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.

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.

Metro Futures: the story so far

Since the start of November members of the public have been sharing their ideas for the future of the Tyne and Wear Metro. As part of a massive public consultation into the design of a new generation of Metro carriages, the Metro Futures project – a collaboration between Nexus, who own Metro, and Open Lab – aims to ask people what they like about Metro, and what they would like to change.

Metro users – and potential users – are being invited to share their views on the Metro Futures website, in pop-up labs held throughout November across Tyne and Wear, and on social media, using the hashtag #MetroFutures.

Simon Bowen, who leads the project for Open Lab, said: “We’re taking this conversation across the region with a series of pop-up labs where we’re asking people to share what is important about Metro today and explore the Metro of tomorrow.”

Pop-up labs:

  • Customs House, South Shields – Wednesday 9 November, 12:00-17:00
  • Gateshead Interchange – Friday 11 November, 14:30-18:30
  • The Bridges Shopping Centre, Sunderland – Friday 18 November, 11:00-15:00
  • Tynemouth Market – Sunday 20 November, 9:00-16:00
  • Newcastle Airport – Thursday 24 November (on trains during the day)
  • intu Eldon Square – Saturday 26 November, 11:00-15:00

“We want local people to tell us much as possible about what they want to see from new trains,” explained Huw Lewis, Head of Customer Services at Nexus.

“The pop-up labs put together by Newcastle University’s Open Lab are a fun and informative way for people right across the communities Metro serves to get involved.”

Around 30 members of the public have also been recruited as co-researchers. They will attend four design workshop and think in detail about Metro today and what the Metro of the future could look like. The ideas coming out of these workshops will also be added to the Metro Futures website to prompt further online discussion.

Local schoolchildren will also be involved in the design process. They will spend time on a spare Metrocar to explore new ideas, echoing the role of children in testing out the original Metrocars 40 years ago.

Involving local people in decision that affect them is a key theme within digital civics, and the Metro Futures project aims to bring back the spirit of innovation that characterised the early days of Metro.

The ideas and feedback from the public will be used to design the new-look Metrocars, with a detailed business plan expected to be presented to the Department for Transport before the end of the year.

Huw explained: “The business case we are submitting to Government for new trains at the end of this year is vital for Metro’s future, and we want local people to be at the heart of our plans.”

The current Metro carriages have been in use since Metro opened in 1980, so the new designs will shape the look of Metro for decades to come.


For more information please contact Simon Bowen.