Could arts and culture hold the key to the digital divide?

The rapid shift to digital content creation, distribution, audience engagement and participation since the start of the pandemic has enabled the continued experience of arts and culture, despite cultural institutions having to shut their doors. But a significant proportion of the population still face barriers to digital engagement – 7 million people have no internet access at home, 9 million people struggle to use the internet independently and 17 million people only use the internet for limited purposes.

Previous research has shown that engagement with cultural institutions such as museums and galleries, both on-and off-line, “remains deeply unequal”. Perhaps more worrying was the finding that “the gaps between the haves and the have nots are even wider online than in the case of physical visits.”

During a recent webinar by the Digital Culture Network, presented in partnership with Google Arts & Culture and their Connected to Culture playbook, the scale of the digital divide was highlighted, as was the important role arts and culture can play in addressing it.

The discussion focused on three areas:

  • Digital inequalities, barriers and exclusion
  • Knowing your audience
  • Projects that have successfully increased inclusivity

Digital divide

Kicking off the discussion on the digital divide, Jane Mackey, Senior Research & Evaluation Manager at the Good Things Foundation highlighted three key areas when we think about the digital divide:

  • digital access (7million people in the UK are excluded on this basis)
  • digital skills (11.7million people in the UK don’t have digital skills needed to engage online)
  • motivation and confidence (people might have access and some skills but lack the motivation or confidence to use it)

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that a perceived lack of need, followed by a lack of digital skills are the main reasons given for not having household internet access.  The focus has mainly been on engaging and upskilling those who already have access to digital technology. But, as the discussion highlighted, the excluded 20% would be likely to benefit more from targeted action.

Jane noted that the digital divide is not static, but is more of a spectrum that people can move along throughout their lives. Based on its current research, the Good Things Foundation recommends that the arts and culture sector commits to be digitally inclusive by default. This will help to overcome barriers to digital by engaging directly with the digitally excluded and partnering with other organisations.

Zak Mensah, Co-CEO at the Birmingham Museums Trust, similarly highlighted barriers to digital, such as the infrastructural barriers depending on people’s location. Some rural areas, for example, do not have the digital infrastructure needed for access. Even in cities, which tend to have faster broadband, much of it is focused on the centre and businesses rather than individual households.

Zak also highlighted the importance of motivation, and giving people a reason to use technology.

Role of arts and culture

While some think the key is to get everyone to have the internet at home, Zak suggested that arts and cultural organisations can help people’s access by using their physical spaces better and also by taking the technology to the excluded.

Libraries have been successful over a number of years in providing space for people to access technology with free internet and support in using it. Similarly, arts and cultural organisations are in a position to do the same through their digital tools.

One suggestion was not switching off the Wi-Fi at close of business; another was potentially reducing restrictions on what people can access using their Wi-Fi (while obviously maintaining some control) so people can use it for wider purposes.

One project Birmingham Museums managed recently involved taking digital kit out to care homes for digital arts sessions. This was not only great for wellbeing; it also showed how digital technologies can be adapted to connect with people within communities. As Zac said “ultimately we have to go out more, we can’t always get people to come to you.”

Zak also explained that collaboration is key – sharing resources, ideas and skills – to reach as many people as possible.

Inclusive practice

Jenny Williams, Project Director at Revoluton Arts in Luton, also highlighted the importance of new partnerships.

She noted that when lockdown first started the staff wanted to keep engaging, so moved online with the help of Zoom. Because they didn’t really know about how it worked Revoluton called upon people within the community to help teach others.

They now have a suite of materials online that can help artists and others.

Revoluton has also worked with Marsh Farm Outreach who ran lounge sessions every night with live music, working with local artists and reaching huge audiences. One session titled The Creative History of Marsh Farm was about reminiscence, memory, sharing stories of place, and engaged 6000 people. While acknowledging that such online communication is great for international reach, Jenny noted that it can also make a big difference locally.

They have also used digital tech to create safe spaces online to attract members of the community that might not have otherwise engaged. One of their residency programmes, Touch Commission, was co-commissioned with Wellcome Collection which explored the theme of touch through arts and creativity. The project was centred on Bury Park, a predominantly Asian community in Luton. The dialogue and understanding that was shown helped to engage with those most excluded.

Another project highlighted by Jane was the Power Up initiative, a collaboration between the Good Things Foundation and JP Morgan Chase Foundation, which aims to drive economic inclusion through digital in communities.

Other partnerships showcasing inclusive practice include:

  • Engaging older audiences – Birmingham Museums Trust & Arts Council Collection partnership programme aimed at reaching the over 75s in care homes.
  • Dance and Time with the Museum – Presented in a partnership between University of Cambridge Museums and local sheltered housing and assisted living services; this blog outlines how the project was safely moved online.
  • Bussy – Prompted by Revoluton’s experiences of creating safe spaces for everyone online; this is an example of a creative organisation doing the same.

