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CIO podcast: Making Bristol smart for everyone


Written by Mark Chillingworth

Bristol has always been a smart city. Blessed with architectural greatness such as its world famous Clifton Suspension Bridge by its adopted son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer would shape the stations and hotels that to this day have made Bristol a vibrant hub for the media, arts, business and engineering.

Today Bristol is a city living with significant growth, the Centre for Business and Economic Research finds economic growth of 2.4%. The Bristol economy is worth £13.6 billion and house prices have risen consistently over the last two years. Growth is desirable, but comes with challenges, so Bristol is aiming to become what is dubbed a smart city, announcing its intentions in mid-2015.

The UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says a smart city is a process rather than an outcome and says smart cities have increased “citizen engagement, infrastructure and digital technologies” which make “cities more liveable, resilient and better able to respond to challenges”. While the British Standards Institute (BSI) says smart cities are an “integration of physical, digital and human systems”. But technology companies prefer to focus on the IT, with IBM defining a smart city as making “optimal use of all the interconnected information available to better understand and control its operations and optimize the use of limited resources.”

With cultural and technological impacts, smart cities will have an impact on CIOs. Bristol Airport CIO Kevin Borley and Barney Smith, a former CIO with Natural England and Defra and now head of Bristol is Open, the agency charged with developing Bristol into a smart city came together to discuss their vision.


“There is nothing really new here, since we have been producing mass transport solutions like trains and cars we have always had to find a way to manage that, going back to the invention of the traffic light,” Smith says of what a smart city is.

“As the technology is exponentially growing in terms of its penetration and power, the data is developing and then we are finding new ways of harnessing and applying how a city works. By integrating solutions rather than stand alone solutions for one particular challenge we can leverage off that and achieve more for a citizens who live and work here,” Smith says.

“The smart city concept helps people understand the opportunities we provide for them and to help us, using the data that they will provide, to find new business opportunities to make their stay with us enjoyable,” Bristol Airport CIO Kevin Borley adds.

“If we don’t do anything there will be major problems in our cities. Global population has more than doubled in my lifetime. It has been 1-2% annually and those people are consuming more and travelling more within a city, so if we don’t do something then the cities will start to break down and we already see challenges in congestion and air quality within the city already,” Smith says of the need for smart cities.

“So unless we find news of managing the way the city works, then we will have a breakdown of the way that the systems operate to support the city. Saying that I am already hopeful as we are already seeing things that will make a significant difference, electric vehicles reducing diesel pollution and optimisation around bus journeys. We can start gathering data and respond to the situation such as very hot day or a very cold day and the city being able to respond in different ways.

CIO Borley agrees: “I can already see dozens of solutions coming through and I can also see a lot of money being pumped into the smart ways that people run their lives where they live and the communities that they serve. The investment community does see massive potential to solve these issues and it comes, in the main, from the perspective that the technology is evolving fast.”

“The challenges for the public sector are huge and the traditional ways of doing things are just not sustainable,” Smith says of the need to adopt smart cities. “If you look at the social care budgets alone you can see a major problem, so they have got to make cities cheaper to run, but that can be done by driving a more consumer led approach so you are providing the right services to the right people at the right time. Not a one size fits all, so it means focusing on the people that are in a real crisis.

“The significant fiscal challenges of austerity and the application of technology are a perfect storm. The behaviour of citizens, we are one of the most online consuming countries in the world, are coming together and forcing it. There is a burning platform, but there is also a very good ladder out there,” Smith enthuses.


Airport ready to take off

Bristol Airport, seven miles south of the city may not garner the attention of Heathrow and Gatwick, but the Canadian owned airport is growing rapidly and is central to the smart city ambitions of Bristol.

“It is vital to the future the business here,” Borley says of the smart city ambition. “The airport is growing at an incredible rate. We have a operating licence to take up to 10 million passengers and we are already approaching eight million, so in the next few years we have to be very clear about where growth is going to take us and how the community is going to deal with that growth.

“It is vital that we work very closely to ensure that the citizen of west country take advantage of all the technology innovation in transport and information and just understanding how we handle all the peaks and troughs for all the events that we have in the region. So I see it as a very important and symbiotic relationship,” Borley says.

“It is a vital component of the economy of the west of England. The population that we serve comes from the tip of Cornwall, south Wales and the home counties so it is a vital component and it has the opportunity to continue that importance to the region for a long time into the future. There are opportunities for new service models,” Borley says. The CIO and his organisation also need the smart city to help the airport tackle its own challenges, such as its weather (the airport was once an RAF fowl weather training base as it has reliably unreliable weather). One of those is the fact that we are served by one road, the A38 from Bristol,” Borley says and the CIO hopes smart city developments will improve moving travellers to and from the airport. “The opportunities for us to act as a transport hub, so the future is bright and the opportunities are huge.”

