Digital neighbourhood planning

The Context

Neighbourhood planning allows communities to come together to create their own planning policy for their area. But, it is a long and complex process. This work aims to support neighbourhood planning groups using media technology in three ways:

  1. Helping the core group producing the policy navigate the process
  2. Engaging local people that would not otherwise get involved in such processes
  3. Using the media produced to support the neighbourhood plan (and activity beyond the plan)

Bootlegger in Neighbourhood Planning

As part of this research is using Bootlegger with neighbourhood planning groups.

LogoBootlegger is a media commissioning tool. It puts complex film production and capture tools in the hands of citizens through an easy to use web tool and mobile app.

Working with two North East groups, we used Bootlegger to capture film clips of their local area to represent the issues, challenges and positive aspects that they were looking at as part of the neighbourhood plan.


Other Bootlegger projects include Loudest Whisper – a project to dispel the myths surrounding Stockton following the Benefits Street series. The project saw local people create and contribute their own footage and take part in editing the clips to show their own story.

What happened?

  • We created over 200 short clips (10-30 seconds) between the two areas
  • Clips are to be used in future community engagement more interactively
  • Actively captured film together as a group was beneficial in exploring issues of the are
  • Groups were able to see other people’s perspectives and realise other opinions were important
  • Local people saw how representative the group was (or wasn’t!)

Example: Transport video                   Example: Youth facilities video

So what?

This is part of a much larger project which looks at supporting the neighbourhood planning process.


  • Working with planners and local neighbourhood planning groups
  • Explore how neighbourhood planning works on the ground
  • Identify where more support is needed and where communities face challenges
  • Consider what technologies could support different aspects of the process

How could technology help?

Thinking of the three aims of the research, there are lots of ways technology could support the process:

  1. Helping the core group producing the policy navigate the process
    • Platform to simplify and guide the process
    • Linking groups to official national and local advice, policy and guidance
    • Sharing experiences across neighbourhood groups
  2. Engaging local people that would not otherwise get involved in such processes
    • Media technologies for community engagement (Bootlegger and others)
    • Promoting youth engagement with technology (Park:Learn)
    • Toolkits to support groups to use technology effectively (social media)
  3. Using the media produced to support the neighbourhood plan (and activity beyond the plan)
    • Using media produced as a form of evidence
    • Media for more interactive, online methods of engagement
    • Supporting examination process

More Information


For more information, questions or to discuss the project, contact Jen Manuel



Supporting women who choose to breastfeed in public

Many new mothers stop breastfeeding early because they fear how people will react in public.

FeedFinder is a free mobile app that aims to support breastfeeding women by helping them find breastfeeding-friendly places in their community. Women can use FeedFinder to search for and view places on the map where other women have previously breastfed, and contribute their own experiences of a new or existing venue.

Designed and developed in collaboration with breastfeeding women, the review criteria in the app have been carefully crafted to meet women’s breastfeeding needs: comfort, hygiene, privacy and baby facilities. All of the data within the app has been contributed by the breastfeeding community.

Since its launch in 2013, FeedFinder has over 10,000 registered users adding reviews of more than 3,500 locations.

FeedFinder reviews constitute a unique dataset of women’s lived experiences of breastfeeding outside of the home; a useful resource for breastfeeding support networks and local public health initiatives. There is significant potential for organisations to be motivated to act on reviews from FeedFinder; for example, by contacting businesses with negative comments while commending those receiving consistently good ratings.

For more information please contact Madeline Balaam or Emma Simpson.

Debate the future of Newcastle’s parks

Newcastle’s parks and allotments are facing big changes, but local people are being brought into the discussion.

Open Lab is working with Newcastle City Council to hold workshops and online discussions that include residents, allotment holders, the business community, local charitable groups, friends of parks and other interested parties. These conversations are centred around what activities a charitable trust could support, where the money should come from, what role volunteers and communities should play, and how decisions should be made.

The consultation comes after the council announced plans to transfer the city’s parks and allotments to a new charitable trust. Since 2010 the council’s parks budget has been cut by 91% and it is now looking for a new way to fund their maintenance and operation.

In addition to the council’s own consultation, Open Lab are running workshops across the city, with a mix of morning and evening sessions, to allow as many people as possible to take part.

