Science in the city: applying neuroscience to urban design

Cities have long been considered primarily in terms of their buildings and infrastructure.  However, in recent years, a more ‘human-centric’ view has been adopted – focusing on the people who inhabit the city, and how they perceive and respond to the city that surrounds them.

Research from a variety of disciplines agree that buildings and cities have a significant impact upon the people – from their physical and mental health, cognitive development, and wellbeing to their levels of productivity.

Neuroscience offers a new way to further explore this impact – and by doing so, help urban design professionals to create places that promote human health and wellbeing, whilst mitigating the negative impacts of the city environment as far as possible.

 

What is neuroscience?

But what exactly is neuroscience?  And how does it relate to urban design?

A recent report by FutureCatapult looks at how neuroscience can be used to improve the design of urban places, and thus increase human wellbeing and productivity.

It defines neuroscience as “a multidisciplinary branch of biology and is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with the other parts of the body”.

There are various ‘scales’ or ‘levels’ of neuroscience – from cognitive psychology, right down to the study of individual cells in the brain.  Each level of neuroscience studies different aspects of how the brain functions, and thus offers different ways to explore and understand how humans perceive, respond to and are affected by their surrounding environments.  It has many applications in real life – and one such application is informing city strategy, design and policy.

 

Applying neuroscience research to urban design

Take mental health, for example.  It is a prime example of an area in which neuroscience can be used by city planners and policymakers to help improve human wellbeing.

As FutureCatapult point out in their report, cities have a greater prevalence of mental health problems than rural areas.

They note that several factors associated with cities have been found to contribute to mental health problems. These include certain toxins (produced by traffic, industrial parks), environmental stressors (noise and light pollution), climate conditions (urban heat islands) and social conditions (isolation).  Neuroscience offers a greater understanding how these factors impact on human health and wellbeing, thus creating an evidence base for the design of healthy places.

There are many other ways in which neuroscience research can inform city design.  For example, it has been found that:

  • poor air quality has serious detrimental effects on the natural developments of children’s brains
  • social isolation can accelerate cognitive decline in older people
  • an increase in noise decreases worker productivity
  • light influences brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention

Such findings can help inform the decisions made by city planners and policymakers, and help create cities that maximise human health, wellbeing and productivity.

Research into the brain’s ‘wayfinding’ processes – that is, how the brain processes visual information and makes sense of unfamiliar environments – is also of interest.  For example, how do people choose which paths to follow?  Are they influenced by street size, shape, colours, noise, or the number of cars? Such information could be used to inform the design of streets and places that are easier to navigate. This is of growing importance given the drive towards the design of inclusive and dementia-friendly places.

Relatedly, neuroscience offers a way to gain a deeper understanding of how non-neurotypical brains process and respond to different environments – for example, people with dementia or autism.  Understanding these different perspectives and responses is key to the creation of spaces that are truly inclusive.

 

Neuroscience in action

But how exactly does one go about examining how brain cells respond to an urban environment?

There are a variety of neuroscience tools that may be used to gather information about human’s experience of the city.

A key tool is mobile electroencephalography (EEG).  Previously, EEG involved equipment that could only be used in a laboratory.  However, technological advances have seen the development of mobile EEG ‘headsets’ that can be worn as research participants navigate different streets and environments of the city.

Mobile EEG enables researchers to measure brain function and activity, as well as the responses of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, skin conductivity, endocrinological levels).  This can be used to understand how individuals experience urban environments.

For example, mobile EEG has been used to help understand the urban experiences of people with visual impairments.  Other mobile EEG studies have looked at whether using quiet, low traffic streets has a different effect on pedestrians than using streets busy with shops, traffic and other pedestrians.

Eye tracking machines are another tool providing research findings of interest to urban designers.  They study gaze behaviours and cognition, which are in turn related to attention, memory, language, problem solving, and decision making.  Eye tracking can help researchers to understand which features catch and hold attention, visual preferences and experiences. For example, one eye-tracking study found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that humans prefer lush greenery in urban environments.

As these neurological research and related technologies advance, their application will undoubtedly become more sophisticated and widespread.

 

Building upon evidence

The urban population around the world is expanding rapidly and finding solutions to the mental and physical health challenges that cities present is crucial.

By understanding the insights that neuroscience can provide, city planners, policy makers and others involved in urban design can access a growing evidence base upon which to build future cities that are healthy, attractive and inclusive places to live.


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Unlocking the potential of smart cities: All-Party Parliamentary Group calls for coherent UK Government strategy

Hong Kong city

By Steven McGinty

The role of smart cities is not to create a society of automation and alienation, but to bring communities together”. (Iain Stewart MP)

In June, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities published a report outlining the findings of its recent inquiry into how the UK Government can support the expansion of smart cities and enable the UK to become a world leader in the field.

It explains that although some people have concerns that smart cities are expensive gimmicks, or even something more sinister, the potential in becoming smarter could have a tremendous impact on the lives of citizens.  And ‘smart’, the report makes clear is not just about clever technologies, but any innovative approach or solution that brings together industries or government departments to solve everyday problems.

Included in the report are the number of ways smart approaches can improve city life, such as:

  • Making cities accessible for all – improving the design process can ensure that people with physical disabilities are not prevented from enjoying the public spaces.
  • Empowering citizens in democracy – new technologies can give citizens a voice by connecting them with each other, as well as those running services or those making decisions.
  • Reducing the strain on our health service – providing citizens with access to their own health records can encourage greater responsibility for their own healthcare.
  • A more efficient, flexible transport system – improving transport information can help citizens plan journeys and smart ticketing options can allow citizens to travel easily between transport services.
  • Creating a cleaner environment and enhancing air quality – smart technologies can help address environmental challenges, such as improving traffic flow to help limit harmful emissions in congested areas.

