Avon Street, Gas, and Bristol

We commissioned a report into the industrial and social histories of our new building at 65 Avon Street, known as The Sheds.  In the heart of the new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus it was the former headquarters of the Bristol Gas Company.

Here one of the report authors, Dr James Watts, Lecturer in Public and Creative Histories describes how the project has unfolded and how its shed light Bristol’s industrial heritage. Co-author on the report,  Lena Ferriday, is continuing the research with a call for local people to come forward with their memories.

The Avon Street gasworks operated for nearly 150 years bringing light and heat to much of Bristol through the dangerous labour of those at the gasworks. Since April 2021 I have been researching this history for BDFI.

I was fortunate in beginning this project that research on the gasworks and their place in Bristol has been undertaken by others before me. Harold Nabb’s PhD thesis and pamphlet on the gasworks is invaluable as is Mike Richardson’s Men of Fire Work, Resistance and Organisation of Bristol Gasworkers in the Nineteenth Century alongside work by Michael Painting and Mike Richardson. Material on Know Your Place and in Bristol Archives has also been very helpful in digging into the history of the gas industry in Bristol in greater detail.

drawing of the gasworks by Samuel Loxton
Figure 1 The Avon Street gasworks, Samuel Loxton 1919, Bristol Library J785. By Permission of Bristol Libraries

The research revealed many links and parallels between the historical use of the site as a gasworks with the revolutionary effect this had on the life of Bristol.

The gasworks and the many local people employed there also had a profound effect on the local community, the workforce was locally drawn and, along with employers like the Ironworks across Silverthorne Lane, created a sense of community in this deeply industrial area of Bristol.

Surprises

I was continually surprised by how far-reaching the technologies of gas heating and lighting were. Gaslighting created and extended the night-time economy, especially in the winter months. This meant that the centre of Bristol was lit from 1820 onwards. The Old Vic was an early customer of the gas company and remained one of their largest customers for many years and in 1869 was eligible for a special discount due to the volume that they were using which was more than 1 million cubic feet a year.

By the 1900s gas heating was also very common and pre-paid gas meters allowed tighter budgeting and enabled the spread of gas heating and cooking into working class households. There was a large showroom on Colston Street in the city centre, built in 1935, to advertise and sell gas cookers as well. This was demolished in 2007 and the building is now the Bristol Beacon.

gas showroom
Figure 2 Bristol Archives, Vaughan Postcard collection, 43207/35/1/2

The other thing that impressed itself on me was the sense of how much of a community the gasworks and the surrounding area seemed to be. The gasworks had football teams who were season champions in 1930-1 as well as a brass band. The solidarity of the workers in times of industrial action was remarkable as the gasworks were involved in the wave of strikes in Bristol in 1889.

gas workers football team
Figure 3 Bristol Gas Company Reserves Football Club, 5th Division Champions, Bristol and District League 1931, Bristol Archives, 28777/U/Ph/1/6

Hopes for the research and site

I think the Avon Street gasworks could act as an important example for the modern use of historic buildings. It is, for me, about respect. Respecting the building itself, but also an awareness of the people who made, used, worked, and lived in them. I hope that the buildings’ new uses will reflect this history and help to educate others about the history of this industry and area. Those stories should not disappear but should be considered and reflected upon in the future uses of the buildings.

For instance, George Daniel Jones was a gas holder attendant during the 1940s. On March 11th 1941 ‘during an air raid two incendiary bombs lodged on the top of a large gas holder. Jones immediately climbed to the top of the holder and succeeded in knocking the bombs off the crown with his steel hat.’[1]

For his bravery that day he was awarded the George Medal. There is also now a road named after George Jones as well as a plaque on Folly Rd on the site of a gasholder close to Avon St and also owned by the Bristol Gas Company.

My main hope for this research and the site is to find more stories and personal memories from the current outreach. What I want to know about the site are these personal stories of someone’s Grandfather who was a stoker or captained the gasworks’ football team.

It is personal stories that give the site its interest given the long history of work there.

We’ve created a short survey for anyone who might have memories, artifacts, documents  or photographs from the gas industry in Bristol.  Please get in touch to help us ensure the social and industrial heritage of BDFI’s new home is remembered and celebrated.

