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


Much of the work at the Catapult is about making more holistic, integrated urban projects happen. While this can include governance and investment pieces, we’ve also been exploring technology at the street level.

For example our Sensing Cities project, which is deploying air quality sensors across Enfield, Brixton, Elephant & Castle and Hyde Park, and in further cities soon, building new evidence for policy-makers and organisations like the Royal Parks and Lend Lease, as well as conducting insights work understanding how citizens perceive air quality. (This in collaboration with Intel ICRI and others (great to be working with my old colleague Duncan Wilson again.)) We've some research emerging soon from our ethnographers’ work with citizens in Enfield, as well as some insightful data visualisations combining sensor data with mobile phone data over Hyde Park. More soon.

See also Cities Unlocked, a collaboration with Microsoft Research, Guide Dogs for the Blind and others, exploring how technology can assist visually impaired people to navigate the city. Aspects of this were picked up by the BBC, Daily Mail et al a couple of weeks ago. And our involvement as part of a consortium creating a city-wide ’Internet of Things’ prototyping platform, in Milton Keynes.

For me, the street is a fundamental focal point as it's here that technology’s promise is revealed—or not. For too long, the ’smart cities’ movement has not bothered to make its value clear to citizens, or to politicians, in tangible, meaningful form. This is probably why its development over the last decade has been patchy at best. So in the prototyping of new urban products and services, we develop tangible demonstrations of the value technologies may have in future cities.

A recent example has been our collaborative research project with BERG, concerning the possibilities of dynamic, web-connected, more sustainable urban displays. Here's the description of the project from the site we built to convey the research:

“We’re interested in how our cities will feel and perform when objects, spaces, buildings, infrastructure and people are connected. As part of an ongoing design research project about the connected street, the Catapult collaborated with Berg, a UK-based technology company, to explore the possibilities of connected displays. Berg pursued the idea through making a prototype called Pixel Track. The Catapult pursued the idea through a series of interviews with those who commission, curate and manage signage."

Below, the BERG film, talking about and demonstrating their fully-working prototype, and in a few beguiling renders at the end, indicating how it could manifest itself in various public places.

The flip-dot display, dubbed Pixel Track, means the sign could use a fraction of the energy required by equivalent signs we see in cities—it uses power when it changes, but not to display. It also has an intrinsic value of old train station and airport departure display boards – the physically-generated click-clack when it changes. It clearly has physical design quality too, which is something we wanted to bring to a product category often bereft of that. There are numerous other interesting aspects, described by BERG’s Jack Schulze in the film, such as the ability to update easily by administrators or automatically via data feeds, or its extensible form capable of snaking its way around a space, or the model of the intelligence in the cloud meaning minimal processing power and complexity is required in the sign itself, or simply the fact it exists as a physical element in a space rather than as an app (there are many instances when we can't or shouldn't rely on people having smartphones, from equitable access to security to sheer ambient glanceability.) It's typically thoughtful and skilful work by BERG, and you can read more about the development of Pixel Track in their case study and associated blog entry.

Yet it's also immediately comprehensible and appealing—it's a physical sign with the Internet shoved in the back. Or rather, it has the numerous and various qualities of a physical object, yet with the malleable dynamics of the Internet, updated via real-time data feeds and/or via the calibre of user interface we now expect. That balance of dynamism and accessibility could be a significant advance for urban displays.

To that end, we conducted a series of interviews with people who commission, procure, curate and manage displays and signage in the city. Finn Williams, of the Greater London Authority, is responsible for urban regeneration projects across London. He discusses the Mayor of London's strategies to de-clutter the high street, whilst reinforcing local culture through signage. Corinna Gardner of the Victoria & Albert Museum is part of a new team curating this emerging product category. She also describes the museum's need for a more dynamic form of display. Jon Hunter is Head of Design for Transport for London, and responsible for design across a wide variety of complex environments, requiring high standards of accessibility, resilience and consistency. Nigel McKay is Lend Lease's head of innovation for the Elephant & Castle development in London, and is exploring how such products might enable new amenities and services for residents and visitors, as well as realising strategic ambitions around low-carbon living. You can hear from them in this film:

Much thanks to BERG—particularly Jack Schulze, Durrell Bishop and Timo Arnall—for their ingenuity and execution, and ability to communicate. And thanks to Finn, Corinna, Jon and Nigel for their insight. Thanks also to the Catapult team of Claire Mookerjee and Gynna Millan. We're looking forward to seeing where this project goes next, as part of a broader set of projects exploring the idea of the connected street.

Connected Streets
Pixel Track by BERG

And a reminder: if you're interested in working in my team at the Catapult, on the kind of projects described above, there are two project lead positions currently open: Project Lead, Urbanism and Project Lead, Product and Service Design. Visit the Catapult's vacancies page for more—the posts are open for another week are so. [Now closed!]


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