Way forward

There were a number of key takeaways from the discussion for arts and culture organisations. These include:

  • it’s about knowing your audience, knowing what their barriers to access are and planning an approach to these from the start;
  • empathy and understanding that happens as a result can be important; and
  • it’s about understanding the resources you have and how they can be used, particularly through partnerships.

There’s no quick fix for breaking down the barriers to digital engagement: as Zak eloquently put it, “it’s a marathon not a sprint”. But, as the many practices highlighted during this webinar demonstrate, the arts and culture sector has the tools to make a difference on the digital divide.


You may also like to read some of our previous blogs:

Follow us on Twitter to find out which topics are interesting our research team

Cities on the edge: edge computing and the development of smart cities

From Barcelona to Glasgow, across the world, a trend towards making our cities “smart” has been accelerating in line with demands for cities to become more responsive to the needs of residents. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a newfound urgency to ensure that the places where we live are more resilient and are able to respond to changes in behaviour. For example, the need to keep a two-metre distance from people outside of your household required cities to take action to widen pavements and deploy pop-up active transport infrastructure to prevent overcrowding on public transport.

Over the past twelve months, cities across the world have taken a variety of different actions in order to support the almost overnight transition to what has been described as the “new-normal”. In the year ahead, it’s likely we will see further changes in resident behaviour, as the vaccine roll-out enables a transition out of the public health emergency and allows for the gradual reopening of society. Cities once again will have to be ready to react to changes in how people interact with their environment. However, the extent to which people will go back to pre-pandemic behaviours is not yet clear.

Not so smart cities

The ability to monitor and analyse the ways in which people interact with cities has been heralded as a key benefit of the development of smart cities, and as highlighted above, in some ways it has never been more important. However, the way in which smart city infrastructure currently collects and analyses data tends to be relatively “dumb”, in the sense that data is sent to a separate location to be analysed, rather than occurring on the device that’s collecting it.

Due to the sheer amount of data being transferred for analysis, this process can be relatively slow and is entirely dependent on the reliability and speed of a city’s overall network infrastructure. As a result, the ability to take real-time action, for example, to change traffic management systems in order to reduce congestion, is potentially limited.  

A good example of a device that acts in this way is a smart speaker, which is capable of listening out for a predetermined wake-word but is relatively incapable of doing anything else without a network connection. All other speech after a user has said the wake-word tends to be processed at a central server, Therefore, any disruption to the smart speaker’s ability to communicate with a server in the cloud will prevent it from completing the simplest of tasks.

This is why Barclays have argued that the future of smart city development will heavily rely upon a technology known as “edge computing”, which enables data analysis to be conducted closer to smart city infrastructure, rather than being sent to a distant central server.

What is edge computing?

Put simply, the concept of edge computing refers to computation that is conducted on or near a device that’s collecting data, for example, a smart traffic light. Data collected by the device is processed locally, rather than transmitted to a central server in the cloud, and decisions can be made in real-time locally on the device. Removing the need to transmit data before any action is taken facilitates real-time autonomous decision-making, which some experts argue could potentially make our cities operate more efficiently.

Additionally, as edge computing is not reliant upon a connection to a central server, there are enhanced security and data privacy protections, which will reassure citizens that collected data is safe and makes smart city infrastructure less vulnerable to attack. However, if an attacker were to breach one part of the edge computing network, it would be easy isolate affected parts of the network without comprising the entire network.

In the near future, smart city infrastructure will be vital to enabling autonomous vehicles to navigate our cities, making security of these technologies all the more important.

Cities on the edge

An example of the application of edge computing in smart city infrastructure can be seen in the development of smart CCTV cameras. According to the British Security Industry Association, there are an estimated 4 to 5.9 million CCTV cameras across the UK, one of the largest totals in the world. Each of these cameras is recording and storing a huge amount of data each day, and for the most part, this footage is largely unused and creates the need for an extensive amount of expensive storage.

Edge-enabled smart CCTV cameras could provide a solution to this issue through on-device image analytics, which are able to monitor an area in real-time and only begin recording when a pre-determined event occurs, for example, a vehicle collision. This significantly reduces the amount of footage that needs to be stored, and acts as an additional layer of privacy protection, as residents can be reassured that CCTV footage will only be stored when an incident occurs.

Additionally, edge-enabled smart CCTV cameras can also be used to identify empty parking spaces, highlight pedestrian/vehicle congestion, and help emergency services to identify the fastest route to an ongoing incident. Through the ability to identify problems in real-time, cities can become more resilient, and provide residents with information that can allow them to make better decisions.