If cities are looking for a blueprint to success, there have been numerous smart city initiatives introduced across the world. For example, the report highlights how the Scottish Cities Alliance, a joint initiative between Scotland’s seven cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and Stirling) and the Scottish Government, is encouraging collaboration and the take-up of technologies designed to improve air quality, traffic flow and cut pollution.

There’s also two examples from further afield. Estonia, which is widely recognised as a smart city leader, is viewed as an example of best practice in data sharing. The country provides citizens with control over their data by providing easy access to their education, medical and employment records through an online portal (with the option to request changes). And in Singapore, the “Smart Nation” initiative has become known for its use of a coordinating body to provide leadership to their smart cities agenda.

In concluding the report, The APPG make a series of recommendations to effectively drive forward the smart cities agenda. This includes:

  • encouraging the promotion of a smart culture;
  • convening smart standards and data; and
  • promoting the UK’s smart city expertise overseas.

In particular, a number of interesting points are raised about how to promote a smart culture, from ensuring smart city initiatives focus on the outcomes for citizens to putting collaboration with other cities (and the sharing of best practice) before any form of competition.

Iain Stewart MP, chairman of the APPG on Smart Cities, summarises the report’s main message, as well as calling for the UK Government to create a strategy. He argues:

A coherent strategy from central government is needed to ensure a joined-up approach between businesses and those who work most closely with and on behalf of their citizens – local government. By fully embracing the smart cities approach, central government can empower local authorities to show ordinary people how smart can positively impact on their everyday lives.”


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles. 

Public transport: lessons from our Nordic neighbours

Public transport is a vital element in the lives of many people. Commuters rely on bus, train, tram and metro services to get them to and from work. Public transport is also crucial for those without cars who need to access education, training, health and social care services.

The state of UK public transport

Recent research by the Urban Transport Group (UTG) has reported important trends in public transport England. Among the findings:

  • Buses remain the most used form of public transport, but service levels and usage have been in decline.
  • There has been rapid growth in rail passenger numbers over the last decade.
  • Patronage on Light Rail systems in England has seen an increase of 44% since 2007/08.

Elsewhere in the UK, there’s a mixed picture on the state of public transport:

  • New legislation introduced by the Scottish Government aims to halt the decline in bus use in Scotland, where passenger numbers fell by 10% over five years. Meanwhile, the rail regulator has demanded improvements to the punctuality of trains in Scotland.
  • Wales has seen a steady decline in bus usage in recent years, although over the same period passenger numbers on trains have increased.
  • Translink, which provides public transport in Northern Ireland has reported that trips by fare-paying passengers increased for the second year in a row, with rail passenger numbers reaching their highest level in 50 years.

Overall, rail passenger numbers in the UK are rising, although the recent disruption to services in the south east and the north of England following timetable changes underlined ongoing dissatisfaction with the standards of service from rail companies. Meanwhile, Britain’s bus network continues to shrink, especially on local routes.

Lessons from Scandinavia

When it comes to public transport, it’s often enlightening to look at how other countries manage. A recent UTG report explored how transport authorities in Sweden, Denmark and Norway are using devolved powers to transform public transport for the better. The report, written by Professor Tom Rye, from the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University, considered various aspects of public transport, including service levels, fares, technological innovations, environmental impact and franchising.

Service levels

The report found that, in comparison with the equivalent city regions in the UK (outside of London), service levels in the Nordic countries are higher, particularly during off-peak times. In rural and low-density suburban areas, a higher level of service is provided since there is an element of cross-subsidy between revenue-generating and loss-making routes. By contrast, in the UK bus deregulation does not allow for comparable levels of cross-subsidy.

Fares

In Scandinavia, as in many other parts of continental Europe, fares are zonal and multi-modal. Passengers can travel on the same ticket by rail, bus, light rail, and in some cities on urban ferries. Journeys are paid for on a stored value or season ticket smartcard. The research found that, in comparison to incomes, fares for frequent users in Scandinavian cities are similar to those in the UK, but season tickets often cover wider geographical areas.

Technological innovations

The report provides examples of significant innovation on vehicle technologies, including smart ticketing. In Norway fares are increasingly supplied as mobile tickets.

Environmental impact

The research found that the Scandinavian countries have ambitious plans for public transport’s role in reducing carbon and toxic emissions. These include low or zero emission bus fleets and modal shifts from other transport modes. Copenhagen’s metro and suburban rail services are a key part of the city’s plan to be the first in the world to be CO2 free by 2025. There will be no diesel-powered buses in Oslo by 2020, and in Sweden Skåne’s bus fleet will run on fossil-free fuel by the same year.

Franchising

Public transport strategies in Norway, Sweden and Denmark are aligned with wider national and sub-national goals for economic development, land use planning and social cohesion. Levels of revenue support for bus services underpin a high quality of service, and levels of public transport use are high (although in Denmark, heavy investment in cycling infrastructure means public transport usage is relatively low).