“The people who use the city’s parks and green spaces are best placed to give their opinions about how they’re run and managed,” explained Clara Crivellaro, who is leading the project for Open Lab. “These workshops will provide opportunities for people to come together to examine aspects of the council’s proposal and proactively contribute ideas for parks and allotments across the city.”

The workshops are being complemented by Twitter discussions, hosted each Wednesday at 7pm by @NCLTalkParks using the hashtag #NewcastleParks. Each of the four hour-long debates will focus on a different question relating to the future of Newcastle’s parks.

The Twitter discussions will be facilitated by Dan Lambton-Howard, who said: “Twitter provides a fantastic opportunity for people to have their say without having to attend a public meeting or workshop. Anyone with a Twitter account can join in the debate, and can already start having their say by using the hashtag #NewcastleParks.”

Clara added: “The variety of ways that people can get involved in this consultation exercise is a great example of what Open Lab is all about – using digital technology to empower local communities and engage them in decision making.”

Open Lab’s consultation will run until 6 April, and more information can be found at the Let’s Talk Parks website. The council will use the ideas collected through the discussions and through its own consultation to develop a business case for transferring control of the parks to a charitable trust.

Cllr Kim McGuinness, cabinet member for culture and communities at Newcastle City Council, said: “Open Lab at Newcastle University have come up with imaginative ways to deliver online material and informal face-to-face workshops that will help people think about the matters being raised. Technology and social media play a big part in Open Lab’s work – as they look to get people to think outside of the box, and express their views and thoughts about the prospects of a charitable trust.

“We hope this fresh approach will attract a broad cross section of the public and allow people to participate on their own terms in person or via technology. We really want people to engage and share their thoughts, ideas and feelings about the future of the city’s parks.”

For more information, please contact Clara Crivellaro.

Blue House roundabout views

A collaborative approach to planning that involves the local community is a key digital civics interest. A road scheme so controversial it had to be scrapped presented the opportunity to try this out in Newcastle.

Proposals for a new Blue House roundabout received so much opposition that the Council went back the drawing board, enlisting the help of residents to find a solution to one of the city’s most dangerous junctions.

A Blue House working group was set up, supported by Open Lab researchers, to look into alternative proposals and bring the community into the planning process. Representatives from residents’ associations, transport providers and other stakeholders were invited to take part, including Tony Waterston, chair of the Jesmond Residents’ Association.

In his three years in charge of the JRA Tony has tried to encourage a more positive attitude towards planning, and his participation in the Blue House working group exemplifies this.

Tony has generally been impressed by the process and sees it as a step in the right direction from the Council. Compared to previous schemes such as the redevelopment of Acorn Road, which attracted considerable opposition in Jesmond, Tony feels the Council has been more committed to consultation this time round.

“There is a lot of scepticism about Council consultations,” Tony said, describing the attitudes of many Jesmond residents. “Because of a feeling that they don’t mean anything, that they’ve already decided. And I think this Blue House one is different because they haven’t decided.”

“I think there is definitely a learning process going on in the Council,” he added.

This learning process also applies to the working group itself.

Tony identified three key problems the working group faced. “How do you select the people who are on the group?” he asked, adding, “it’s bound to have a bias in some direction or other.”

Secondly, the technical knowledge required: “It’s been a sharp learning curve to start to understand, as a member of the group, what the principles are that one would apply to a major junction. The people are being expected to take on board years of traffic planning expertise.”

Tony also pointed out the difficulty in engaging the wider public with the working group. Despite his efforts to circulate questionnaires around Jesmond residents, he has received little response, and other residents’ groups have faced similar problems.

“I think that’s partly because people get more interested at the grassroots level when there’s things they want to oppose,” Tony suggested. “When they’re being asked for positive ideas, they don’t actually tend to come up with anything.”

Indeed, the most significant public involvement with the Blue House roundabout discussions has been at a town hall meeting organised by Chi Onwurah MP in August. The meeting was organised before the Council dropped their plans, but took place just hours after the announcement.

While the meeting was useful in engaging people and increasing awareness of the proposals, Tony believes that smaller meetings, like the Blue House working group, are the best way to get actual change.

“I don’t think it really helps to just call a meeting,” he said. “You just get opposition then. I think smaller meetings with representative groups who go back is a better way of doing it.”