For example, if an increased level of congestion is detected at a train station, nearby residents could be advised to select an alternative means of transport, or asked to change their journey time. This could help prevent the build-up of unnecessary congestion, and may be helpful to those who may wish to continue to avoid crowded spaces beyond the pandemic.

Final thoughts

Over the past year, the need for resilience has never been more apparent, and the way we interact with the world around us may never be the same again. The ability for cities to monitor and respond to situations in real-time will be increasingly important, as it’s not necessarily clear the extent to which residents will return to pre-pandemic behaviours.

As a result, smart city infrastructure may be more important than ever before in helping to develop resilient cities which can easily respond to resident needs. Edge computing will act as the backbone of the smart city infrastructure of the future, and enable new and exciting ways for cities to become more responsive.


If you enjoyed this article you might also like to read:

Follow us on Twitter to find out which topics are interesting our research team

Guest post: Sustainable cities after COVID-19: are Barcelona-style green zones the answer?

Photo by Kaspars Upmanis on Unsplash

Guest post by Anupam Nanda, University of Manchester

The lockdowns and restrictions introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in huge changes to urban life. Previously bustling city centres remain empty, shunned in favour of suburban or rural areas where social distancing is easier and connections to the outdoors are abundant.

The roll out of vaccines provides hope for a partial restoration of normality in cities. However, the impact of COVID-19 could last much longer.

In particular, the pandemic has shown how damaging congestion, pollution and lack of green space can be – including how these factors have contributed to the severity of suffering for city dwellers. We have an opportunity to change city living for the better.

Barcelona offers an example of how city areas can be transformed to reduce pollution and increase access to green space.

The city pioneered the concept of superblocks, first introduced in 2016, as part of green urban planning. Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks. Traffic is restricted to major roads around the superblocks, leaving the streets inside for pedestrians and cyclists.

Recently, further plans have been announced to expand green zones in the city’s central district, Eixample. This is a major expansion of low-traffic zones, giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists to reduce pollution and provide green spaces.

The new plan will cover 21 streets and have space for 21 new pedestrian plazas at intersections. At least 80% of each street is to be shaded by trees in summer and 20% unpaved. A public competition in May 2021 will decide the final design.

The purpose of the plan is to ensure that no resident will be more than 200 metres from a green space.

There are many benefits to creating urban green spaces like these. They include an improvement in air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets, and a reduction in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) from road traffic. Exposure to high level of NO₂ can lead to a range of respiratory problems.

Green spaces have been shown to improve mental health, as well as lead to a reduction in risk of obesity and diabetes – conditions which significantly increase vulnerability to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has made the case for green urban planning even more compelling. However, these plans can come at a cost.

Barriers to green cities

A particular negative impact of green zones could be a high demand for housing, leading to subsequent rises in property prices. This can lead to gentrification and displacement of local residents and businesses. Care must be taken to make sure that homes remain affordable and urban green zones do not become rich enclaves.

The COVID-19 lockdowns highlighted the difference in living conditions faced by city dwellers. Green initiatives must work for all socio-economic groups, and must not exacerbate existing inequalities.

In addition, while city centres are the usual focus areas for greening initiatives, suburbs and other peripheral areas also need attention. The goal is to reduce carbon dependence in total – not shift it from one area to another, or one sector to another.

The plan should also include steps to make private and public transport completely green. This could include replacing carbon-producing transport system with zero-emission vehicles and providing ample infrastructure such as dedicated lanes and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Cities differ hugely in how they look, shape and operate. One size will not fit all. If other cities choose to follow Barcelona’s model, local issues must be carefully considered. Superblocks work really well in a neat grid system such as in central Barcelona. But many cities do not have a well-designed grid system.

However, the principles of green, environmentally friendly, car-free or restricted-traffic neighbourhoods can be adopted in any city. Examples of schemes include low-traffic neighbourhoods in London, the 15-minute city initiative in Paris, or Manchester’s plans for a zero-carbon city centre.

While adopting such interventions, it is important to keep citizens’ daily needs in mind to avoid adding extra burdens on them. If motor traffic is to be limited, the availability of public transport must be considered, safe infrastructure for walking and cycling as well as adequate road structure for essential services or deliveries.

Significant capital investment is needed to support these plans. The Barcelona plan is projected to cost €38 million (£34 million). Much more will be required if it is to roll out to more areas. Cities in the developing world and poorer countries cannot afford such huge sums. Moreover, COVID-19 has left several cities laden with a huge amount of debt.

Green city initiatives need to be long-term – and created with the support of local people. Recognition of the benefits of green living and informed support of developments will result in positive behaviour changes by the citizens.

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics & Real Estate, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more from our blog on tackling air pollution in cities:

 

The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Garden communities – the sustainable dream or car-dependent nightmare?

