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.

Big Draw jigsaw

A key digital civics theme is looking at new and alternative methods to allow easier participation in how people’s places change. Within this theme, digital local democracy, we are looking at how technology might help enable ‘planning’, the discipline of deciding land uses, to include more people in how their areas change.

One part of this is getting people involved in the planning process as early as possible. This is where visions of an area are shared, rather than the discussion of individual planning applications. Many people are forced to quickly understand what town planning is when they hear about a planning application, but to have a real say, these opinions need to be voiced at an early stage.

flyer, plain jigsaw pieces and coloured-in jigsaw pieces on a tableWith this in mind, Digital Civics at Open Lab (Newcastle University), Newcastle City Futures and Seven Stories collaborated on technology for the national Big Draw festival (the world’s biggest celebration of drawing) a few weeks ago, hosted at Seven Stories (the National Centre for Childrens Books). The Big Draw aims to enhance the “advocacy, empowerment and engagement” of people through drawing.

We saw an opportunity to combine planning, drawing, and digital technology. Drawing allowed the visitors to overcome some of the traditional barriers to getting involved with planning, such as having to write long letters and understanding long documents.

The technology was pretty simple: a traditional wooden jigsaw, lots of pens, and a Raspberry Pi (a credit card-sized computer). The children were encouraged to draw their visions of Newcastle on the pieces, and then explain their vision through talking about them.

The puzzle pieces were identified using an RFID tag (a technology which allows an object to be identified, frequently seen in contactless bank cards) embedded within the puzzle piece, which allowed audio clips to be associated with a puzzle piece.

3D model of NewcastleThe colourful puzzle came back with many varied visions of Newcastle and Gateshead. A five-hour barge trip along the Tyne and a colourful new bridge across the Tyne – painted in green, yellow, black, blue and purple – were just two of the ideas that emerged from the puzzle. These ideas will soon be available to view on a dedicated website.

The puzzle will also be used as part of the Metro Futures project, allowing anyone to design their perfect Metrocar, and explain their design to the world. If you’d like to have a play with the puzzle, you’ll find it at one of these Metro Future events.

If anyone would like to make their own puzzle machine, they can download the design here: For more information please contact Zander Wilson.