Instead of the opposition that arose from the town hall meeting, the working group has looked at alternative plans and discussed the core issues. Tony pointed out that traffic growth is not inevitable and that the Blue House roundabout may not need to be made bigger, as the Council had originally proposed. He suggested that people could be encouraged, “with inducements and pressure to make it harder to drive”, to use alternative modes of transport, including cycling.

Balancing the needs of different users of the roundabout is no easy task. Tony is aware that there is no guarantee the working group will find an acceptable solution, but sees this as best way to keep the most people happy.

Once the working group have finalised their suggestions these will be fed back to the Council, who will put their latest plan for the roundabout out to consultation with the wider public.

Tony hopes the working group method will be applied to other planning issues, even if it is a long-winded system. He also suggested, “the next stage, if we’re really going to be serious about that, is to give the group funding.” This kind of participatory budgeting, already used successfully in many cities across the globe, could really empower local communities to shape the environments in which they live.

Written by Mark Sleightholm. For more information, please contact Clara Crivellaro.

Esther Blaimschein and technology in planning

One of the big ideas in the future of urban living is the ‘smart city’. An increasing number of cities across the world are now calling themselves ‘smart’, using technology to integrate energy, transport and other elements of city infrastructure.

Exactly what makes a smart city, however, is open to debate. Esther Blaimschein, a researcher in Urban Studies from the Vienna University of Technology, believes that a smart city is about more than just technology: social innovation and the ecological implementation of resourceful solutions are important too.

“There is no one smart city,” she adds. “I think you always have to look deeply into what kind of city it is, what kind of mentality and soul the city has, and then smart can mean something completely different.”

High rise living

Esther’s research looks at the impact of technology on planning and urban living in Vienna, and in particular the city’s high rise zone. So many tall buildings results in windy conditions on the ground, and Esther describes how people drive into the tower block garages in their cars, use the lifts inside the building and then leave again in their car, cutting out any interaction with the windy environment outside.

The buildings Esther looks at are not just for living and working in; shops, cinemas and restaurants are also housed within the towering structures. It would be an exaggeration to say people live their entire lives inside the skyscrapers, but the design does have the potential to isolate people from the surrounding neighborhoods. This is something Esther would like to address, and she hopes an ongoing project to redevelop an open space next to the Danube, “to form better surroundings that are good not only for the people who are going to live there, but also for the neighborhood,” will be part of the solution.

It’s easy to assume that technology can help – an app, perhaps. But how? “I think that’s a big issue we’re now working on, what that can be,” Esther explains. “In the end we always talk about apps. We started with saying a ‘digital system’. Now it’s an app, of course. And I ask myself if it couldn’t also be other things, in public spaces, maybe facilitated by an app but also having implications there.”

Esther shares the digital civics interest in people as citizens rather than merely users of technology, something which becomes important when trying to introduce new technologies. “We’ve done a lot of focus groups and you always have those technology haters,” she says, adding that while “real human interaction” is vital, technology has a place as long as it makes things genuinely easier.

Transparency and visibility

Increasing participation in discussions around planning is a key aim of digital civics research and something that Esther feels passionately about. She believes that the key to getting people involved is not so much making them care – “if it’s something people feel emotionally attached to it’s so easy to get people engaged,” she explains – as making them aware.

“I think there are a lot of things that are important to people but they just don’t see it,” Esther says, contrasting small changes such as replacing a tree with a parking space to much larger schemes like the redevelopment of the Tyne and Wear Metro. This is much more likely to attract higher levels of public engagement because “it’s something people are very attached to; they use it every day.” Smaller planning issues might be less noticeable, but they can still be important, especially if they form part of a wider trend.

This is where technology can step in. Esther believes “it’s really about transparency and visibility of things that are happening,” even the little things like trees being removed.

That said, the introduction of technology into planning is no straightforward task. Esther sums up the difficulties, saying: “we speak two languages and we have to find a way to really understand each other. That’s important to have good outcomes, good results and a better future.”

Written by Mark Sleightholm.

Metro Futures in Westminster

Researchers from Open Lab were part of the Metro Futures team which presented their consultation project to MPs at a Parliamentary Reception in Westminster.

The event was hosted by Nick Brown MP, whose Newcastle upon Tyne East constituency is served by the Tyne and Wear Metro. He was one of the speakers at the event, along with Andrew Jones, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport. As well as promoting the extensive consultation with the public over the design of new Metrocars, the event showcased the design ideas that came out of this.

