of town. The third network is an IoT mesh that runs across the city. Wilson says one in every 20 lampposts in Bristol has a node in the mesh, which connects IoT devices, and puts data back into a central IoT management platform. A smart house project called the Sphere Project is connected to the mesh, and Bristol Waste is beginning to use smart bins connected to the mesh.

Enabling Big Data visualization and putting play front and center 

There are four main nodes at which the network intersects. One of these is the Bristol Data Dome, a 3D immersive environment based in the At-Bristol Planetarium. The dome enables the shipping of large media files that create visualizations of city data, which inform viewers about air quality and congestion.

Another Bristol Is Open node is Engine Shed, a business incubator focused on helping startups that need connectivity. A collaborative program between Bristol City Council, the University of Bristol and the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership, Engine Shed aims to grow the startup investment community. 

When Smart Cities become digital playgrounds 

The third node is Watershed, a digital media center cultivating digital creativity, and working with Playable City, which uses city infrastructure and tech to encourage people to play. 

"It was a bit like Pokémon GO before Pokémon GO," says Wilson. "They [Playable City] get people playing together in cities, and making the city a digital playground rather than an isolating environment." 

See also: The Pokémon GO phenomenon

In 2014, Playable City produced an event called Shadowing, which used lampposts to create performance projections capturing people's shadow as they danced. The project rallied 100,000 participants within six weeks. 

"It's all about using tech to make cities more fun, as opposed to Big Brother, scary CCTV systems, controlling crime and fear," explains Wilson.

The fourth node goes to Bristol's Knowle West Media Centre, which leverages digital technology to cultivate greater social inclusion in impoverished parts of Bristol. The organization is developing plans to use IoT devices to highlight poor housing conditions, as a number of landlords aren't paying close enough attention to the homes they're managing. The devices will help residents collect data on how damp their houses are. 

"These are all different facets of a Smart City, but the point would be that in the post-modern world you don't have one thing that's more important than other things," says Wilson. "That's why you need a programmable city, the SDN-enabled networking environment."

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About Melissa Jun Rowley

Melissa Jun Rowley is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and content strategist with a passion for all things tied to social innovation.