Digital and Spatial Governance in shaping the Future City through Urban/Living Lab (ULL) working

Nicola Headlam

This blog discusses a set of challenges relating to digital and spatial governance and the potentially disruptive roles of innovative urban methodologies in policies and strategies for more liveable and sustainable cities. It examines the role of technology in knowledge mobilisation for urban transformation and the fruitful encounters between the knowledge and practice fields of digital design, which deal with service and interaction design, and urbanism, which is concerned with the study, planning and design of cities. We are interested in the ways in which links can be built between cutting edge research and technological innovations in urban services, through experimental methods that engage real time use of technology – such as ‘Urban Living Labs (ULL)’, ‘Planning Hackathons’, ‘Data-Driven Dashboards’ and ‘Design Sprint’ – to co-produce solutions for the future city.

A Living Lab approach is defined as ‘sites devised to design, test and learn from social and technical innovation in real time’ (Marvin, 2016). They are closely connected with ‘quadruple helix thinking’ which blends the expertise of actors from market, state, research base and civil society (see European Week of Cities and Regions for background to the UT approach to ULL).

Further, we explore the ‘smart city’ space, where technological and design solutions to the planning issues of developing future neighbourhoods and communities support tools and platforms to face the challenges of sustainable and equitable urban development.

Living Labs in Civic Universities and Technological innovation in problem-solving

“The Living Lab has come of age in the knowledge economy era” (Keith and Headlam 2017), combining a place-based focus with a practical and civic component with “citizens” represented at all levels. A focus on innovation within the economy (as signalled in the industrial strategy) needs to be animated by using innovative techniques in order to seek integration of data in building future communities. In order to meet the global goals of sustainable development – specifically the urban sustainable development goal (SDG 11) – cities will have to shift their development trajectories, instancing a significant realignment in urban management practice. Urban Labs may be mobilised in support of innovative urban solutions and deploy innovative digital techniques in order to enliven new conversations about the future of a place. We seek a more inclusive and cross-disciplinary perspective on the conceptualisation, planning and realisation of the ‘urban digital’. This relates to how design and urban planning professionals learn to take seriously the societal responsibility implied in the development of digital services and products for everyday urban living, and the roles of researchers in managing the multiple perspectives of the urban kaleidoscope. This involves combining social scientific expertise with the development and prototyping of digital tools to coproduce innovative, visual, detailed and digital methods using strong networks of partners with specific skills.

Urban environments are teeming with communication technologies, and data and media are increasingly ubiquitous, flexible and integrated across urban governance, industry and daily practices. Urban digital services combine data, infrastructures and people in ways that serve commercial and/or civic purposes in the city. Moreover, digital systems based on ‘big data’ – the collection and analysis of vast amounts of information – are increasingly used in governance, planning and public service provision as well as in policy and decision making. These services are part of the growing ‘sharing economy’, which is a major force in ongoing and often controversial processes of urban. This makes the digital technologies and media a potent starting point for seeking new ways of designing urban services that would positively affect issues of urban liveability, sustainability, design and governance. Thus, the design of digital services is increasingly important for how cities are planned, built and lived in. This, however, is a fact that is not readily acknowledged or well understood in traditional forms of urban planning and governance

Beyond the theoretical realm however, there has been a gap, particularly with those charged with long-term spatial governance and the possibilities and potentials for policy framing “the future city”.

The Smart City Frame opens the opportunities for new actors to disrupt some of the sacred cows of strategic and spatial planning, the opening out of knowledge regimes and the codes of the urban professions, and the possibility for system and life-cycle analyses to inform long range planning processes. A social-scientifically informed living lab may offer traction for networks of stakeholders co-producing innovative, visual, detailed and digital methods.

A smart city must not settle on either a techno-determinist or utopian position but scopes what forms of networked governance are needed in order to manage the tensions and new constellations that emerge when technologies are not only used for solving urban problems, but also become integral to shaping urban life, planning and politics. This could hope to capture expertise around planning and governance and result in a digital platform which uses data as a form of “Total Place” for Capital Investment, operationalising best available research and evidence on placemaking and shaping with work on digital dashboards and their role in decision-making in political environments. This is allied with Future Cities Catapult in their #plantech work as well as an earlier funded UT fellowship based at the FCC with Paul Cowie and peoples an urban lab space where scholars and technology support policy-makers and citizens in decisions, bringing digital and spatial intelligences to bear on the challenges of urban transformation.

Dr Nicola Headlam is the Urban Transformations and Foresight Future of Cities Knowledge Exchange Research Fellow, working across a broad portfolio of urban fields including place-making, governance and partnerships.