Rather than being centred on sustainable transport, it looks like garden communities are to become car-based commuter estates just like any other – exactly what the government wanted to avoid.”

This is the conclusion of a recent report from Transport for New Homes, which examined plans for 20 garden communities around England.

The government’s vision for new garden communities, as set out in their 2018 Garden communities prospectus, is for “vibrant, mixed-use, communities where people can live, work, and play for generations to come – communities which view themselves as the conservation areas of the future. Each will be holistically planned, self sustaining, and characterful.”

But rather than the self-contained communities where there is minimal need to travel, the Transport for New Homes report warns England’s new garden communities are at risk of becoming car-dependent commuter estates – exactly what they are supposed to supersede.

Vision vs reality

Sustainable living, with walking, cycling and public transport playing a key role, is central to the vision of garden communities. Indeed, the documentation for each of the communities highlighted “very encouraging” intentions according to the report. Despite these visions, however, almost every garden community examined focused on major road improvements to accommodate the expected huge rise in car use:

  • around half of garden communities studied were associated with new or bigger motorway junctions
  • 90% of garden community plans appeared to be associated with road capacity increases
  • a popular model for garden towns was new estates on a new ring road. This was chosen rather than extending the town along joined up streets for easy walking or cycling into the town centre
  • a number of garden community locations appear to be actually selected to finance a new bypass or other new ‘strategic’ link

The researchers estimated that the 20 communities examined would create up to 200,000 households dependent on car use.

Far from the government’s vision of self-contained communities, “the vast majority of garden communities appeared to be put forward on the basis of fast travel out.”

Clearly, these results are at odds with the intended vision. According to the report, there were two main problems with the plans: building in the wrong location and around the wrong kind of transport.

Opportunity missed?

With the recent recalibration of how people live and work, the need for great places to live is even stronger than ever. The current pandemic has placed a new emphasis on walking and cycling, with the benefits of living more locally coming to the fore. It has certainly accelerated more sustainable and equitable trends – to which garden communities, in the intended sense, are ideally suited.

But while new cycle lanes have been popping up in urban centres along with wider pavements in a quick response to the situation, the planned garden villages were found to be largely unsuitable for walking and cycling as a result of their remote location, layout and lack of safe routes in and out; despite active travel being an aim for almost every case.

Every vision also recognised public transport but were found to fail in delivery. Only one garden community was in walking distance of a station.

A lack of committed funding for place-making, sustainable transport and active travel, it is suggested, “may well mean any transformational potential is lost”.  Could this be a real missed opportunity to move away from the old way of place-making and embrace a new sustainable norm?

Consequences

The report warns that there are several consequences to continuing with the current proposals:

  • layout for cars not pedestrians
  • lack of green environment
  • expensive for those on low incomes
  • local shops and businesses don’t open
  • higher carbon emissions
  • inactive lifestyles; more stress
  • isolation
  • you have to be able to drive
  • parking city, not garden city, with parking taking the place of garden and public space
  • money wasted

Clearly these are undesirable outcomes. It is therefore suggested that continuing along the current path risks putting the garden community visions in jeopardy. But, the report argues, there is another way.

Way forward

It is argued that there is a need for integration of sustainable transport and land use planning so they are no longer treated separately, inhibiting the coordination of new homes along public transport corridors. A change in transport funding is also called for.

The report makes several recommendations to achieve the garden community vision:

  • Complete overhaul of planning so that sustainable transport and new homes come together.
  • Build in the right places for sustainable transport.
  • Make the funding of sustainable transport a priority.
  • Transfer funds for roads to funds for sustainable transport – be modern!
  • Change the way we assess the benefits of transport infrastructure.
  • Streets and pavements; cycle networks – design new places with layouts for pedestrians and cyclists, and public transport routes, stops and stations.
  • Quality low rise flats, mix of houses. More green, less tarmac, less space lost to parking.

Perhaps the government’s proposals for reform of the planning system will help the true garden community vision come to life. Indeed, some of the proposals have been welcomed, particularly in relation to simplifying the system to enable more homes to be built. Others, however, have been criticised with concerns raised over measures to speed up new housebuilding not resulting in well-designed, sustainable places. With the consultation due to close next week, it remains to be seen whether the reforms will ultimately do enough for the garden village ideal to be realised.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested in the following:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Inclusive streets: from low expectations to big dreams

We’ve written before about the health, environmental and economic benefits of walking, and the importance of making our cities and towns more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. This was the theme of two recent webinars presented by Living Streets, an organisation that has been campaigning for better walking and cycling environments for almost a century.

The first webinar was presented by Stuart Hay, Penny Morriss and Robert Weetman from Living Streets, who explained that inclusive streets are defined spaces where all members of the community can walk or cycle.