One of the key features of public transport in Scandinavia is that virtually all bus services have been franchised. Metro and tram services are also provided either through franchising or by the incumbent municipal operator.The report notes that the main impact of franchising of bus services in all three countries has been to reduce costs and increase quality. The authors note that:

“…franchising in these countries and regions gives public sector Passenger Transport Authorities the direct ability to improve aspects of service because they specify and purchase that service from private sector operators. Thus, if they have the resources and are willing to pay for improvements, these can be delivered rapidly, to deliver on policy ambitions.” 

The Scandinavian way

Even as local, devolved and national governments are trying to encourage greater use of public transport, the evidence suggests that in a significant number of British cities – including Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Sheffield, the number of people travelling by public transport is falling.

The UTG report suggests that the Nordic model provides a road map for improvement in the way that UK transport service providers currently deliver urban public transport:

“Scandinavian countries have taken this approach because there is a political and public consensus that public transport is a public service. A public service that has a key role to play in tackling road congestion, reducing greenhouse gases and air pollution. A public service that also spreads the benefits of economic growth and promotes social cohesion through ensuring better connectivity within and between communities – including linking peripheral areas with the main towns and cities that are driving the wider economy.”


Read more of our public transport blog posts:

Ten years on from Byron – are children any safer online?

“The rapid pace at which new media are evolving has left adults and children stranded either side of a generational digital divide.” (Professor Tanya Byron, 2008)

On examining the risks children face from the internet and video games, the Byron Review made 38 recommendations for the government, industry and families to work together to support children’s safety online and to reduce access to adult video games.

Ten years on, are children any safer online?

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) argues “there is still a great deal of work to be done”.

‘Failing to do enough’

The recommendations of the Byron Review were recently revisited by the NSPCC in its new report which reviewed the progress made in implementing them. Of the 38 recommendations, the report found that:

  • 16 were implemented (only 13 fully);
  • 11 were not implemented;
  • seven were partially implemented; and
  • for four recommendations, the landscape has changed too much to accurately judge.

Despite the changes in the political landscape and in technological developments, however, the NCPCC notes that the vast majority of the recommendations made in 2008 are still relevant and “urgently need to be addressed.”

Professor Byron herself stated in the foreword of the report that “much has changed over the last decade, but one thing has not: Government is failing to do enough to protect children online.”

Byron noted that, excluding the areas where the recommendations are no longer applicable, still 53% of her remaining recommendations “have either been ignored by Government or have only been partially followed through.”

In terms of the implications, social networks are left to make their own rules with no government regulation, online safety is not yet a compulsory part of the school curriculum and responsibility for child safety online falls heavily on parents who may lack understanding of latest trends, or even children who may not be equipped to make wise decisions – all findings similarly highlighted ten years ago. So what has changed?

Progress

The recommendations that were fully implemented include: tighter regulation of new forms of online advertising to children; a more consistent approach to age rating online games; and assessment of e-safety standards in schools as part of Ofsted inspections.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety was also established as a result of the recommendations – the primary strategy objective. It has since produced various guidance documents for schools, parents and industry.

More recently, as part of the government’s Digital Charter, its forthcoming Internet Safety Strategy will introduce a social media code of practice and transparency reporting. Children are also to be given extra protection online under new data protection laws. Byron describes this as an important step but raises concern that the rules will not be directly enforceable. Moreover, the social media code is expected to be voluntary and does not include anti-grooming measures.

While a voluntary code of practice for websites was a key recommendation of the Byron Review in 2008, Byron has recently argued that “it is much too late for a voluntary code for social networks.”

Just before the NSPCC’s report, it was revealed that there had been more than 1300 grooming offences in the first six months since the Sexual Communication with a Child offence came into force, with almost two thirds of cases involving the use of Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.

Benefits

Of course, technology has numerous benefits for children and young people. As Byron’s review highlighted, the internet and video games offer a range of opportunities for fun, communication, skill development, creativity and learning.

Digital technology can also be beneficial to children and young people who are disadvantaged. As UNICEF’s recent report – The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a digital world – argues:

“If leveraged in the right way and universally accessible, digital technology can be a game changer for children being left behind… connecting them to a world of opportunity and providing them with the skills they need to succeed in a digital world.”

Byron also highlighted the value technologies can have for children and young people living with disabilities that make living in the ‘offline’ world challenging.

As Byron suggested in 2008, what is needed is a balance between preserving the rights of children and young people to reap the enjoyment of the digital world and enhance their learning and development, and ensuring they (and indeed adults) are sufficiently informed to maintain safety.

Way forward

To ensure children have the same rights and security online as they have offline, the NSPCC is calling for:

  • a set of minimum standards and a statutory code of practice for online providers, underpinned by robust regulation;
  • greater transparency on data and information-sharing amongst industry; and
  • clear and transparent processes for reporting, moderating and removing content from sites, verifying children’s ages and offering support to users when needed.

To be effective, the NSPCC specify that these measures would need to be consistently applied to all sites, apps and games where children interact online.

Perhaps the government’s Internet Safety Strategy will introduce more stringent measures as highlighted by both Byron and the NSPCC which will go some way to making children safer in the digital world.

In the words of Byron, “The online world moves too fast for Government to drag its feet for another decade.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our previous posts on the impact of smart phones on young people’s mental health and what technology means for children’s development.

Follow us on Twitter to see what is interesting our research team.

Why fewer Londoners are taking the tube: a transport researcher explains

This guest blog was written by Nicole Badstuber, Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.

