Reflections from the Bristol Forum

By Ola (Aleksandra) Michalec, UWE Bristol

On the 29th March 2019, City Hall hosted the first ever (hopefully one of many!) “Bristol Forum”. The event was organised in a partnership between local universities and Bristol City Council and took a shape of a 1-day interactive conference aimed at local practitioners working on the city challenges.
With over 200 people attending and a range of topics covered, there was no shortage of new ideas! The topics spanned from air pollution, homelessness, role of universities, social enterprises to smart cities. Each session (you had to choose between six parallel streams!) was organised by a collective of researchers and practitioners who were keen to share their recent findings and invite further discussions.

My role during the Bristol Forum was delivering a workshop as a part of the “smart city” session. I entitled my session “Machine learning meets human learning” as I am interested in people’s capabilities and power when it comes to implementing “smart city” projects. With the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics, I would like to ask: “Who is learning about tech? What are they learning, How are they learning? How are they connected? Who else should be included?”

Workshop attendees (all with professional experience of “smart city” projects) highlighted that their skills and knowledge have already complemented each other well in recent collaborations. However, they agreed that we collectively need more political awareness and political influence. Technologies for sure can be powerful, but we’re yet to see them as a force for social justice.

The first step could be to “reduce social inequalities” as a starting point of every project. For example, electric and autonomous vehicles sound exciting, but what to do about those without adequate public transport provision? Smart meters could improve energy efficiency by connecting to a range of smart home gadgets, but what about those who live in damp, cold houses? Questions like these led me to Bristol Energy Network, as they’re one of the key organisations in Bristol which explicitly aims to reduce fuel poverty by implementing advanced technologies.

Bristol Forum was the most interactive and diverse event I have ever attended in my professional career. Due to the time limitations, the sessions (including my own!) didn’t reach the depth I was initially hoping for. Upon reflection, I decided to see the event as a “conversation starter”. It certainly reassured me that there is a critical mass of professionals aligned with a vision for low carbon and just Bristol. The next step now is to nurture connections made during the event. This will allow building cross-sectoral teams for future projects which would hopefully provide both scientific evidence and political influence desperately needed to co-create sustainable Bristol.

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Ola Michalec is a PhD researcher at UWE Bristol. Her thesis explores co-designing local policies for low carbon and just Bristol
You can email Ola: Aleksandra.michalec@uwe.ac.uk
or tweet her: @Ola_Michalec