But inclusive streets are about more than accessibility. Many streets and public spaces that might be accessible are not necessarily navigable. They can present social and physical barriers that mean the streets are not delivering equal access for everyone.

Walking Connects

In this context, Penny Morriss highlighted the work which she’s been doing with older people in a project called Walking Connects. A rising proportion of the UK population is over 65, and while many older people remain active, a lack of facilities – seating, shelter, hand rails, public toilets,  pedestrian crossings and well-maintained streets – can hinder to their ability to access services and meet other people.

In one Airdrie community studied by the Walking Connects team, residents found the lack of pedestrian access at the end of their housing complex a significant barrier to accessing the shops, community centre and church.

Robert Weetman of Living Streets noted that this community’s experience was by no means uncommon, and is not confined to older generations.

“We’re not talking about a small number of people not being able to get along a particular street; what we’re talking about actually moves into a large number of people not even being able to get to the end of their own local streets, or even outside of their gate.”

The reasons for this largely rest on the longstanding assumption that everyone in towns and cities wants to get around by car. Today, the need to tackle climate change and the recent improvements to air quality due to the pandemic restrictions, is driving a reappraisal of our car-centric cities. At the same time, local authorities, who are mostly responsible for the design and maintenance of streets, are under greater financial pressure than ever.

Challenging the authorities

The webinar stressed that citizens are not powerless when it comes to challenging councils to improve their streets. Penny highlighted another Walking Connects project in Edinburgh, where a number of tenants in a retirement development had experienced falls because of poor paving. The problem had been reported to the council many times, but residents were repeatedly told that the faults were not bad enough to warrant resurfacing. However, after working with Living Streets to document the number of falls, they persuaded the council to resurface the pavements.

Penny explained that this pro-active approach was vital, but that marginalised groups in the community often felt that their voice didn’t count:

“One of the first things that we need to do is to make sure that they understand it’s okay to ask for an issue that they encounter on a day-to-day basis to be resolved.”

A common message throughout the webinar was the need to bring local people, councillors and road technicians together. As Robert Weetman observed, once that happens communities can drop their low expectations and start to dream big:

“I think that our biggest and in some ways our most difficult priority is to create and communicate a vision of how different our streets could be, and why that would be so much better for everybody.”

People with disabilities: overcoming the barriers

The second webinar included contributions from  Keith Robertson, an advisor to the Scottish Government through the Mobility and Access Committee Scotland, and  Catriona Burness from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who spoke about the particular barriers faced by people with disabilities when navigating urban streets.

These include temporary road signs, advertising boards, bins and seating. For wheelchair users, blind or partially-sighted pedestrians, this ‘street furniture’ can make a simple journey more like an obstacle course, and can also have serious consequences. Barriers can cause accidents, and if people are deterred from getting out and about, they may experience mental ill health.

Both Keith and Catriona stressed the importance of local authorities engaging with disabled people and disability organisations, not as a tick-box exercise, but to really take their needs into consideration. The results of such consultations can be dramatic.

In Perth, for example, a pedestrianisation project did away with grilles where trees were planted, removing a hazard for wheelchair users and people using canes. At the same time, all of the signs, seats, bins and other items of street furniture were aligned, giving pedestrians unimpeded access along the street. Restaurants, cafes and shops placing advertising boards outside their establishments have to follow these regulations, or face a fine from the local authority.

People with sight loss: the challenges of social distancing

Catriona highlighted the numbers of people in Scotland who are blind or partially-sighted, amounting to over 200,000 people. This figure is likely to rise further over the next decade due to an ageing population and greater prevalence of diseases such as diabetes.

Pedestrians who are blind or partially sighted have found the context of coronavirus especially challenging. Social distancing, which is such a crucial part of preventing the spread of the virus, is very hard for people with sight loss to deal with.

One particular challenge has been the increasing use of ‘floating bus stops’. Councils have been responding to the need for greater social distancing on pavements by creating more pop-up cycle lanes, which in turn has led to bus stops being repositioned from the kerbside to ‘floating’ in-between bike lanes and the road.

For blind and partially-sighted pedestrians, such arrangements make boarding a bus more inaccessible and potentially hazardous. As Keith pointed out, accidents are usually a signal to local authorities that a design isn’t right, but if people with sight loss don’t feel safe going out, there will be no accidents to report, and the situation will be unchanged.

Final thoughts

If there was an underlying message emerging from the two webinars, it was that when it comes to accessible streets, design matters to ensure fair access for all. Badly designed streets can be frustrating, and dangerous, leaving some groups of people feeling excluded. On the other hand, well designed streets can help all of us feel good about getting around, and can especially help people with disabilities feel more independent. The key is to enable engagement between the people who design our streets and those who use them.