 

[1] Supplement to the London Gazette, 2 May, 1941. The recommendation is in the National Archives. https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C14149725

Tackling an intelligence gap in 6G management and orchestration systems with HELICON

BDFI academic Xenofon Vasilakos, lecturer of AI for Digital Infrastructures with the Dept. of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and a member of Smart Internet Lab at the University of Bristol, discussed the current orchestration systems intelligence gap when devising 6G network services at the IEEE International Conference on Communications this week. Below, he explains a Reinforcement Learning model-based orchestration approach tested with Bristol’s 5G city testbed and a real use case, which tries to address this intelligence gap while aiming at multi-objective optimisation goals. Further, Xenofon explains how this work poses a basis for integrating and supporting sociotechnical aspects in the future, such as fair resource consumption by users and services.

Network softwarisation in the fifth and future sixth generation of wireless networks (5G, 6G) is characterised by significant flexibility and agility as a result of adopting the concepts of Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV). The former have enabled scalable vertical industry services with strict performance requirements that need to be addressed by MANagement and Orchestration (MANO) systems. Nonetheless, today’s state of the art in MANO systems faces fundamental challenges regarding the highly complex problem of optimal user service function placement. MANO systems still lack Machine Learning (ML) intelligence while remaining largely dependent on rule-/heuristic-based solutions focusing exclusively on system-level resources after predefined policies.

High-level HELICON architecture showing global RL (GRL) and local RL (LRL) modules (on top), and internal system component data and signal message exchange.

The above approach neglects critical technical aspects such as network dynamics and system-wide service-level performance objectives of both verticals and infrastructure providers as expressed by Key Performance Indices (KPIs) such as service latency or balanced resource utilisation. In addition, it neglects the potential of including Key Value Indicators (KVIs) such as user access fairness to deployed services to avoid user starvation.

To address these gaps, we propose and present our latest work entitled “HELICON: Orchestrating low-latent & load-balanced Virtual Network Functions” to the IEEE International Conference on Communications, in May 2022, Seoul, South Korea (https://icc2022.ieee-icc.org/), during the “QoE And Network Systems” leg of the technical symposium of “Next-Generation Networking and Internet (NGIN)”.

HELICON stands for “Hierarchical rEinforcement LearnIng approach for OrChestratiNg” low-latent and load-balanced services. Though targeting purely technical KPI-based objectives in the current stage, HELICON paves the way for introducing also KVI-based objectives into the MANO equation, thus setting the necessary technical background for supporting socio-technical aspects in current and future 6G MANO operations. In brief, HELICON:

  • Poses a novel distributed hierarchical Reinforcement Learning (RL) approach that can serve as a stand-alone online service placement solution as well as a module-based extension for the current state of the art.
  • Tackles a computationally/analytically difficult problem (NP-Hard) with a tunable and lightweight Q-Learning scheme that besides KPIs can also support KVIs in the future such as fair access to resources by both users and services. In its current pilot version, HELICON optimises either or both of (i) end-to-end service delay or (ii) load balancing among hosting service nodes.
  • Last, we provide a real-life testbed implementation and use case-driven validation, and specifically, practical experimental results upon a realistic 5G Smart City Safety (SCS) use case conducted over a Bristol’s 5G city testbed assuming an e2e application video transcoding service.

Choosing the ‘high road’: major employer study reveals remote working challenges and opportunities

Jennifer Johns at the School of Management has been working with a major UK employer during the last year to examine how their working practices have responded to COVID-19 challenges. What does blended working mean and how does this continue to impact on day to day business decisions?  Here she explains discoveries so far and implications for the world of human resources.

Within organisations and across media channels there is currently much discussion about the ways in which we work. Terms like ‘remote’, ‘hybrid’ and ‘blended’ learning are used to describe changing patterns of work, breaking the traditional assumption that we should work in an office location.  This is not a new trend.  Since the 1990s, increased use of communication technologies, particularly the Internet, has facilitated significant changes in the ways in which work is conducted.  Digital technology enables the multidimensional fragmentation of work – one form of fragmentation is spatial as work can take place across smaller and more isolated work units.  What IS new is the degree to which more flexible form of work are now taking place since the COVID global pandemic.

