John Bradford, who leads the Hi-Tech Bristol and Bath community interest company, says Bristol is Open started off as a computer science challenge – how do you design a programmable city? – but is now on the cusp of being much more.
“It’s taken time to get here because it had to be robust – and it couldn’t be fully open or it might be abused. So getting the environment just right had held the key. The groundwork is done now or else close to being done, and all on open stacks and running open source software, too.”
Barney Smith is the outgoing chief executive for Bristol is Open, and says the projects worked on already, even as the infrastructure has gone in, help to point the way ahead.
“The focus for our smart city work is on the big challenges like waste, pollution and congestion, and ageing and health services,” he said. “Water quality and air quality are also in the picture.”
One pilot project between Bristol City Council, the Japanese technology company NEC and the waste management company Bristol Waste, which has the recycling and waste contract for the city, was particularly instructive, says Smith.
“The pilot put sensors on municipal recycling bins to indicate when they were ready for collection and was relatively small scale, but you still learn a lot on a real-world pilot – for example, we found we needed powerful batteries to generate a strong enough signal for the sensor data to be picked up. That was a headache, but it’s also the point of a pilot that you work out what’s needed and the economics of scaling up.”
Dejan Bojic is director of smart cities for NEC Europe, which led on the project, and says wireless and connectivity learnings were part of the reasoning for the pilot, as much as exploring the potential for smarter, more efficient waste collections.
“You want to understand what kind of connectivity will fall over and not meet your needs. It’s something that you need to fully grasp, so connectivity was a big thing.
“In terms of setting up the sensors in lots of locations, that was easily done. We put sensors on 30 bins and started collecting data within 24 hours. We also ran some visualisations and analysed the data to answer key questions about how fast the bins fill in different locations and the part that weather and other variables play in relation to the speed of filling.”
Bojic says the project showed that running a real-life commercial project at scale would be easy to set up logistically, but the challenge lies in a robust service delivery and in making the economics work.
“What you find with a small pilot like this is that the economic case for a single-solution project is hard to make,” he says. “So you start to think about how several innovations might be delivered at the same time, taking full advantage of the technology stack, to move things forward in one giant stride. There are collaboration challenges there, and the need to break out of project siloes, but you immediately get a sense that it can ultimately be done, which is exciting in itself.”