For the first time since 2008, the number of people using the world-famous London Underground – locally known as “the tube” – has fallen. After over two decades of long-term growth, passenger numbers are down 2%, from 1.38 billion in the financial year 2016-17, to 1.35 billion in 2017-18. Bus use also peaked in 2014, and has been falling steadily each year. Simply put, fewer people in London are using public transport – and this means fewer ticket sales. This has created a funding gap that puts plans for improvements and upgrades in serious jeopardy.

Since the national government cut its £700m a year grant, London’s transport agency, Transport for London (TfL), has been banking on ticket sales to fund the capital’s transport system. But this year, TfL has had to revise its income from tickets sales down by £240m.

This spells trouble for the agency, which plans for ticket sales to generate up to £6.2 billion, or 62%, of the £10.2 billion budget for 2022-23 – a step increase from today’s £4.6 billion, or 45% of this year’s budget. Since London Mayor Sadiq Khan is committed to freezing single fares, additional growth will need to come from more passengers.

This is, in some ways, a reasonable expectation: population and employment – the key drivers of transport demand – are still growing in London. TfL points towards economic factors, including the uncertainty of Brexit, to explain the downturn in demand for public transport. But this year’s lower passenger numbers point instead towards lifestyle changes, which are affecting when and how people choose to travel.

London’s missing passengers

Travel surveys show that the average Londoner made only 2.2 trips (across all transport modes) a day in 2016-17, down 20% from 2006-7. So despite population growth, transport demand has not risen as much as expected. This decline is mirrored across England: between 2002 and 2016 a 9% drop in trips across all modes was recorded.

Passenger numbers and journey stages on London Underground. Travel in London Report 10/TfL, Author provided

Flexible and remote working practices are contributing to this trend: instead of commuting to work five days, the new normal for Londoners is now four. Over the past decade, commuting trips have dropped by 14.2%.

At the same time, the cost of travel has been increasing. While single fares on the bus and the tube cost approximately the same in real terms between 2000 and 2012, they have increased 5% and 3% respectively since then. The cost of season tickets is up even more; 8% on the bus and 6% on the London Underground in real terms since 2012.

Greater transport costs mean less disposable income, which partially explains why Londoners are making fewer leisure and shopping trips, instead opting to stay home and shop online. Meanwhile, London’s changing mix of traffic suggests that personal trips are being substituted with deliveries. This shifts the burden from the public transport network to the road network. Across London, light goods vans are making up a growing proportion of traffic: accounting for 14% of traffic in 2016, up from 10% in 1993 and 11% in 2000.

Trouble for TFL

To avoid a major shortfall, TfL will need to look at new ways to fund transport. One solution might be to reform London’s congestion charge. Currently, the congestion charge covers less than 1.5% of the city, applies only between 7am and 6pm, consists of a simple, daily flat rate, and exempts private hire vehicles – your Uber drivers and minicabs.

Over the past four years, there has been a 75% increase in the number of registered private hire vehicles. On Friday and Saturday nights, 18,000 cars flood the streets of Central London. With New York City set to introduce a surcharge for taxis and private hire vehicles (US$2.50 and US$2.75 respectively), London might also want to follow suit.

A more comprehensive road pricing strategy would be an effective tool to manage traffic and generate funds for the transport system. A reformed congestion charge alongside good public transport, cycling infrastructure and public space could encourage Londoners to shift away from their cars toward travelling by public transport, walking and cycling.

TfL predicts that most of its revenue growth – £3.2 billion over the next five years – will come from the new Elizabeth Line, which is set to start running in December 2018. By 2022-23, TfL expects passenger numbers on the Elizabeth Line to increase by 200m to 269m, and tickets sales to earn £913m. Over the same period, passenger numbers on the London Underground and bus network are forecast to rise by just 5% and 3% respectively.

The income from the Elizabeth Line is crucial to TfL balancing its books. As outgoing deputy mayor for transport, Val Shawcross, warned, delays to the Elizabeth Line opening on time are TfL’s greatest revenue risk. So as engineering challenges threaten to push back the opening date, TfL’s money worries look set to worsen.

The funding conundrum

TfL is also seeking to earn from developments on some of the 300 acres of land it owns in the city. By 2022-23, the property partnerships agreed between TfL and thirteen large property development companies in 2016 are set to generate £3.4 billion of income to reinvest into London’s transport system. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing for further sites to be unlocked, to generate more funds and meet his manifesto commitment to build more affordable homes for Londoners.

Khan’s manifesto pledge to freeze single fare tickets throughout his term is estimated to cost £640m. Arguably, reneging on that promise could return £640m to TfL’s purse. TfL points to national rail services where fares are higher and the reduction in passenger numbers has been greater, and argue that the fare freeze blunted the drop in passenger numbers.

If TfL fails to find new ways to fund its network, more cuts to upgrade and capital programmes are only a matter of time. The agency has already cut its funding for streets, cycling and public spaces in London’s boroughs, and suspended its roads renewal programme and underground capacity upgrades. TfL’s reliance on ticket sales to fund the capital’s transport system makes it very vulnerable to unexpected changes in demand. To ensure London continues to have a world-class transport system, both Khan and TfL must urgently find new sources of funding.


Nicole Badstuber is Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Robot cities: three urban prototypes for future living

This guest blog was written by Mateja Kovacic, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield.

Before I started working on real-world robots, I wrote about their fictional and historical ancestors. This isn’t so far removed from what I do now. In factories, labs, and of course science fiction, imaginary robots keep fuelling our imagination about artificial humans and autonomous machines.

