A better digital future for all

By Professor Guy Orpen Deputy Vice-Chancellor, New Campus Development

Last week saw Bristol in the headlines for a huge research award to enable the establishment of the Bristol Digital Futures Institute. With its remarkable facilities, the Institute will be led by Professor Dimitra Simeonidou and Professor Susan Halford at the heart of the new University campus at Temple Quarter. It will focus on developing not just the digital technologies of the future, but how they are to benefit society, people and businesses. The amount of money is enormous. UK Research and Innovation – the R&D funding arm of UK government – awarded the University of Bristol £29m, matched by £71m of private, and industrial support. This is a massive vote of confidence for the concept of the Temple Quarter campus achieved in direct competition with the biggest and best universities and their partners in the country.

The Institute will aim to generate 30 new collaborate projects per year. It has been hailed both as the means by which Bristol could support the development of franchises like Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep (by Aardman) and also achieve breakthroughs in design and manufacturing (by Airbus). The range of partners involved is remarkable – from Babbasa, KWMC and Watershed to Hargreaves Lansdown and BT – literally dozens, large and small, local and global in reach. They all seek to work across traditional divides to understand the potential and benefits of the digital world – whether by partnering the creative with manufacturing, community with industry, or computer science with sociology.

Perhaps today it is easier now than a few years ago to understand how thoughtful we all need to be about digital technologies. When Web 2.0 was first mentioned 15-20 years ago no one imagined that Google, Amazon, Facebook and the like would be the giants they are now. Even less predicted was the way social media would be the means by which US presidents get elected or communicate their policies! Nor did we understand how much others got to know about us as individuals and communities while we use the internet.

The new Institute will have at its heart the ambition to let people and society shape the digital futures that we face, together. It will develop the responsible innovation, regulation, ethics, acceptability and business models for new ways of living and working using the many emerging digital technologies. Whole new ways of operating society are arising almost daily – the potential for doing good is tremendous but so are some of the risks. By directly involving a wider range of people at the time the tech and its applications are being developed, the Bristol Digital Futures Institute will seek to maximise those benefits for all.

Businesses born in the digital age, those born longer ago, organisations and activities that could be digital – many people and parts of society will want to think through how they develop their futures. The Bristol Digital Futures Institute will be there in the heart of our city to help.

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