Interview: How Bristol is leading by example
How has Bristol’s use of digital technology helped it become Britain’s leading smart city?
How has Bristol’s use of digital technology helped it become Britain’s leading smart city?
Digital by Default News talks to Barney Smith, Founder of Perform Green, Programme Director for Bristol City Council’s Smart Operations Centre through to launch, and Interim CEO for Bristol is Open until November 2017, about the city’s use of digital technology and its journey to become Britain’s leading smart city.
Last November, Bristol was named as the UK’s leading smart city in the second UK Smart Cities Index. The report is based on evaluations of 20 cities and their strategies, key projects and general readiness in using digital technology to improve crucial civil services from transport to healthcare.
Perform Green has been directly involved with the development of a digital change strategy that has helped Bristol take the top spot. By working with Bristol City Council on solutions that will help the people of Bristol, while making cost savings and developing new revenue streams for the city, the partnership has undoubtedly been a success.
At the heart of Bristol’s development as a leading smart city is its new Smart Operations Centre, which publicly launched in October 2017. The centre plays an important role in managing the daily safety, accessibility and flow of the city through to its traffic control, incident management, community safety (CCTV) and telecare services.
The centre now offers a world class cooperative and collaborative workspace, bringing council and city organisations together to work in a truly integrated manner for the first time. Perform Green has driven the programme from construction and build of the space, to the delivery and integration of the people, technology and services.
Barney Smith, Founder of Perform Green, was also Programme Director for Bristol City Council’s Smart Operations Centre through to launch. He, and is Interim CEO for Bristol is Open, the joint venture between Bristol City Council and University of Bristol that has provided large scale infrastructure for R&D, allowing testing of future technologies at a citywide scale. When asked what’s next for Bristol, he told us: “Now that the Operations Centre is up and running – and the council is realising significant financial and operational benefits – we have a platform onto which we can build additional services and, I think, transform the way public services in some of the most difficult and crucial areas councils are dealing with. In fact, we’ve helped the council develop phase 2 of the Operations Centre, which received approval in December.”
There are two elements to this second phase:
“With the predictive analytics platform that we’ve built in the Operations Centre, we can monitor and respond and build those telecare services into much more of a predictive operation,” explains Barney. “We can tell in advance where somebody is likely to have a problem and intervene. That could be a mental health issue, a high likelihood of a fall at some point in the future or some other deviation from the norm. “Clearly this happens with the individual’s approval and we wouldn’t just do it. They will tell us they want this support and service, so they can stay in the home. This allows the adult social care service to be delivered much more effectively and efficiently. It also allows providers to give targeted intervention that will really help the individual.
This idea also flows through to smart meters – monitoring energy usage to see if there’s deviation from the norm and to use that smart meter as an IoT hub for extra sensors in the home, whether that’s temperature sensors or humidity measurements.
“If somebody’s heating fails and the temperature drops below a certain temperature point, there’s a risk to health and we can intervene,” explains Barney. “If we can get those sensors integrated with other digital health care monitors and programmes where they might be monitoring characteristics of their health, such as blood sugar levels for diabetes there are obvious benefits. It’s about healthcare and adult social care being much more integrated.”
Given its ranking at the top of the Smart City Index and its successful ongoing implementation of digital technology, Bristol is clearly leading the way when it comes to digital transformation. Why does Barney think that is the case?
“I think a number of factors have come together at the same time in a rather positive way. The leadership, vision and capability to deliver have been available at the same time.
“There are lots of councils – and we’re talking to several – who see the potential, but they’re at different points in their journey or have different levels of understanding of what the potential is. Therefore, they’re all in slightly different places in their transformation. Yes, Bristol is ahead of other local authorities and that’s helped by the fact the city has a very good tech community and people welcome innovation. In many ways it’s the ideal scenario. Innovation breeds innovation – because Bristol has invested in other programmes such as the Operations Centre, it’s well positioned to take advantage of technology and integration of services.”
Barney does say this trailblazing position does mean Bristol has had to learn rapidly.
“Because Bristol has been ploughing the path for everyone else, it has had to learn the lessons that have made it succeed. And that’s tough.
“At Perform Green we’ve been through the journey with Bristol and other authorities and now can see the common pitfalls and opportunities, as well as the ways that step can be leapfrogged. That’s critical right now because local government and NHS finances are at the point where they can’t afford people to muck around. They can’t afford the services they’re delivering today and the demands on those services are growing faster than the budgets can support. In many cases the budgets are going in the opposite direction.
“Bristol, because they’re further along their journey, should be used as an example of what’s possible and where authorities can go. Other councils should be looking to ‘borrow’ this investment and align what Bristol is doing in their areas.”
Many local authorities are reluctant to invest in digital transformation because they are struggling to justify the spend, can’t see a return on investment or can’t overcome the fear associated with changing service delivery. Barney, however, says this shouldn’t be the case.
“When it comes to return on investment, digital projects really shouldn’t be seen in isolation. Quite honestly, Bristol City Council put the investment into the Operations Centre partly on the back of its estate rationalisation programme. If they didn’t build the Operations Centre, they wouldn’t have been able to vacate one building and sell it for £1m plus. They also wouldn’t have been able to vacate another building and release a £1.5m leasehold. That makes the investment easy to justify.
“Other benefits are there too. For example, when you start combining services from across control rooms and integrate them together, you start balancing your peak workload. Different services have different peaks in demand, so by combining services you can flatten your supply, reducing average overall staffing levels while delivering a better service.”
With most transformation journeys, success often leads to success – something that Barney says can definitely be the case for councils.
“Once you can deliver your service more efficiently you can start to do things you didn’t do before,” he says. “Take healthcare as an example. If you can start bringing together your adult social care services with NHS services such as GP out of hours, you can start to achieve better outcomes for the person calling the care line or the out of hours service. There are clearly efficiencies to be made by bringing them together. It’s worth pointing out here that it’s not just cities that can benefit from the Bristol model – all local authorities can achieve efficiencies, regardless of geography.
“A crucial point I would like to make, coming back to the idea of fear, is that when somebody has achieved something it becomes easier for somebody else to come along and achieve the same thing or similar. It’s much easier to get buy-in for a project or set up the project in the right way if you can clearly demonstrate what has already been successful. In the current climate it’s difficult for local councils to see through the fear of investment.”
Barney continues: “Digital leaders need to ask a number of key questions. How can I reimagine how my organisation and service delivery operates? How can I drive efficiencies while protecting citizen outcomes? And, how can I improve citizen outcomes? They important questions, but they’re really difficult questions to answer. Particularly when you’re on the inside, living it every day. That’s where external organisations or other local authorities can help – they can help those responsible for change to make sense of the situation and see where the maximum opportunities are.
“Take Bristol – the Operations Centre is just one element of the outfit. You still need your operators and your sensors. How are you getting your information and data in? What’s the connectivity? How are you processing it and analysing the data? And, then, how does the call centre and predictive analytics drive you to the right interventions, at the right time, in the most efficient way? Digital transformation has many tentacles – and that’s what Bristol has realised and got right – and will benefit from going forward.”
Barney finishes by saying: “The long-term legacy for the people of Bristol will be to improve their day to day life. From the congestion on the roads or to air quality and healthcare provision, this can all be radically improved. The recent Operations Centre launch is the very start of the journey for the city. I am extremely excited about some of the practical ways in which technology will inspire a better living environment for everyone.”