Bristol is Open

Bristol is Open

When the “Bristol is Open” project was introduced at our last Subscribed London Conference, 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 to become 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 too 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 the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council. Private partners have worked with an advisory board to turn the city into a giant testbed that contains 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 academic research groups.

“We’re pleased to be working with Zuora to make this a pay-as-you-go environment,” said Managing Director Paul Wilson at our last London Subscribed 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, and 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 to 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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