Tobyn Hughes, Managing Director of Nexus, which owns and manages Metro, explained the consultation process, which consisted of three strands, by Open Lab, Nexus and transport watchdog Transport Focus. The current Metrocars have been in use since Metro opened in 1980, so any new designs could also be expected to be used by Metro passengers for decades to come.

Open Lab researchers held drop-in ‘pop-up labs’ across the region, ran workshops with schools and encouraged people to share their ideas on the Metro Futures website. Local people were also invited to join the consultation process in a series of four design weekly workshops, where they recorded and shared their experiences of using Metro, agreed important issues for consideration in new trains and developed ideas to address them.

One of the pop-up labs in South Shields was attended by students at South Tyneside College, who then completed a project to suggest how digital displays, personal digital devices and data networks might be used on Metrocars in 2026. They then presented their ideas, which included touchscreen windows, a passenger app and facial recognition systems, to researchers at Open Lab.

Open Lab’s consultation sits alongside market research by Transport Focus and surveys conducted by Nexus.

Some of the most popular ideas to come out of the consultation include London Underground-style linear seating, more room for luggage and wheelchairs, and real time travel information on trains and platforms.

There were also suggestions for solar panels on trains, space for bikes and even “some way of defining the middle of the double seat, because some people take more than their fair share of the double seat.”

The reception was attended by MPs, local politicians, transport experts, passenger organisations and transport providers, who were able to discuss the findings of the consultation with the researchers. There was widespread recognition of the innovation and effort put in to the process.

Dr Simon Bowen, who is leading Open Lab’s contribution to the project, said:

“The audience was impressed with our means as well as our message – the methods and tools for public engagement, and the insights that resulted from them.”

Dr Bowen was joined in Westminster by Professor Pete Wright from Open Lab and Phil Blythe, professor of intelligent transport systems and Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department for Transport.

The next step for the Metro Futures project will be for Nexus to secure funding from the DfT to build the new trains. At this point the results from the consultation will help to shape the designs for the new Metrocars.

Written by Mark Sleightholm. For more information please contact Simon Bowen.

Technology and the On Hold movement

A new app aims to tap into and expand Greece’s “on hold” movement to encourage Greeks to support their fellow citizens.

Open Lab: Athens was set up in the summer of 2016 to explore the design and development of technologies that support and strengthen solidarity structures in Greece.

The OL: Athens team recently appeared on local radio to discuss their work and the political issues surrounding technology. They are working across a range of areas including education, health and democracy, but one of their most recent projects is with the “on hold” movement.

Customers in shops and cafes can buy extra products, such as a cup of coffee or a loaf of bread, “on hold”. The shopkeeper keeps them behind the counter to give to people who cannot otherwise afford them. In this way people can buy products for their fellow citizens.

OL: Athens has introduced App Movement to the on hold movement to create an app, On Hold Go. As with all App Movement projects, the app will be designed collaboratively by its future users, to reflect what they would like to see from it. This combination of organic social actions and digital technologies shows the potential for OL: Athens and has attracted the attention of local media.

Vasilis Vlachokyriakos, who leads OL: Athens, will also be taking part in a panel discussion at the launch of the European Social Innovation Competition, organised by the European Commission.

This year’s competition will be based around the theme of giving everybody equal access to the benefits of technological change. Vasilis will discuss this theme alongside industry leaders from across Europe.

Written by Mark Sleightholm. For more information please contact Vasilis Vlachokyriakos.

Cycling in the city

After nearly a year of workshops, community consultations and research interviews, MyPlace researchers finalised their ‘Cycling in the City’ report. The main aim was to explore the potential of digital tools for those new to cycling in Newcastle upon Tyne. Rachel Clarke, Wilbert den Hoed and Pete Wright report on the use of social technology to increase confidence among new cyclists and the discovery of new routes.

The report outlines two phases of a design study to explore the potential for digital technology to support local cycling knowledge for new cyclists within the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Our purpose was to understand how new cyclists describe particular preferences for routes, their technology use and how they plan journeys to support confidence when choosing rides.

