In 2019, I successfully applied to become one of a small cohort of Digital Placemaking Fellows on the Bristol+Bath Creative Clusters R+D Pathfinder. The term Digital Placemaking is unfamiliar to many. The programme used the following definition, “Digital Placemaking aims to enhance and deepen the relationship between people and places. We believe the best examples of digital placemaking are co-designed by different kinds of communities, using digital technology and creative solutions to improve or enhance the public experience of place.
I planned to use the Fellowship to focus on the type of human-to-place connections that the Smart City often overlooks. We made a good start with the “Designing Digital Cities” event held at Arnolfini in February 2020. It sold out it’s 200+ tickets and attracted diverse support from, The Architecture Centre, Watershed, Copenhagen’s Gehl Architects; the University of Bristol’s Digital Futures Institute; Bristol’s Stride Treglown; and both Institut Francais and the UK Taipei Representative’s Office who jointly supported the participation of leading French-Brazilian Architect and Urbanist, Elizabeth de Portzamparc. We didn’t know then that just a couple of weeks later, COVID-19 would render further intermingling impossible.
During the following months, the public realm was public in name but not publicly available. The extent of most people’s interaction with the built environment reduced to the space within the four walls of their home and if they were lucky, a garden. It was clear that I needed to think again about the Fellowship and find a way to set my initial ideas in the context of our new lived reality.
At the same time - what a time to be a Digital Placemaking Fellow! We were collectively experiencing decades of Digital transformation in a matter of weeks as through necessity, everyday life gravitated on line. Work, school, family, leisure, shopping, culture, health, social care, love, politics, money and crime – all facets of human life delivered to and from the home via copper, fibre and wireless networks and experienced through a Zoom/Teams/Skype enabled window. Unless, of course, you were “digitally excluded” – just hearing this phrase spoken again was astounding as I had been working on Bristol as an inclusive Digital City for 20 years. The terminology and technology morphed over time but the core idea remained broadly the same - creating smart, sustainable, resilient cities and places where everyone is able to thrive.
The pandemic kicked the world firmly in its ribs and appeared to be threatening its very existence. From my perspective, the jolt also roused the Digital City from its slumber and Digital was no longer simply nice to have, it was core to our existence.
In July, five months into the pandemic, the Fellowship came back into focus as an opportunity to set current events in the context of a longer term Digital City journey and to think about the lessons we might take with us into the future.
My Fellowship study is called, “Rebooting the Digital City, Digital Placemaking at the Edge”. Cities like Bristol have compelling local Digital histories, which are as important to the development of the place as global technology milestones. The study gathers-up Bristol Breadcrumbs, stories of the Digital City beneath our feet, which span many decades and frame the city’s collaborative culture and creativity.
The trail starts in 1900 with the opening of the first battery powered telephone exchange on Telephone Avenue, a landmark that still exists in the centre of Bristol. The story heads through the Bristol Channel, an early experiment in local cable TV broadcasting; the development of pirate then community radio and the Rediffusion network, a web of pipes, ducts and cables that has been repurposed multiple times, to support touch screen kiosks, open wireless mesh networks and super connected city testbeds.
After passing through a wide variety of creative Digital projects such as, Electric December and Playable Cities, which became increasingly embedded in the physical city. The story concludes with the Bristol Arts Channel, launched during the pandemic and bringing up to date echoes of previous collaborative Digital experiments; paving the way for new hybrid business models based on physical : digital space.
Where will the Bristol Breadcrumb trail lead next? The “Rebooting the Digital City” report goes on to suggest that the pandemic has created an opportunity to shift the focus of Digital Placemaking towards “the Edge” powering-up local Digital networks and communities.
The study presents ideas under three headings, Edge Computing, Communities with an Edge and Keeping it Edgy. It explores the pros and cons of “re-localising the Internet” and asks what might happen if we were to say “Hey Bristol” or “Hey Filwood” instead of always calling on Siri or Alexa. The aim is to sketch a possible future direction for Bristol as a Digital City but also to highlight ways in which other cities and places might build their own Digital Placemaking stories.
Working with this dynamic and diverse cohort of Fellows would have been an amazing experience at any time. Working together over the past six months has been truly remarkable. All of the Fellow’s outputs are published today and are available HERE