Before COVID, we saw a rise in the number of people working away from the office, typically from home.  This included full remote work (for example data processing, professional services) and part remote work (e.g. senior executives working from home two days a week). Academic work charted the rise of this work, but its increase was considered to be limited to a narrow range of job roles, predominately low skilled routine work that can be conducted online or, conversely, high skilled ‘white collar’ professional work.  We recently argued that existing academic understandings of remote work were overly simplistic and that the relationship between employees and employers could take a ‘high road’ in which employee wellbeing increases, or a ‘low road’ in which working conditions deteriorate over time.

During COVID, the national lockdowns introduced by national governments required organisations to make working from home mandatory for as many job roles as possible.  This meant questioning some old assumptions about what work had to be based in the office.  Many organisations realised that the move to paperless offices had decoupled some forms of work from the office (receptionists, salespeople now using electronic brochures etc). In some sectors, this left a relatively narrow number of job roles that were required to physically be present in the office, typically those involving the maintenance of critical business infrastructure.

Following the move of many employees to home working, organisations have had to respond with modified working practices, policies around the return to work and debates around how much flexibility to continue to offer employees when/if they return to work.  On one hand, organisations can make cost savings by reducing their office space. On the other, many are discussing what types of activities must be co-located, acknowledging that some employees want to return to the office, and working out which functions could remain at home.

Alongside collaborator Rory Donnelly (University of Liverpool), I have been working with a major UK employer  since April 2021 on their blended working practices. The initial introduction to this company was made by Bristol Digital Futures Institute. This employer will remain anonymous in the research findings, once published. We have interviewed over fifty employees across three different sectors, highlighting the different needs of individual divisions in relation to flexible work. This employer has much to share with other organisations about their ongoing experience of flexible working, particularly as their group ranges from customer-facing contact centres to maintaining critical infrastructure.  The notion of having contact centre agents working from home would have been inconceivable to many organisations pre-COVID (and many academics too).  Yet, their contact centre agents have been working from home effectively, generating higher customer feedback scores during COVID.  This has been incredibly illuminating about how organisations can support staff to work flexibly and how they can adapt to dramatic shifts in the business environment. Retail staff, who typically worked in physical shop locations, were trained to work from home as contact centre staff.  This demonstrates an agility not typically seen in large multinational companies.  Our findings are being fed back to the company via company-wide seminars and workshops.  Our work will continue with this company and extend to include others from different industry sectors. We will be generating wider impact through policy recommendations and industry briefings.

Challenges remain, as for most businesses, around how to embed flexible working within organisational cultures and how to maintain innovation and employee wellbeing with staff working in the office and from home.  Here the role of human resources professionals becomes especially important within organisations. So too is the role of academics in offering guidance on how businesses can achieve a ‘high road’ approach which values employee well-being and job satisfaction. These lessons will be valuable as we seek to understand now work might further change as a result of digitalisation.

Reflections on Soma

Angus Balbernie writes about his participation in Soma, a BDFI partnership project.

 

Soma combines somatic-based dance practices and immersive multi-person VR to explore pathways for sensory connections and examine how our interior and exterior worlds are mediated by technology. They are working towards premiering a new VR-dance film which reveals point of view experiences and creative audio descriptions of two dancers in a duet which crosses between physical and virtual bodies and environments at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London in May 2022.

soma dancers
credit: Alice Hendy for Soma

Today, as I’m writing, Storm Eunice blows hard here over Dartmoor, and

I’m watching the trees bend and break and thinking about being involved in Lisa May Thomas’s Soma Project.

I knew nothing about VR before being asked by Lisa to help mentor the project. I’ve never “gamed” in my life, never held two controllers and stared at activity on a screen.

Now I have. Now I’ve entered a world inside a headset. A world created and shared in a way JJ Gibson would have got all afferent and efferent about, in how we share our perceptions and relationships to the environment we are alive in. And yet I’m inside a plastic container, wrapped over my eyes, in a world generated from across the room – from inside a laptop.