We found perceptions of route finding were part of a much wider ecology of activities involving formal and informal training and confidence building. All cyclists described the desire to find new routes, as driven by changes in circumstance, including ageing, health, family and retirement. The impetus to explore was important for people to continue to cycle but depended on geographical, embodied and technical knowledge to guide decision- making. The technology used to support such activity included a range of devices and platforms but focused on connecting and compiling information to build confidence in dealing with issues of safety, complexity and uncertainty. While some people also described their use of fitness tracking devices, others reported using technology to aid distraction and curate the sensory and social experiences associated with cycling. Technical and improvised work-arounds to connect, compile, make-sense of and accommodate the lack of specific localised knowledge of available routes were also reported.

We conclude with possible ways to further develop integrated mobile phone and web platforms, that capitalise on local grass-roots knowledge and sharing of places and routes while respecting the diversity with which new cyclists experience routes. We suggest connecting with existing platforms that support social rides and route discovery to encourage opportunities for curation around a broader set of search terms such as feelings of freedom, views and satisfaction associated with wellbeing rather than searches determined by efficiency, safety and fitness could support greater confidence for new cyclists.

For more information please contact Wilbert den Hoed. This post was originally published on the MyPlace website, where you can also view the full report. MyPlace is a project to explore issues around mobility and place, with a particular focus on age friendly cities, and fits within the wider digital civics theme of digital local democracy and community.

Newcastle City Futures: Shaping the future of our cities

A new video shows the work that Newcastle City Futures is doing to collaboratively develop innovative solutions to urban problems.

Newcastle City Futures was set up in 2014 to explore new methods of urban development, looking at the challenges facing cities such as Newcastle, including an ageing population, traffic congestion and social change. It brings together local authorities, universities and businesses.

Several Digital Civics projects have formed part of Newcastle City Futures. The Metro Futures project involved working with Nexus, who own and manage the Tyne and Wear Metro, to better understand what Metro passengers want from a new fleet of Metrocars which will enter service in 2021. The ideas the Open Lab researchers collected, through pop-up labs, schools workshops, online consultation and more, included London Underground-style seating, space for luggage and even solar panels.

The Big Draw Weekend in October 2016 encouraged children to draw and imagine what Newcastle could look like in the future, using JigsAudio, an innovative technology designed by Zander Wilson at Open Lab. With JigsAudio participants can draw on wooden jigsaw pieces and then record an audio explanation of their design onto to a Raspberry Pi embedded within the piece.

This work with Newcastle City Futures fits within the wider digital civics theme of digital local democracy. Jen’s work on neighbourhood planning in Berwick and Zander’s Change Explorer project, which alerts people via smart watches when they visit an area that is about to be redeveloped, were both featured in a recent report by Future Cities Catapult.

Written by Mark Sleightholm. For more information please contact Mark Tewdwr-Jones.

The Metro of the future

Researchers at Open Lab saw a glimpse of what the Tyne and Wear Metro of 2026 could look like, as students from South Tyneside College presented their ideas.

The students visited one of Open Lab’s pop-up labs in November, and set about designing ideas for the new-look Metrocars. Three teams of Level 3 BTEC computing students looked at different aspects of the design, and then came into Open Lab to showcase their work.

Ideas included facial recognition systems, mobile phone charging points and an app for passengers.

The first group to present to Open Lab researchers had been looking at the design of the future Metrocars and the experiences of passengers. They suggested allowing Metro users to register an account, accessed via a dedicated website and mobile app. This would show them not just Metro timetables, but also their nearest station and real-time travel information.

Another suggestion was using virtual reality to allow Metro passengers to see unfamiliar stations before travelling.

The second group investigated the possibility of adding wifi to Metro. They explained the need to balance ease of use with security, and raised the important ethical issue of whether Nexus should prohibit passengers from accessing inappropriate content using their wifi.

Security was the focus of the final group, who explained how facial recognition and fingerprint scanning could make Metro safer. They argued that monitoring all Metro passengers would allow security staff to strop troublemakers and “look out” for other Metro users. This prompted a discussion with Open Lab researchers over the ethics of collecting personal data, and whether privacy should be exchanged for security.

The Open Lab researchers were impressed with the presentations and the work the students had done. The students’ ideas, together with the public views collected through the pop-up labs, co-researcher workshops and the Metro Futures website, and the ideas of local schoolchildren, will help to shape the design brief of the Metrocars of the future.

Written by Mark Sleightholm. For more information please contact Simon Bowen.