What's the City of the Future? Bristol. Here's Why.

The first time Paul Wilson explained the “Bristol is Open” project to me, I was reminded of the first time I heard about the Internet. It was a light bulb moment – the idea that a disparate collection of localized data sets could combine into a powerful network of possibilities.

Bristol sits near the coast of Southwestern England, due west of London.  It has roughly 450,000 inhabitants, and is the eighth largest city in the United Kingdom (in other words, it’s a Goldilocks environment – not too big, not to small).  Bristol is the home of Massive Attack, Aardman Animation, the Concorde, the BBC Natural History Unit, and two premiere research universities.

“Bristol is Open” is a joint venture between University of Bristol and Bristol City Council.  Managing Director Paul Wilson and his colleagues are essentially turning the city into a giant testbed that will contain several hundred municipal data sets: transportation, education, waste management, crime, energy, etc. Broadly speaking, it’s an effort to comprehensively virtualize the real-time behavior of a city.

So is this just a new digital utility for Bristolians? A government wi-fi network to add to their garbage and power bills? No. Bristol is Open is very much a public and private sector hybrid that includes large telecom and software companies, start-ups, public service delivery organizations, and academics research groups.

“We’re pleased to be working with Zuora to make this a pay-as-you-go environment,” Wilson said recently at our Subscribed London conference.

All of these participants get access to a slice of the data. The idea is to let them leverage the network and create valuable new services — the plumbing itself consists of a fiber broadband network (installed in disused cable ducts) and thousands of new sensors provided by commercial partners including NEC.

“What you use it for  is obviously what’s most important to you,” said Wilson. “Assisted living, driverless cars, heating systems — if you’re a council it’s probably something like traffic congestion and air quality. But there’s no one answer. This is a software defined network that’s capable of addressing all of these concerns, as well as having fun. It’s life in a city.”

It also creates the potential to make all sorts of cool stuff:

  • Create a mesh “wi-fi canopy” out of 1,500 lampposts.
  • Track traffic data to tackle congestion problems and pilot autonomous vehicle test programs.
  • Hold music concerts, lectures and performances across multiple venues in the city at the same time.
  • Improve emergency response routes, waste collection logistics, public energy usage.
  • Turn the city’s planetarium into a gigantic “data-dome” that can effectively visualize big data.

But most importantly, it will create a municipal operating system (CityOS?) that’s open, agnostic and programmable. As Wilson said, “You can terrorize people with data. You can drown them in figures. It’s only when you make something programmable and actionable that you find value.”

Bristolians will be able interact with their city in entirely new ways, to look beyond consumption patterns and improve their quality of life. And I have no doubt that it will serve as a model for many other cities to come.

“Today about half the people in the world live in a city,” said Wilson. “That number will be seventy percent by 2050, and will constitute a total urban environment roughly the size of Australia. Every day a million people move to the city. This is a pathway to building a sustainable way of life.”

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