There was so much more useful content in both of these sessions, including a discussion on how to raise issues on street accessibility with the authorities who have the powers to make changes.

Living Streets have provided recordings of both webinars, along with transcripts of the proceedings.

Living Streets Webinar One: Video Recording; Transcript

Living Streets Webinar Two: Video Recording ; Transcript


Further reading: more from our blog on accessible streets

Build back better: is now the time for Green New Deals? – Part 2

A window of opportunity

In policymaking, there is a concept known as the “Overton Window”, which describes the range of policies that politicians can propose without being considered too extreme by the population at large. This window of opportunity can be shifted and can allow for policies that in the past may have been considered unthinkable and radical to become mainstream and even sensible.

The impact of Covid-19 and the public health measures that have been required to suppress the virus, have undoubtedly resulted in a shift in the “Overton Window”. Policy interventions, such as the Job Retention Scheme and national lockdown, which involved massive amounts of government spending and restrictions to every aspect of our day-to-day lives, suddenly became normal and were largely approved of by the public.

In these circumstances, the concept of the Green New Deal, a policy package which involves large amounts of government spending, designed to create green jobs, develop green infrastructure and modernise the economy, may no longer be such an unfeasible idea.

Build back better: a green recovery

The economic impact of Covid-19 is expected to result in a 5.2% contraction of global GDP, amounting to the deepest global depression since 1945. In order to recover from this contraction, governments are formulating unprecedentedly large economic stimulus packages, designed to mitigate the economic and social damage created by the pandemic. Already there are numerous examples of governments utilising aspects of the Green New Deal within their economic recovery plans.

European Union

Next Generation EU – A European Green Deal

Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission was already working on creating a European Green Deal, which would support the EU transition to climate neutrality by 2050. After the onset of the pandemic, the European Commission moved to position the Green Deal as a key pillar of the EU’s €750 billion recovery package, known as Next Generation EU. 25% of the recovery package has been dedicated to funding climate action, whilst the entire package features a commitment that any money spent as part of the EU’s economic recovery must “do no harm” to the EU’s climate neutrality goal. The recovery package includes policies that are similar in nature to other Green Deals, including:

  • a €40 billion ‘Just Transition Fund’, to alleviate the socio-economic impacts of the green transition and diversify economic activity;
  • a €91 billion a year fund to improve home energy efficiency and develop low carbon heating;
  • the introduction of an EU-wide border tax on carbon-intensive industrial imports with the potential to raise €14 billion.

French Government

France Relaunch

The French government’s recently announced €100 billion stimulus package, includes a €30 billion package of measures designed to aid France’s transition to carbon neutrality. The measures set out within the package incorporate core elements from Green New Deals, such as developing cleaner forms of transport and improving the energy efficiency of buildings. The package includes the following green measures:

  • a €11 billion investment in developing and encouraging the use of green transport methods, nearly €5 billion of which will be used to upgrade rail lines to encourage freight traffic from road to rail;
  • a €6 billion investment to help improve the energy efficiency of homes and other buildings;
  • A €2 billion investment to help develop the hydrogen sector.

Scottish Government

Protecting Scotland, Renewing Scotland

Within this year’s Scottish Government Programme, it is evident from the first page that it views the need for economic recovery as an opportunity to create a  “fairer, greener and wealthier country”. The programme explicitly describes the measures contained as “the next tranche of our Green New Deal” and borrows extensively from existing Green New Deals, with policies including:

  • a £100 million green Job Creation Fund;
  • a £1.6 billion investment to decarbonise the heating of homes and other buildings;
  • a £62 million Energy Transition Fund to support businesses in the oil, gas and energy sectors over the next five years to grow and diversify;
  • capitalisation of the Scottish National Investment Bank with £2 billion over ten years, with a primary mission to support the transition to net zero emissions.

UK Government

A Plan for Jobs

A key element of the UK Government’s plans to support and develop the labour market is the creation of green jobs, through investment in infrastructure, decarbonisation and maintenance projects. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a principle which is at the core of the Green New Deal. The Plan for Jobs includes similar proposals, such as:

  • a £2 billion Green Homes Grant scheme that will provide homeowners and landlords with vouchers to spend on improving the energy efficiency of homes across the UK;
  • a £1 billion Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme that will offer grants to public sector bodies, including schools and hospitals, to fund both energy efficiency and low carbon heat upgrades;
  • a £40 million Green Jobs Challenge Fund for environmental charities and public authorities to create and protect 5,000 jobs in England.

Final thoughts

The concept of the Green New Deal is one that appears to evolve and shift as time goes on. This is unfortunately to be expected as time runs out for governments to take meaningful action to avert rising global temperatures. The transition to carbon neutrality is one that will undoubtedly result in massive changes to almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives, and therefore it is not surprising that the journey to reach this point may require bold and unprecedented action.

However, prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, it would have been unimaginable to consider the levels of spending and intervention that governments would be required to take in order to implement a Green New Deal. The shift to carbon neutrality involves a complete reimagining of the economy and requires a great deal of public support, in particular when the energy transition may threaten the jobs of those who work in carbon-intensive industries.

In a post-Covid era, the concept of governments spending huge sums of money and making unprecedented interventions is now our everyday reality. The economic consequences of the pandemic will require an extraordinary response to ensure that its legacy is not one of increasing levels of unemployment, inequality and stagnation. In this new world, the ambition and wide-ranging nature of the Green New Deal may no longer be seen as unfeasible. In fact, as can be seen in the UK and Europe, governments are already looking to implement various elements of the Green New Deal as part of their economic recovery packages. Perhaps the Green New Deal is about to have its time.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Part one of this blog post was published on Monday 14 September.

Read some of our other blogs on climate change and the impacts of Covid-19:

Build back better: is now the time for Green New Deals? – Part 1

From the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement to the pressure placed on governments by worldwide school strikes, the issue of climate change and its effects on the world around us has increasingly risen to the top of the political agenda. Across the world, governments have begun to take various forms of action in an attempt to prevent further rises in global temperatures.

In particular, the concept of a package of measures designed to address climate change and economic inequality, known as the Green New Deal, has gained particular prominence in the past few years.

This two-part blog looks at the concept of the Green New Deal, how it has influenced global policy and its relevance as a means of economic recovery in a post-Covid world.

What is the Green New Deal?

The original concept of a Green New Deal was proposed in a report published by the New Economics Foundation in 2008. The report set out a range of policy proposals that would allow the UK to recover from the global financial crisis, whilst tackling the threat posed by climate change. The scale and ambition of the Green New Deal was largely inspired by the wide-ranging New Deal package of reforms and investment carried out by President Roosevelt, that enabled the United States to recover from the Great Depression.

In a similar vein, the report made recommendations that addressed a wide range of policy areas,  these included:

  • a £50 billion per year programme to create a low-carbon energy system that will involve making “every building a power station” by maximising energy efficiency and renewable energy generation;
  • creating and training a “carbon army” of workers to provide the human resources required for a vast environmental restructuring programme;
  • re-regulating the domestic financial system to ensure that the creation of money at low rates of interest is consistent with democratic aims, financial stability, social justice and environmental sustainability;
  • minimising corporate tax evasion by clamping down on tax havens and corporate financial reporting.

Green New Deal: 2.0

Over time the Green New Deal has evolved and has spread internationally. Following the 2018 US Elections, the concept gained increasing prominence in the United States. Advanced by newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, the Green New Deal set out a vision for the United States to transition to become carbon neutral in just ten years.

In a similar vein to the ambition of both the New Deal and the original Green New Deal, the package proposed included a variety of measures that crossed a range of policy areas, including:

  • meeting 100% of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources;
  • upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification;
  • providing all people of the United States with high-quality health care; affordable, safe, and adequate housing; economic security; and access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature;
  • guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.

Criticism of Green New Deals

The concept of the Green New Deal is often criticised for being too expensive to be implemented. Opponents of the US Green New Deal believe the timeline for the United States to become carbon neutral in just ten years is unrealistic, and the estimated cost of  $12.3 trillion is too high. Critics also argue that the proposals are too vague and often fail to consider the seismic changes the measures may have on wider society, particularly for those who work in industries directly impacted by the energy transition.

In short, critics of a Green New Deal believe that as a package it is simply too large, both in ambition and price, to be implemented successfully. The level of government action required to implement such wide-scale reform would be unprecedented in peacetime and could potentially require citizens to make substantial changes to the way they live their lives. Until wider society is willing to accept a substantial increase in government spending and changes to their way of life, it is unlikely that a Green New Deal will be able to be effectively implemented.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Part two of this blog post is available now.

Read some of our other blogs on climate change and the impacts of Covid-19:

Virtual knowledge: recent webinars on public and social policy

Earlier in the summer, we shared some of the information our Research Officers had picked up while joining webinars on public and social policy.

Since then, we’ve taken part in more of these virtual seminars, and in today’s blog we’re providing an overview of the wide range of topics covered.

Low traffic neighbourhoods

Earlier this month, Project Centre, which specialises in public realm regeneration and sustainability, organised a webinar on the challenges of implementing Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) are a group of residential streets where through traffic is removed or discouraged, and any remaining traffic must operate at a pedestrian pace. The focus is not only to reduce congestion and improve safety by getting traffic back onto main arterial road networks, but also to provide environmental benefits, improve public health, community cohesion and encourage people to spend more, quality time in the areas where they live by making places “liveable”.