Real-world robots remain surprisingly dysfunctional, although they are steadily infiltrating urban areas across the globe. This fourth industrial revolution driven by robots is shaping urban spaces and urban life in response to opportunities and challenges in economic, social, political and healthcare domains. Our cities are becoming too big for humans to manage.

Good city governance enables and maintains smooth flow of things, data, and people. These include public services, traffic, and delivery services. Long queues in hospitals and banks imply poor management. Traffic congestion demonstrates that roads and traffic systems are inadequate. Goods that we increasingly order online don’t arrive fast enough. And the wi-fi often fails our 24/7 digital needs. In sum, urban life, characterised by environmental pollution, speedy life, traffic congestion, connectivity and increased consumption, needs robotic solutions – or so we are lead to believe.

In the past five years, national governments have started to see automation as the key to (better) urban futures. Many cities are becoming test beds for national and local governments for experimenting with robots in social spaces, where robots have both practical purpose (to facilitate everyday life) and a very symbolic role (to demonstrate good city governance). Whether through autonomous cars, automated pharmacists, service robots in local stores, or autonomous drones delivering Amazon parcels, cities are being automated at a steady pace.

Many large cities (Seoul, Tokyo, Shenzhen, Singapore, Dubai, London, San Francisco) serve as test beds for autonomous vehicle trials in a competitive race to develop “self-driving” cars. Automated ports and warehouses are also increasingly automated and robotised. Testing of delivery robots and drones is gathering pace beyond the warehouse gates. Automated control systems are monitoring, regulating and optimising traffic flows. Automated vertical farms are innovating production of food in “non-agricultural” urban areas around the world. New mobile health technologies carry promise of healthcare “beyond the hospital”. Social robots in many guises – from police officers to restaurant waiters – are appearing in urban public and commercial spaces.

As these examples show, urban automation is taking place in fits and starts, ignoring some areas and racing ahead in others. But as yet, no one seems to be taking account of all of these various and interconnected developments. So how are we to forecast our cities of the future? Only a broad view allows us to do this. To give a sense, here are three examples: Tokyo, Dubai and Singapore.

Tokyo

Currently preparing to host the Olympics 2020, Japan’s government also plans to use the event to showcase many new robotic technologies. Tokyo is therefore becoming an urban living lab. The institution in charge is the Robot Revolution Realisation Council, established in 2014 by the government of Japan.

Tokyo: city of the future (Image: ESB Professional/Shutterstock CC)

The main objectives of Japan’s robotisation are economic reinvigoration, cultural branding and international demonstration. In line with this, the Olympics will be used to introduce and influence global technology trajectories. In the government’s vision for the Olympics, robot taxis transport tourists across the city, smart wheelchairs greet Paralympians at the airport, ubiquitous service robots greet customers in 20-plus languages, and interactively augmented foreigners speak with the local population in Japanese.

Tokyo shows us what the process of state-controlled creation of a robotic city looks like.

Singapore

Singapore, on the other hand, is a “smart city”. Its government is experimenting with robots with a different objective: as physical extensions of existing systems to improve management and control of the city.

In Singapore, the techno-futuristic national narrative sees robots and automated systems as a “natural” extension of the existing smart urban ecosystem. This vision is unfolding through autonomous delivery robots (the Singapore Post’s delivery drone trials in partnership with AirBus helicopters) and driverless bus shuttles from Easymile, EZ10.

Meanwhile, Singapore hotels are employing state-subsidised service robots to clean rooms and deliver linen and supplies and robots for early childhood education have been piloted to understand how robots can be used in pre-schools in the future. Health and social care is one of the fastest growing industries for robots and automation in Singapore and globally.

Dubai

Dubai is another emerging prototype of a state-controlled smart city. But rather than seeing robotisation simply as a way to improve the running of systems, Dubai is intensively robotising public services with the aim of creating the “happiest city on Earth”. Urban robot experimentation in Dubai reveals that authoritarian state regimes are finding innovative ways to use robots in public services, transportation, policing and surveillance.

National governments are in competition to position themselves on the global politico-economic landscape through robotics, and they are also striving to position themselves as regional leaders. This was the thinking behind the city’s September 2017 test flight of a flying taxi developed by the German drone firm Volocopter – staged to “lead the Arab world in innovation”. Dubai’s objective is to automate 25% of its transport system by 2030.

It is currently also experimenting with Barcelona-based PAL Robotics’ humanoid police officer and Singapore-based vehicle OUTSAW. If the experiments are successful, the government has announced it will robotise 25% of the police force by 2030.

While imaginary robots are fuelling our imagination more than ever – from Ghost in the Shell to Blade Runner 2049 – real-world robots make us rethink our urban lives.

These three urban robotic living labs – Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai – help us gauge what kind of future is being created, and by whom. From hyper-robotised Tokyo to smartest Singapore and happy, crime free Dubai, these three comparisons show that, no matter what the context, robots are perceived as means to achieve global futures based on a specific national imagination. Just like the films, they demonstrate the role of the state in envisioning and creating that future.


Mateja Kovacic is Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

The Idox Information Service database: factual, accessible and essential

At a time when finding up-to-date and accurate information has never been more important, organisations and individuals in the public, private and third sectors need to know where the best resources are.

All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

The subjects range from planning and infrastructure to housing, health, education and culture. Each entry provides full bibliographic details, as well as an abstract summarising the key information contained in the original item.

Keywords and subject headings are allocated to each record, making it more likely to appear when searching for relevant items. Often, the abstract is enough to provide a searcher with the information they need. But if the full document is required, this is available, either online or by download.

