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Smart City of Bristol, UK
Laura Puttkamer22. January 20245 min read

City Portrait: Smart Bristol 

Bristol, a city of almost half a million in the southwest of England, was the first British city to be named European Green Capital in 2015. The modern economy of Bristol is built on creative technology, electronics, technology, and aerospace industries. The former city-centre port is now a creative hub known for its laid-back, vibrant atmosphere. Additionally, Bristol is famous for its elegant Clifton Suspension Bridge and the street art by Banksy. And the city is walkable, green, and smart – what lessons does it hold?  


Focusing on people over technology  

According to the city, its success in becoming smart is based on people rather than on technology. The Public-Private-People approach always includes the population. Through projects such as smart metering, Bristol succeeds in using technology to create a tangible difference in citizens’ lives. An innovative open data portal makes it easy to find inspiration in the city’s efforts and to track its progress. And the smart grid in combination with support for electric vehicles build on the city’s strengths in micro-electronics as well as digital companies.  

The city is aiming to use smart technologies in order to reduce CO2 emissions. By 2020, emissions had fallen by over 40% compared to the 2005 baseline, meaning that the city surpassed its own milestone. A lot of Bristol’s work in the area is informed by the Smart City Bristol Report, commissioned by the city council in 2011 and funded by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. As one of the most progressive smart cities in the UK, Bristol was early in its adaptation of smart technologies as well as its focus on resilience. Quantifiable targets and qualitative measures such as the mayor’s annual state of the city report, a regular quality of life survey and other public consultations have helped to maintain the goals. In 2015, Bristol became the European Green Capital for a year and used the opportunity to further promote and build on its experience as a centre for innovation in green technology.  


The city as a lab for pilot projects 

Bristol’s smart city programme focuses on two aims, reducing CO2 emission and placing sustainability at the heart of community concerns through innovative projects. Already, the city is the most energy and waste-efficient major UK city. It aims to empower individuals and communities to help themselves, support local decision-making, and protect local amenities. The city works with local enterprises and start-ups in fields such as micro electronics and environmental technology, as well as with creative companies. One successful project is the Bristol Living Lab in Knowle West, which involved a group of people in the creation and evaluation of technologies. 

As part of the European Green Capital heritage, the city has instituted several initiatives, such as the annual award for the best new clean technology (the Bristol Prize), which will help deliver solution for cities all over the world; a sustainable living programme in UK schools to educate millions of children about climate change and the role of cities; and an international festival for Clean Technology Business in Bristol. The Grass Roots Catalyst Fund is another interesting project, which serves to incubate and develop sustainable urban living initiatives that can be applied to cities across the world.  

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The power of data 

Bristol is a great example for how to harness the power of data without sacrificing the interest of the general population to technological advances. On the contrary, the city embraces data for issues such as detecting dampness in housing or making sure that partygoers in the port area don’t fall into the water when being inebriated. Between 2012 and 2017, 31 lives were lost that way. Together with the University of Bristol, city council developed a pilot project to install heat-sensitive cameras connected to the 5G network that alert emergency services if anything unusual is indicated. In the first few months, this pilot already saved two lives. Other university cities with waterways are now considering a similar solution.  

Bristol also boasts a high-speed fibre optic network to connect smart traffic lights. In case of police or health emergencies, these lights can improve response times and safety. Granted, Bristol council had it relatively easy to install the fibre network by using underground ducting from an old cable TV network, which made installation much more affordable and easier, but the ongoing commitment to connectivity and data collection is still something to learn from.  

In a converted planetarium called the Data Dome, all of the city’s big data is visualised on a large screen. It is also accessible as open data for free. Importantly, Bristol has managed to transition projects from pilot phases into real-world projects, particularly after the European Green Capital boost. By tying pilot projects and their successors into a broader strategy and focusing on scalability, Bristol shows that it is possible to achieve a measurable impact with pilots.  


Reaching for carbon neutrality 

By 2050, the city of Bristol wants to be carbon neutral. In 2015, it set up its own energy company called Bristol Energy, which soon developed a wind farm and helped to cut carbon emissions. For example, new installations have helped to reduce emissions in street lighting, and biomass boilers as well as solar panels on or around council-owned buildings support the push for more renewable energy. With a heat network of underground pipes in the city centre, Bristol is hoping to provide more low-carbon heat and energy, with plans to expand this pilot projects to other areas of the city.  

In addition, the Bristol Community Energy Fund provides seed funding, grants and loans to community projects that focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy. And together with the cities of Florence and San Sebastian, Bristol is championing citizen sensing where citizens report air quality and energy issues and develop projects, thus monitoring common issues and including residents. Projects around damp and humidity, but also around observed gender bias are part of this approach.  

So far, Bristol has created thousands of new jobs with its smart city strategy and laid a very promising foundation for the city of the future that has low or zero emissions, is more sustainable, and leverages the power of data and of citizens – we are excited to see what this UK city does next!  


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Laura Puttkamer

Laura is an urban journalist focusing on inspiring solutions stories from all over the world. She has a MSc in Global Urban Development and currently lives in London.