City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Journal: Future Cities Catapult

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A follow-up note to explain what I’ve been up to, work-wise. (And note, if you want to skip to the end, we're hiring.)

At the beginning of February, I joined the Future Cities Catapult as Executive Director for Futures and Best Practice, as part of a new leadership team. The Future Cities Catapult is a global urban innovation centre, based in London, and 'kickstarted' by the Technology Strategy Board, the UK Government’s innovation agency. You can read about the wider Catapult programme, which encompasses other areas such as cell therapy, high-value manufacturing, satellite applications etc, at the Catapult site.

As the name makes clear, our focus is ‘future cities’, rather than simply ‘smart cities’. Our core idea is enabling a better city-making and city-operating industry in the UK, framed by better urban governance—the future cities sector. This will be defined by genuinely integrated, holistic urban propositions, drawing from the UK’s existing strengths in architecture, urbanism, engineering, planning, property and construction, finance and legal, all the various design trades from interaction design and service design to industrial design, the now burgeoning tech sector, media and communications, governance etc.

In short, we’re trying to more creatively and strategically connect all the various components that produce cities, in order to forge new approaches to cities. As a centre of expertise, we lead by example, not simply brokering projects and designing consortia, but rolling up our sleeves and engaging in projects ourselves. Yet our job is to create jobs for start-ups, small firms and others in the UK—to create the conditions for a future cities sector to grow and adapt, and thus enable better cities to emerge as a result, both in the UK and overseas.

We’re currently about 50 people, and we should be around 150 people in a few years. We’ll be in our new premises in Farringdon as soon as they’re renovated. For now, we’re at London Bridge. Get in touch if you want to know more.

Since February, I’ve been knee-deep in lots of start-up stuff—leading on the building design from the client-side, revising our branding, writing bits of our strategy, putting in two major EU bids, specifying the production equipment we need in our studios, some recruiting for other teams, and so on.

Equally, I’ve picked up a few of the project that existed before me, such as our Sensing Cities project with Intel ICRI Cities and others, and our Cities Unlocked project in partnership with Microsoft Research, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Network Rail et al. (Other projects we’re working on include the UK’s first urban ‘Internet of Things’ prototyping platform and a capacity-building project for urban data specialists inside Manchester councils, working with the great FutureEverything.)

More on Sensing Cities and Cities Unlocked to follow, but they are both part of a major new programme we’ve devised, which I’m calling “Urban Prototypes”. This sits alongside our “Urban Futures” work, yet concerns more near-future, or "future-around-the-corner", aspects—things that could be, or will be deployed into the street shortly. I love this one, as it’s where the smart city gets tangible, where it hits the street, where it can be tested, shaped, designed such that it is well-considered. Part of my interest in the Catapult is my sene that it's time to do smart cities properly—this programme attempts to flush out what it might all mean, as a genuinely tangible, viable set of products, services and experiences.

A first defining project in this “Urban Protoypes” programme is a collaborative research project with BERG, around the possibilities in dynamic, web-connected displays. It's called Connected Displays, as part of a 'connected streets' theme. Please do visit, read BERG’s write-up of their Pixel-Track prototype, and watch the short films. Hopefully, this will give a flavour of the prototypes work, which will also cover other ideas around the street of the near-future, including a strong focus on mobility, participation, production and health.

(This focus on the ‘thingness’ of smart cities runs alongside the programmes of my fellow Exec Directors, Paula Hirst and Pete Reynolds, who are focusing on ‘places’ and ‘data’ respectively.)

“Urban Futures”, however, is long-future. Projects may bounce back and forth between Prototypes and Futures, but there are different dynamics at work here. Futures might consider the more strategic challenges cities face—the classic ‘wicked problems’, such as climate change, obesity, ageing population, as well as potential long-term sources of value, of cultural change, of formal change. Our work here will be design futures-led, and focus heavily on narrative work and prototyping too—a “show don’t tell” approach, yet backed by solid and well-researched scenario work. It’s a great opportunity to continue the foresight and futures work I was doing while at Arup (eg.), but also to help reinvent what futures work might be.

So now it’s time to build a new team—in fact, time to create a world class design futures team focused on understanding the opportunities and challenges facing 21st century cities. So sure enough, I’m hiring—more on these first two positions to follow, but if you’re interested, see more here, and apply if you think you could be right for the role (closing date 8th August.)

There will be a few more new posts out very shortly too, with another wave to follow shortly after that. I’ll be looking for around 10 people this year, with more to follow next. These first two posts are two key positions, though: project leads, responsible for locating, directing and delivering projects—one with an urbanism focus, the other with a more product/service design focus.

(I’ve built many teams over the years, in several quite different organisations, but now I clearly see that I only have one idea: the design-led ‘transdisciplinary studio’ model to address complex challenges. Not easy, but seems to work.)

Personally, it’s lovely to be focusing full-time on cities again. At SITRA it was almost always the focal point, yet our remit was not cities exclusively. At Fabrica we did some great work around cities, but as part of a much broader portfolio. So it does link back further to my work at Arup—and indeed further still, themes that have shaped my entire career.

More to follow; on ‘Connected Streets’ and those two new positions, and then regular updates on the Catapult’s work in general.


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