The database is a highly respected library of high quality information, and brings together a wealth of articles and reports that are not available in a single source elsewhere.

To provide a flavour of what the database contains, here’s just a selection of the hundreds of items that have been added since the beginning of 2018.

End rough sleeping: what works
Published by Crisis

This report explores effective ways of tackling rough sleeping, drawing on a review of international evidence. The authors discuss key findings, impacts and barriers in relation to nine key interventions: hostels and shelters; Housing First; Common Ground; social impact bonds; residential communities; ‘no second night out’; reconnection; personalised budgets; and street outreach services. The report also highlights opportunities to improve the evidence base.

Fostering (House of Commons Education Committee report)
Published by The Stationery Office

In 2017, the Commons Education Committee conducted an enquiry into the foster care of children in England. The resulting report focuses on valuing young people and foster carers. As well as looking at the support for young people, including placements, engagement and transition to adulthood, the report considers the working conditions of foster carers, including financial support, employment status and training. The report concludes that foster care provides an invaluable service to society, but notes that England’s foster care system is under pressure. The Committee makes several recommendations for government, including the establishment of a national college for foster carers.

Still planning for the wrong future?
Published in Town and Country Planning, Vol 86 No 12 Dec 2017

Inactivity is one of the main factors impacting on health, and this article considers how planning may be a cause of, and a solution to, inactivity. The article discusses the health consequences of mass motoring in urban areas and the need to develop healthy communities through planning. The author calls for planning to develop more walkable, cyclable and public transport-based places, and recommends that places should be designed to make active and public transport more convenient than driving in order to increase physical activity and improve health.

Preparing for Brexit
Published by the Greater London Authority (GLA)

Brexit is, of course, a significant issue, and is likely to affect many different areas of public policy, from trade and the economy to public spending and devolution. The Idox database is collecting a growing library of reports and articles covering this important topic. This GLA report, for example, considers different scenarios to model five possible outcomes for the UK and London of the UK leaving the European Union (EU) Customs Union and Single Market. The report draws on data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the macro-sectoral model, E3ME, and suggests that the more severe the type of Brexit, the greater the negative impact will be on London and the UK. It predicts that Brexit will not only reduce the size of the UK economy, but also put it on a slower long-term growth trajectory.

Work harder (or else)
Published in People Management, Mar 2018

Poor productivity is one of the most acute problems affecting the UK economy. This article suggests that the key to improving productivity lies with developing a happy, engaged and well-motivated workforce. And to reinforce the argument, the author provides evidence from a crystal glass products company in Cumbria. The article explains that since the company introduced a collective bonus for all employees based on turnover and margin improvement, turnover has almost doubled and gross margins have more than tripled.  The article attributes this success to the company’s staff working together to make small, continuous improvements.

Plastic not so fantastic
Published in Envirotec Mar/Apr 2018
Increasing concerns about the scale of plastic waste, particularly in the world’s oceans, has pushed this issue to the top of the political agenda. This article reviews government and industry responses to the problem, including the benefits and drawbacks of deposit return schemes.

These are just a few examples, but there are many more reports and articles in the Idox database. For most of these items, full text access is also available, either via website links or through our document supply service.

Access to the Idox database is just one of the services provided to members of the Idox Information Service. Other benefits of membership include our enquiries service, a weekly current awareness bulletin and fortnightly topic updates.

If you would like to know more about the benefits of Idox Information Service membership,  please get in touch with our customer development team today.


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A digital identity crisis: is slow progress costing citizens and business?

A steel padlock on a brown wooden gate

By Steven McGinty

The government’s flagship digital identity programme, GOV.UK Verify, has not been short of problems lately. However, news that benefit claimants have been unable to register for the new Universal Credit (UC) because of problems using the service highlight that its failings are having real-world consequences.

In February, government statistics showed that only 30% of claimants were able to use GOV.UK Verify – well below the projected 80%. Further, research in the London Borough of Croydon found that even with one-to-one support only one in five people could prove their identity.

A history of problems

Problems were identified in the National Audit Office’s Digital transformation in government report in March 2017. The NAO found that the service, which was expected to simplify how citizens verified their identity to government agencies, had missed its initial launch date of 2012. Instead, only nine out of twelve services had been launched four years later in 2016.

Government departments who were expected to come on board have also thought twice. In December 2017, NHS England’s chief digital officer Juliet Bauer announced that they’d be developing their own digital identity system (although did suggest that GOV.UK Verify may be used for services which have less sensitive information). Similarly, HMRC announced last month that they will develop their own identity service – based on their 15-year-old Government Gateway Service – with rumours suggesting they have no confidence in the government’s solution.

With this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that Civil Service Chief Executive and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary John Manzoni has brought in management consultancy McKinsey to conduct a review into how digital identity could work within the public sector.

Community Weekly’s Editor in chief, Bryan Glick, suggests this review could lead to a fundamental rethink and the introduction of ‘Verify Compliant’. He explains that:

Verify could become a brand name, rather than a product produced by GDS. That brand name will encapsulate a set of digital identity standards, for use across the public and private sectors. If you want to be part of the UK’s digital identity infrastructure, you need a product that is “Verify compliant”.

The impact of Brexit

David Bicknell, editor at Government Computing, suggests that Brexit preparations have pushed the transformation strategy – including GOV.UK Verify – off the agenda.

However, Government Digital Service (GDS) director general Kevin Cunnington has a different take on things. In his view, the GDS is continuing to deliver improved digital services, highlighting that GOV.UK Verify is available to local councils and is used by the Land Registry to support their new digital mortgage service.

