Bristol to be World’s First Open Programmable City

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A partnership between the Bristol City Council, order the University of Bristol, and NEC is aiming to make Bristol the world’s first open programmable city. In a press release from NEC, Paul Wilson, Managing Director of Bristol is Open, is quoted saying the partnership will “…create a collaborative ecosystem of global tech firms, start-ups and local community organisations to use Bristol’s network as a city-scale lab.”[1] In the same release, Dejan Bojic from NEC describes the initiative as ‘a truly ground breaking smart city project’. Bristol has been pursuing smart city objectives through initiatives that support locally based research, innovation and entrepreneurship for several years. [2]

A press release from the Bristol City Council states that government funding has supported the construction of a ‘sophisticated, city scale digital research infrastructure’ that will allow partners to ‘experiment, learn and develop innovative solutions’ to urban issues.[3] Creating solutions for environmental sustainability is a significant theme in smart city discourse and viewed as a growth industry by investors and government agencies. A report produced in the UK by the Department for Business and Innovation suggests cities in the UK are well positioned to develop smart solutions that enhance sustainability for cities all over the world.[4] George Ferguson, Mayor of the City of Bristol, sees the city as a showcase that allows cities around the world to see the potential for technology to solve challenges such as ‘increased population, scarcer resources and a changing climate’.[5]

The City of Bristol is the EU Green Capital 2015, an award that recognizes “…local level efforts to improve the environment, the economy and the quality of life in cities”.[6] Bristol was an early adopter of the Green Digital Charter, established in 2009, which signifies a commitment to sustainable urban development.[7] Bristol also signed the ‘Covenant of Mayors’, which is a pledge to exceed the European Union’s objective of reducing C02 levels by 20% by the year 2020. More recently, Bristol became the first city in the world to launch the ‘One Tree Per Child’ initiative, which will arrange for all school children in the city to plant a tree.[8] Behind Bristol’s commitment to environmental reform is an enthusiasm for using technology to further sustainability objectives.

In The Programmable City, Rob Kitchin (2011) calls for inquiry into the potential impact that coded cities will have on the nature of urban life.[9] The ‘open programmable city’ vision of Bristol and NEC features innovation, entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships. It also points to replication. In the Bristol City Council press release, a partnership with the Chinese City of Guangzhou is mentioned. A representative from Guangzhou suggests the city plans to use Bristol as a model for its own smart city development. This points to the efforts of global tech firms to align their brands with successful smart cities. When a city is viewed as ‘smarter’ than others, there is an opportunity to sell the technology that makes it ‘smarter’ to other cities.

The traction afforded to sustainability initiatives through the smart city movement presents an opportunity for contemporary urban managers to protect and preserve natural resources through advanced digital infrastructure. What might this mean for the future of urban infrastructure management? In particular, how might smart solutions initially aimed at improving sustainability on a local scale set the stage for managing energy and water resources at larger scales? By installing systems in numerous cities, corporations such as NEC, IBM and Siemens will have access to vast quantities of data about energy and water usage. Global tech firms could potentially emerge as ‘experts’ on urban resource management and consumption by virtue of the data they collect. This could create a space for global technology firms to consult municipalities on energy and water policy. Indeed, this is already occurring. By creating expansive networks of smart city systems, tech firms could potentially monitor or even manage energy and water usage for a multiplicity of cities. Through replication, a global network of systems of local control could emerge. This would have significant implications for urban governance and should be given considerable thought. How will local autonomy be impacted by the rise of these networks?

[1] NEC, NEC Partners with Bristol to Create the World’s First Open Programmable City.

[2] Kitchin, “The Real-Time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism.”

[3] Bristol City Council, Bristol Is Open Announces Its First Partnerships.

[4] UK, The Smart City Market: Opportunities for the UK.

[5] Bristol City Council, Bristol Is Open Announces Its First Partnerships.

[6] European Commission, “European Green Capital.”

[7] Networking Intelligent Cities for Energy Efficiency, “GDC in a Nutshell | Green Digital Charter.”

[8] Morris, “Olivia Newton-John Launches Bristol Tree-Planting Project.”

[9] Kitchin, “The Programmable City.”



Bristol City Council. Bristol Is Open Announces Its First Partnerships. Bristol, March 11, 2015.

European Commission. “European Green Capital.” Accessed February 24, 2015.

Kitchin, Rob. “The Programmable City.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 38, no. 6 (2011): 945–51. doi:10.1068/b3806com.

———. “The Real-Time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism.” GeoJournal 79, no. 1 (November 2013): 1–14. doi:10.1007/s10708-013-9516-8.

Morris, Steven. “Olivia Newton-John Launches Bristol Tree-Planting Project.” The Guardian. Accessed February 24, 2015.

NEC. NEC Partners with Bristol to Create the World’s First Open Programmable City. Bristol, March 10, 2015.

Networking Intelligent Cities for Energy Efficiency. “GDC in a Nutshell | Green Digital Charter.” Accessed February 24, 2015.

UK. The Smart City Market: Opportunities for the UK. UK: Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2013.



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