I’m wrapped in a deserted world of blue sky, yellow dawn and shifting floor. I have no body, no relationship to the norms of place or navigation. I focus on my hands and the controllers as they affect this golden band floating around me. I can turn it and twist it and share it with others also in their VR state too. We have a form of exchange, and we begin to dance.

Something settles in this generated world. Something shifts in how the body senses itself as an activity that somehow responds to both an inner and outer sense of itself. What would normally be understood as anomic becomes shared. What is very isolating leaks into a shared environment.

There is something being shaped here, being danced, being created.

It happens in layers. The individual in the VR headset, and in a VR world.

The dancer who supports and informs them, surrounds them with their attention. The witness who watches and attends to both of them, a kind of satellite of attention, questioning and observing closely.

Then there are others at the edges of the space, watching all of this, seeing (or not seeing!) how the weaving of these various states, attentions and correspondences forms and dissolves in moments of order, disorder, dancing, choreography, theatre, science and perceptual exchange.

When the VR world is sharing its ribbons, which are moved through space by the collective hands of the participants, a dance emerges. A dance of delicate arms and bodies, held inside one space but translated into kinaesthetics to those observing. A dance of inner meaning translated into external space and action. A way to share someone’s dreams.

To share a world that generates the subjective, opens that out to a shared space, becomes objective, visible and invisible at different times, and then returns to asking how a generated state inside a computer can create a shared condition – of bodies being both alone and together in a world we usually only dream, or put “onstage” as an event?

At its heart, it asks questions about how, and why, art can still cut open our minds and bodies, turn us inside out, and realign our senses to be individually and collectively involved in what Ramachandram calls the “Figurative primitives of our perceptual grammar”.

At one point, towards the end of the VR journey, those inside the headsets see a growing constellation of generated dots and lines that form dancing webs of atomic structure. They are moved and condensed or opened out by the hands of those involved, and somehow it is a dance that takes us deep into how imaginations can be touched by something that is both seen and unseen, and how dancing is also found in the darkness, and in the ways we try to pass our realities to each other.

We are dancing ourselves inside out. We are asking the body questions.

We are making sense of each moment, both sharing and locked in self.

We are becoming what is now becoming.

It all just dances around you anyway.

To unlock the nervous system and make it a form of reading.

To dance around fact like it is a verb.

To shape invention through body and mind to make sense

of how time makes space a navigation, a way to shape experience

in what we think is isolation, into a form of making mind and body both alone and shared, imagined and earthly, and most of all, still there.

The blog first appeared on the Soma blogspot in March 2022

Sheds take shape

Bristol Digital Futures Institute (BDFI) Director of Programmes and Operations, Dr Jenny Knapp takes us through the latest developments in getting our new buildings ready. 

This Spring, our research hub will become the first operational building on the University’s new Temple Campus Quarter Enterprise Campus. This first phase, built in what was originally the Bristol Gas Light Company’s Retort House, will house the BDFI offices and exciting new globally unique research facilities including the Reality Emulator, an immersive AR/VR room, the Neutral Lab, Data Centre and training space.

We’re at an exciting stage of the renovation of these exceptional buildings on the old Vauxhall garage site on Avon Street, St Philips. Their beautiful original 200 year old stone walls have been exposed and repointed, the original trusses are secured, and a new roof will soon be revealed.  The University’s Capital Projects team is working very closely with architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and contractors Aztech Building Services to ensure as much of the fabric of this corner of Bristol’s heritage is maintained as possible. Along the way they’ve found unexpected doors and windows and old industrial pipework – some of these discoveries were more welcome than others!

In 2023 with the opening of the adjacent Coal Shed, we will add further specialist research facilities, partnership, training and meeting spaces. This will also become home to the MyWorld creative hub. The two buildings will become one dynamic new space and eventually we expect to host up to 250 people including staff, researchers, partners and collaborators.

It is a both a privilege and fascinating to expose and renovate such an impressive building that has, for so many years, been hidden away. Each site visit reveals interesting and often stunning new features that we hope to highlight and will contrast with the ultra-modern, world leading facilities which will sit alongside them.  We will also find a new life within the building for objects that have been recovered such as cobblestones and some very large light fittings! The excitement is building as we prepare for moving in and we can’t wait to see the old and the new coming together in what we know will be a fantastic and inspirational new place to work and innovate with our partners.