Why the UK needs to tackle digital identity

People are increasingly using digital services to shop online, pay bills, and to interact with different levels of government. However, even though technology has dramatically changed, much of how people prove their identity is still paper based. For instance, paperless bank account holders still have to request paper documents to prove their address (possibly at an additional cost).

New industries such as the sharing economy, which includes the likes of Airbnb and Uber, rely on secure digital identity verification. Government has a responsibility to lead from the front and protect this ever-growing number of customers. For example, Airbnb customers across the world have experienced thefts from properties from criminals using false identification.

More generally, there has been a rise in identity fraud. According to fraud prevention charity Cifas, this now represents the majority of all fraud cases (approximately 56% in the first six months of 2017). An inability to verify identity is likely to have contributed to this increase.

In addition, many people are financially and socially excluded by a lack of photographic identification ID such as a passport or a driver’s license – particularly those from low income backgrounds or who have been in prison. This lack of ID can act as a barrier when applying for government benefits or financial services.

Gunnar Nordseth, CEO at digital identity provider Signicat, also argues that a failure to introduce a digital identity scheme could have serious consequences for the UK’s financial industry (especially the emerging fintech sector). He explains that GOV.UK Verify isn’t ‘fatally flawed’ but needs to be more ambitious, observing that:

Unlike other European digital ID schemes GOV.UK Verify is limited to the public sector, does not support financial services and is not interoperable with its continental counterparts.”

Final thoughts

Tackling the digital identity crisis won’t be easy. But recent statements acknowledging the challenges of GOV.UK Verify and the calling of a review suggest the Government Digital Service (GDS) are listening to concerns.

However, this time for reflection mustn’t last too long. Getting digital identity right has the potential to improve services for citizens, create efficiencies in government and business, and ensure the UK’s place as a world leader in the burgeoning digital economy.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles.

Bumps in the road for bike-sharing schemes

Image: Paul Wong, Chief Data Officer, PanelHype, Victoria, Australia

Last year, we reported on the rapid rise of bike-share schemes around the world. Since then, bike-sharing has continued to grow in its existing strongholds, while new schemes have been launched in places as varied as Lisbon and Detroit. But the nature of bike-sharing has also undergone dramatic changes, with some welcoming the new developments, and others branding them a public nuisance.

The most significant change has been the rise of dockless bike-sharing schemes. Over the past four years, two companies – Ofo and Mobike – have transformed bike-sharing in China, enabling people to rent a bike simply and quickly with the aid of a smartphone app. There are no pick-up or drop-off bike stations; cyclists simply find a bike using a GPS locator, pay and go. When they’ve reached their destination, cyclists can leave the bikes wherever they please.

Ofo, Mobike and a growing number of rivals have revolutionised transportation in China. Half the population of Beijing – 11 million people – have registered for the schemes; across the country, more than 100 million bike-share apps have been downloaded. The success of app-driven bike-sharing schemes in China means they are now cropping up elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Australia, Europe and North America.

The pros and cons of dockless bike-sharing

Bike-sharing is an affordable and environmentally-friendly way of getting around, especially in congested city centres. And, as The Washington Post has observed, dockless bike-sharing schemes ‘solve what planners call the “first-mile-last-mile problem,” helping people get from their homes to a bus stop, for example, or from a subway station to their final destination.’

But the new schemes have also generated problems. In Shanghai, where there are now over forty bike-sharing companies, bikes have been abandoned in large numbers outside subway stations and office buildings, clogging up pavements and creating what locals have called “a new generation of trash”.

Elsewhere – from Melbourne to Manchester, Sydney to San Francisco – the sudden appearance of hundreds of bikes on the streets (sometimes without the permission of the local authority) has been met with mixed reactions.

For cyclists looking for a truly door-to-door service, the new schemes offer convenience and flexibility. However, instances of theft and vandalism have highlighted the negative impacts of dockless schemes.

Within a month of Mobike launching its bike-share scheme in Manchester, images of damaged bikes started to appear on social media, and at least two bikes were dumped in a canal. Similar incidents have been reported elsewhere in the UK, as well as in Australia, the United States and Spain.

Getting bike-sharing right

Cities have been on a steep learning curve in coming to terms with dockless bikes, and there have been some very different responses.

Shanghai, Beijing and Amsterdam have taken a hard line by banning new dockless bike-share services. In London, Wandsworth Council impounded more than a hundred bikes, claiming that they were causing obstructions and blocking parking spaces, although cyclists using the scheme argued the move was excessive.

Other cities have introduced new regulations on dockless bike-sharing. In September, Transport for London published a dockless bike-share code of practice outlining requirements for operators.

In Australia, three Melbourne local authorities have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with dockless bike share operator oBike. The terms of the MOU require oBike to ensure their bikes do not obstruct access and to relocate any dangerously parked bikes.

The dockless bike-share companies themselves have been learning the lessons of early teething problems.

The Platform for European Bicycle Sharing and Systems, which brings together bike mobility companies across Europe, has prepared a policy framework which aims to guide cities through the process of implementing a new bike sharing system.

Other companies have turned to technology. Urbosolutions and oBike are among those bike-share services now providing local authorities with a “geo-fencing” option. This enables councils to designate zones where bikes may not be parked. Bike-share users entering a geo-fenced area are unable to lock their bikes until they move outside the zone. Cyclists who fail to comply will incur penalties.

