This is a transcript of the opening remarks made by Stephen Hilton at Designing Digital Cities, Feb 2020
Before I hand over to our two acclaimed international speakers, Jeff Risom and Elizabeth De Portzamparc, I hope you’ll allow me a few moments to set some local context and frame some of the questions we are grappling with when it comes to Smart or Digital Cities.
I first became involved in Connecting Bristol, this is what we called our digital city partnership, when I was working for Bristol City Council in the early 2000’s.
We wanted to re-energise local democracy and knew that the internet, public wi-fi and open source technologies were important.
We created digital toolkits for people to start their own neighbourhood campaign, put free to use computers into all public libraries and gathered people together in online civic forums so they could debate and discuss the issues of the day.
We weren’t alone in pursuing this ambition - we soon met others with similar questions and interests - Knowle West Media Centre, Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol Wireless and the very brilliant MySociety.
This was, of course,before social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram hadn’t been invented.
It was a moment in time when pioneering Council’s, such as Bristol, believed they had a powerful leadership role, and even a moral responsibility, to shape civic technologies so they were accessible to everyone and used for the public good.
But over the intervening decades, the agenda has shifted away from democracy and community empowerment towards Smart Cities.
Perhaps as a result of the financial crash in the late 2000’s, increasing urbanisation and the subsequent period of austerity, the headlines now are about efficiency savings, big data, predictive analytics and many would say, surveillance and control.
As we look around the world, we see global companies such as Sidewalk Labs in Toronto and Toyota in Japan investing billions in bringing together cutting edge technologies with cutting edge urban design - they are creating new smart waterfronts, districts and even new build smart cities. The infrastructure being deployed will be in place for decades to come. It will fundamentally impact on how we interact with these spaces in future.
It is hard to see where local accountability fits in, if it fits in at all.
Let’s not fall into dystopian despair - we’ve all met a few technologists who mistake films like The Terminator and Minority Report as instruction manuals for operating the future city but there are many more, particularly in Bristol and Bath, who are mindful of the responsibility they have. They want to work in partnership with businesses and communities to create open innovation Testbeds for new ideas and new technologies.
I am excited by the work the West of England’s Combined Authority is leading as part of its industrial strategy to create a regional network of Living Labs. And the pivotal role the University of Bristol’s new Bristol Digital Futures Institute (BDFI) will play bringing together a deep understanding of technology, 5G and next generation networks with a deep understanding of sociology,: ensuring that new technologies benefit citizens, communities, people and the environment and planet.
In moving forward I’d like to offer three questions, or perhaps challenges, for the Smart City to address.
Firstly - how we relocalise the internet and the benefits it can enable - and of course, we must achieve this without cutting off our region from an increasingly globalised world.
Whilst the idea of putting “place” back into “digital” seems hugely complex - it could also be as simple as imagining that when we raise our smart phones instead of saying “hey Siri we say “hey Bristol” or “Hey Bath” - what amazing things might happen next?
Many of the tools we need to help engineer this shift are already here - they are just not equally distributed or properly invested in.
Open Data Stores; City Digital Twins; Community-run Maker Spaces; locally-managed Wireless Networks, Open Digital Maps, even our own local digital currency - the Bristol £.
What we are missing is a compelling vision or framework to bring these things together. We are also unsure what type of new governance is needed- to bridge the opportunities of being connected globally with controlling and determining the local value for ourselves.
Secondly, we have a secret weapon - our creativity and culture, which is inevitably anchored in to the experience of place.
EM Forster’s amazingly prescient short story - the Machine Stops - written more than 100 years ago (he must surely have been a time traveller) imagines a world where we’ve stopped visiting other cities because they all look the same - and where city systems have been designed with the premise that things are brought to people rather than people being taken to things - so people inevitably stop going out.
Instead, let’s put the “art into smart” by becoming the first city region to place culture and creativity at the heart of a long term localised Smart City and Region plan. This kind of thinking is the key mission of the Bristol+Bath Creative Clusters programme, where l am a Digital Placemaking Fellow.
And last but not least, as part of this new conversation about the localised Smart City let’s engage with the architects, urbanists and engineers. After all, these are the people who will be designing and building our future cities, buildings and public realm.
And to deliberately misquote the Placemaking guru Yan Gehl, if we design smart cities for people first (rather than for cars or drones or robots) then hopefully, the Smart City, like a good party, will be somewhere people stay for longer than they originally intended because they are enjoying themselves so much!