Smart culture

“As everyone begins to understand how your life changes through your dependence on smartphones, and how you work on a day to day basis with the outside world, your domestic and service suppliers will start to evolve and the applications and services will start to evolve in a much more rapid manner. Already we are seeing services for parking applications, the work I was doing in Munich last year exposed design for services in cars to find the charging points, so things are beginning to happen naturally and it will be a partnership between commerce and the councils.”

When the CIO community and I discuss business transformation one of the most significant aspects of a change programme is the change to the organisational culture. Turning a city into a smart city, will be a substantial cultural change programme.

“We have got to look at the regional context that Bristol in operating within,” Smith of Bristol is Open says of the 429,000 population in the city. “In the region the population is 1.1 million and we have Bath in our region and all the areas of Gloucester and Somerset that includes high tech manufacturing with the likes of Airbus and that regional context is critical,” Smith says. “So it’s not just about the people and businesses in Bristol and Bath, it is also about the tourist numbers. Without those adjacent authorities working together we’d fail to realise our vision. A lot of people are commuting in and out of Bristol on a daily basis so we have to look at in context of the region.”

“The reality is there needs to be an architecture that supports the needs of the citizens and that they understand how to take advantage of,” Borley says of how smart cities will become part of the fabric of society in the way Bazalgette’s sewers have become. “As everyone begins to understand how your life changes through your dependence on smartphones, and how you work on a day to day basis with the outside world, your domestic and service suppliers will start to evolve and the applications and services will start to evolve in a much more rapid manner. Already we are seeing services for parking applications, the work I was doing in Munich last year exposed design for services in cars to find the charging points, so things are beginning to happen naturally and it will be a partnership between commerce and the councils.” Smith calls it a smart society rather than smart city “as it is more inclusive”.


“It should not be about the infrastructure but about the people. Then we can start to think about how people and communities are like an organism and they are using the arteries such as the roads, rail and this airport and then what we think about is the control system behind that and that is where a software defined networks come in to make sure that those arteries are flowing well. There is a lot of deep technology involved, but what we are really talking about is how we control the end device,” Smith says.

Power of the network

Bristol is able to take off as a smart city because it has an extensive and high bandwidth network.

“There is accidental opportunities that have been created and we have an incredibly well educated and articulate engineering and technology hub in Bristol and all of these together create that opportunity,” Smith says. “In terms of the high speed network, 20 odd years ago a company called Rediffusion went bankrupt and somebody in the council had the foresight to purchase it and that is one of the things that really created the opportunity going forward,” Smith says of the infrastructure that a smart city requires.

But Smith and Borley say it’s not only the network, but Bristol’s heritage that is enabling the smart city to set sail, Bristol fashion. “Without the creativity and engineering that Bristol is famous for there is no way we would have created something.

It is about the ecosystem of creativity and innovation. If it wasn’t for the incubator like Set Square and the Engine Shed and the creative ind hub Watershed we wouldn’t be able to bring these things forward.

“We have had two visionary mayors who have all led and committed to this agenda for different reasons and purposes, but that leadership is critical. But I don’t think we should say everything is perfect, we are tackling challenges in the city and part of that challenge is that we have massive inequality in the city and there are not-spots and there are communities that are not engaged as well. Through the leadership through the council and the NGOs and the University and the tech companies that have chosen to base themselves to develop and grow in Bristol we have a unique circumstance that allows us to be at the forefront, but there are a lot of fast followers behind us. We must focus on solving the challenges for everyone, not just for some,” Smith says.

Securing a smart city

Cyber security has risen up the agenda of CIOs and an increasingly interconnected city will have technology risks.

“I see significant challenges around security and a lot of the work I have done here is to recognise that the cyber management is at the centre of our policy. Our stakeholders are concerned that disruption doesn’t damage corporate value, but more importantly to our airport users,” Borley of Bristol Airport says.

“When you look at bigger organisation like a smart city, then it is crucial that the risks are understood and that all the parties involved from the providers of the autonomous vehicles, the street furniture to city hall are securely designed from day one, with the ability to manage and to react to risks. When IoT comes along the risk is significantly larger. For the most part those technologies have not been weaponised yet but the guys at the centre of managing this ecosystem have got to have the smarts and the ecosystem to defend the citizenry so it needs to be designed in.”

“As we increasingly deploy these connected devices, we are increasing our risk profile significantly and there is a huge gap in recognition amongst citizens,” Smith says. “There is a skills gap and those operating this do not understand the risk.”

Borley and Smith though believe in the opportunities, despite the risks and believe that when the Horizon Business Innovation podcast for CIOs and CTOs next visits Bristol we will see a more “seamless” experience that will see the number eight bus routed through the city as a high priority because the city will know the passenger numbers on the bus.


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