The changing face of bike-sharing

The explosive growth of dockless bike-share services has undoubtedly benefitted city dwellers looking for flexible, affordable, sustainable and healthy transportation options. But as bike wars heat up among operators, and between bike share companies and local authorities, cities need to develop new regulatory frameworks for the smooth management of bike-share schemes. At the same time, the operators need to rethink how their businesses work.

As for the future, bike-sharing will continue to evolve, with forecast developments including payment for bike rentals using cryptocurrencies, the launch of dockless electric bikes and continued expansion into new territories.


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Do planners dream of electric streets?

The last few years have seen a phenomenal growth in demand for electric vehicles in the UK.  Nearly 50,000 electric and plug in hybrid vehicles were registered between July and September 2017 a considerable achievement, when only 5 years ago it was less than 1,000.

Overall, there are now around 120,000 battery-powered cars on Britain’s roads, and this is expected to grow to 10m by 2035.  From the modest Nissan Leaf, to the futuristic Tesla, the choice of electric vehicles is expanding, and various car manufacturers have announced ambitious plans to develop even more electric vehicles to suit a range of tastes and budgets.

The benefits of moving to electric are clear – as well as lower emissions, they are also cheaper to run costing less than half as much than petrol-powered equivalents.

Out with the old

This means that a future where electric cars are the norm is now on the near horizon.  Indeed, the UK recently committed to banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, including hybrid vehicles, by 2040.  The Scottish government have set an even more ambitious target pledging that by 2032 all new vehicles sold in Scotland will be electric. Norway, India and France have also set similar goals.

At the local level, Oxford is set to become the first city centre to ban all non-electric vehicles with certain streets becoming electric-only by 2020, and the world’s first ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) will come into operation in London next year.

Delivery of EV infrastructure through the planning system

As desirable as a low emission, electric-only city may be, the use of electric vehicles poses a number of challenges for town planning and urban design.

Ensuring that there is sufficient infrastructure in place to meet the increased demand for electric vehicle recharging will be a key issue. While there has been a significant growth in the number and geographic spread of EV connectors across the UK since 2011, many more will be required if predicted demand is to be met.

While motorway services and petrol stations will soon be required by law to install charge points for electric cars, simply replacing existing fuel pumps with EV chargers will not provide sufficient capacity, as at present, charging an electric car can take anywhere between 30 minutes to a couple of hours.  Additional charging stations will have to be incorporated into parking spots – either on the road, at home or in car parks.

The planning system is already taking some practical action to address this. Both planning policy and development management provide important delivery mechanisms.

At the national level, in England, the National Planning Policy Framework states that

developments should be located and designed where practical to… incorporate facilities for charging plug-in and other ultra-low emission vehicles”.

In Scotland, high level planning policy also recognises the importance of considering EV charging infrastructure in new developments, with supportive text included in both the Third National Planning Framework and the Scottish Planning Policy 2014. In addition, permitted development rights for off-road charge points came into force in 2014.

At the regional level, some policies require planning authorities to incorporate facilities for charging electric vehicles.  For example, The London Plan states:

developments in all parts of London must… ensure that 1 in 5 spaces provide an electrical charging point to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles”.

Several local authorities also use local plan policies to require electric vehicle provision, and others use their development control powers to require developers to provide electric vehicle charging points.

Some authorities have also taken opportunities to broker EV via non-planning routes, for example, the provision of public recharging point provision through grants.  One such example the On-Street Residential Chargepoint Scheme was set up in 2016, and provides up to 75% of the cost of procuring and installing chargepoints.

Challenges remain

While progress is being made, a number of challenges remain.

As well as increasing the overall number of available charging stations, planners will need to ensure that they are adequately distributed within a city so that there’s always one within reasonable driving range.  Specifying EV charging points on new developments runs the risk of a ‘scattergun’ approach, particularly where developments are concentrated in specific areas.  Local authorities would do well to adopt a strategic and planned approach to EV provision to ensure adequate coverage.  This will be particularly important in rural areas, as electric cars typically have a maximum range of around 150 miles. ’Range anxiety’ is an affliction suffered by many electric car drivers!

While various grants are available for electric car owners to install charging infrastructure at their homes, it is also not yet clear how home EV charging will work in densely populated areas without private parking, such as large blocks of flats. One potential solution may be the use of massive batteries kept in shipping container-style boxes, with up to 50 charging points attached.

The provision of on street EV charging facilities may present a design challenge in historic and/or conservation areas. In London, this has been dealt with by retrofitting existing street lamps with EV infrastructure, even including heritage lamps in Kensington and Chelsea.

There have also been concerns about the ability of the national grid to cope with millions of cars being plugged in to charge every evening.  Encouraging drivers to charge ‘smart’ at off-peak times may be the way forward.

Innovative solutions

Despite these challenges, there are promising signs of progress.  Some noteworthy examples include Elgin-based housebuilder Springfield Properties committing to installing cabling for electric car charging points in all new-build homes as standard, including its new 3,000-home development in Perth.  There are also plans to turn the A9 into an ‘electric highway’ and for a new ‘charging hub’ in the centre of Dundee – which will also be part-powered by the use of solar canopies.

EV technology is an area of fast-paced change and addressing the many challenges that it presents will require planners to adopt similarly innovative and forward-thinking solutions.  With advances being made on contactless under-road EV charging, it may not be long before electric streets charge our cars on the move.  We in the Information Service are excited to see what the future holds, and will be keeping abreast of the latest developments in both policy and practice.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.