The time lapse video below shows recent works of the renovation of the Retort House. It starts with stone wall cleaning, then the removal of parts of the concrete mezzanine floor slab to make way for a new staircase, this then leads on to removal of the asbestos roof and old roof purlins. Once the roof is removed you can see the temporary roof structure above.

 

 

 

COVID shows that better broadband is not enough to keep local economies afloat

What happened when half our workforce and most children and students started making extreme demands on our broadband and internet use? What did it mean for different parts of the country and economic resilience?

Here Dr Hannah Budnitz with BDFI Affiliate Dr Emmanouil Tranos calls for our industrial structures to place digital and socio-economic considerations front and centre to help us all keep pace with the changes to the way we work and study.

When COVID saw the UK government tell people to work from home in early 2020, the expectation was that they would use digital technologies to do so. Scientists worldwide have since highlighted how the pandemic has intensified the effect of the digital divide (the gap between those who have access to the latest technology and those who do not).

Amid its COVID recovery plans for England, the UK government is aiming to expand digital infrastructure, 5G and fibre optic broadband across the country.

As our research shows, however, bridging the digital divide is about more than making sure everyone has access to digital infrastructure and having the skills to use it. Communication scientists speak of the third level of the digital divide: the capacity to use digital technologies to enhance economic activities.

Patterns of demand

Household demand for bandwidth to download large video files or stream faster from online television services has been growing for a long time. Conversely, until the pandemic hit, relatively few people were using data at a volume that would have affected network performance.

When half the workforce started working from home, however, and the country’s schoolchildren and students were sent home too, videoconferencing took off. We expected this extreme demand for telecommuting during working hours to change the pattern of internet use and broadband performance.

To determine how this affected the economic resilience of different places — their capacity to maintain economic activity — during the pandemic, we analysed data on the upload and download speeds that internet users experienced during the first UK lockdown in 2020.

We found that patterns of demand changed a lot in most of the UK, both in terms of download and upload speeds. People weren’t only using the internet to download data (movies or music, for example) but to upload data, primarily for videoconferencing. Zoom, after all, counted 300 million daily meeting participants worldwide at its April 2020 peak.

Socio-economic correlations

Now, only half of the UK’s workforce were able to continue working remotely. The other half still had to go into work or were furloughed.

To understand whether existing economic divides and digital divides overlapped or diverged, we first created clusters of local authorities based on upload internet speeds as experienced by internet users in these places during the lockdown. We then correlated these clusters with various economic and geographical variables: distances to cities, the north-south economic divide, different occupations, average earnings, number of jobs and businesses, and furlough numbers.

Our findings indicate that areas, including Bristol and Cambridge, with relatively slow and unreliable internet services were not those with the highest percentages of people on furlough. Increased demand for digital services such as Zoom and the resulting network congestion occurred in these areas where (and perhaps because) occupations were more economically resilient: they were able to continue operating despite the pandemic.

Conversely, some areas with reliably high broadband speeds, suffered economically as reflected in high furlough numbers. These areas are characterised by a lack of jobs in the kind of occupations (technology and business services) that enable workers to be productive at home.

The temporary shift to flexible working models ushered in by the pandemic appears to be lasting. Some employers want their staff to return to the office, but many more are planning for hybrid or flexible working. A few are considering a permanent shift to remote working.

This means that the demand for fast and reliable upload and download speeds during working hours in residential areas is here to stay. Ofcom’s latest reports already include more data on upload speeds, and internet service providers will no doubt need to focus more on what customers need during working hours. Government ministers, meanwhile, should be thinking not only about 5G and the wider digital infrastructure, but also about the sort of jobs and skills people need in order to make the best use of it.

As our research illustrates, in order for a place to be economically resilient — for the local economy to continue to operate — during a pandemic, government ministers, community leaders and economists alike need to consider not only the digital divides linked to the internet’s physical infrastructure, but also the associated economic and social divides.

Broadband policies, although necessary, cannot boost the economic resilience of places on their own, where the industrial structure does not align with occupations that incorporate the digital skills and capabilities to work from home. This complex web of digital and socio-economic divides needs to be incorporated into our thinking of local economies and government priorities.