By David Brunnen, NextGen

Bristol has been selected by the government to become a ‘world-class super-connected’ city, but what does that actally mean for the people that live and work in Bristol? Connectivity has always been a hallmark of cities.  It’s not difficult to trace Bristol’s history through its clusters of economic activities: shipping, the wine trade, slavery, natural sciences and, more recently, film animation.

But this new notion - ‘super-connectivity’ - is very different.  It hinges on something called 'next-generation access' and, compared to conventional broadband internet services, it changes forever the way that businesses work and ideas can flourish.

The changes being brought about by these advanced digital ‘access’ networks are so different that they zap the barriers to innovation and they empower many more people to remove the everyday hassles of life and business.

At the same time they enable ‘creative disruption’ of established business practice – and we mean much more than just on-line shopping.

When academics talk about the ‘digital economy’ they very quickly realise that there is little or no economic or societal activity that is not being digitalised – whether in terms of the information now available or the systems that are used to manage the way we live now.

From a technology viewpoint the difference between ‘last’ (or current) and ‘next’ generation networks are fascinating: upload speeds as fast as downloads; extra capacity ‘on demand’; future-proofed connections (no need to ever re-invest in upgrades); the freedom for businesses to build networks customised to their own needs, easy interoperability between fixed and mobile services; and a massive expansion of connectivity between things – the so called ‘machine-to-machine’ linkages that will digitise bus stops and traffic lights just as easily as the blood pressure monitor that saves you another check-up at the surgery.

But the technology is only a small part of the story.  The transformation starts with investment in infrastructure (and yes, more digging holes in roads) but the really big differences will be found in the way these networks are managed, what they are used for and who uses them.

Cities providing the best long-term environment will prosper and it will force folk to reconsider the balance between rural and urban areas.  Looking at countries where these advances are already progressing well it is clear that ‘local’ network management is important to maximize the benefits for citizens.

It is also clear that network affordability and usefulness quickly leads to much greater ‘take-up’ – and this in turn enables many more public services to be delivered on-line with improvements in quality and huge cost savings for tax-payers.  Even disadvantaged and remote locations have seen new inward investment and employment on account of being better connected and there are huge environmental gains to be made in using this technology to make our cities sustainable.

In Bristol the ‘super-connectivity’ aspiration is a key part of the temple Quarter Enterprise Zone – building naturally on our creative industries but also attracting many new ventures.  Few examples worldwide illustrate the changes in citizen attitudes more clearly than the ‘Code for America’ initiative in the USA.  The question is 'Who will ‘Code for Bristol’'?

The NextGen South West Roadshow on July 17th (@Bristol) will bring together the plumbers and poets – the network builders and those thinking through how best to create living and working environments for the next generation.

Thinking about your future starts here.

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