This webinar looked at the design and implementation of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, with guest speakers from two local authority areas (Waltham Forest and the Liverpool City Region), as well as designers from Project Centre who support the implementation of Low Traffic Neighbourhood Schemes. The speakers discussed their own experiences designing and implementing low traffic neighbourhoods and shared potential lessons for those looking to implement their own scheme.

The speakers all emphasised some key elements to effective design and implementation of LTNs they included:

  • LTNs are not just about transport, they can have health and wellbeing, community cohesion and crime reduction and economic impacts for local businesses as people are encouraged and enabled to shop more safely in their local areas.
  • schemes should be done with communities, not to them
  • LTNs should be designed with everyone in mind to bring pedestrians and cyclists “on par” with cars in terms of the use of street space
  • effective data and evaluation can help build a case for wider roll outs.

The new long life: a framework for flourishing in a changing world

This webinar was delivered by the International Longevity Centre (ILC) and included a number of speakers from a range of backgrounds who came together to discuss the impact of longevity and ageing on our engagement with work and the labour market, particularly in relation to digital technology and the changing nature of work post COVID-19. Speakers included Prof. Andrew Scott, Caroline Waters, Jodi Starkman, Stefan Stern, Lily Parsey and George MacGinnis.

Many of the speakers highlighted the difference between the ageing agenda and the longevity agenda, explaining that while many of us will live and work for longer than ever before, the nature of work and the stages of life are changing in a way that for many will be unrecognisable as the “traditional life journey”.

They stressed the need to move away from “traditional linear thinking” about how we age, with education at the start, mid-life being punctuated by work and potentially parenthood, then retirement, and that ageing in the future will be full of more “life stages” and more mini cycles where career breaks, learning and other life “punctuations” will take place at different times of life. It was suggested that the nature of work will change so much that re-learning and at times re-training will be a necessity at multiple points in life, and not just by those who change career deliberately.

Ageing well must, according to speakers, remain high on the policy agenda of future governments to ensure that the growing population of older people can live lives that are enjoyable, purposeful and productive and can contribute to wider society well into what would currently be considered “old age”.

Clearing the air

This has been a year like no other. But while attention has rightly focused on the number of Covid-19 fatalities – more than 800,000 worldwide – there is another hidden killer which has been responsible for more deaths than coronavirus, HIV and malaria combined. Research has found that air pollution caused an extra 8.8 million deaths around the world in 2015.

We’ve written before about efforts to improve air quality, and in July a webinar organised by Catapult Connected Places looked at further innovative ways to understand and tackle air pollution across the globe.

Eloise Marais,  an Associate Professor in Physical Geography at UCL talked about TRACE – the Tool for Recording and Assessing the City Environment – that she is developing using satellite observations of atmospheric composition. Satellites offer more complete and consistent coverage than surface monitors, and satellites can also monitor many air pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, ozone, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter.

But while satellites have a long and well sustained record of recording data – some have been in space for more than a decade – their measurements have limitations in terms of spatial resolution. At the moment, these can only cover city-wide air quality, rather than providing postal code measurements. Eloise explained that, while satellite data has been used to show that air quality improvement policies have been effective in London as a whole, they cannot yet confirm that in some parts of the city pollution levels are not falling. Even so, Eloise noted that spatial resolution is improving.

Later in the webinar, Bob Burgoyne, Market Intelligence Team Lead at Connected Places Catapult talked about the Innovating for Clean Air India Programme. India is home to 14 of the world’s most polluted cities. One of these, the city of Bangalore is especially badly affected, and Bob described a project which aims to improve the city’s air quality and enable a transition to electric vehicles. The Catapult network has been working with academic and professional bodies, and with small and medium sized enterprises in India to measure and demonstrate the impact of pedestrianizing a major street in Bangalore on Sundays. The long term goal is to permanently pedestrianise the street, and to demonstrate active and electric mobility solutions.

Back on track: London’s transport recovery

This webinar, organised by the Centre for London, discussed the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on London’s transport systems and explored the impact of changes to Londoners’ travel habits on the actions required for recovery.

The event included contributions from Rob Whitehead, Director of Strategic Projects at Centre for London, Cllr Sophie McGeevor, Cabinet Member for Environment and Transport at London Borough of Lewisham, and Shashi Verma, Chief Technology Officer and Director of Strategy at Transport for London.

A major concern raised by speakers was that current trends indicate that car usage is returning to normal levels faster than any other form of transport. Public transport, such as bus and tube, is slowly recovering but its usage is often linked to changes to lockdown restrictions, with surges in use as restrictions are lifted that very quickly level off. Additionally, although it appears that active transport use has increased, this increase tends to be at weekends and is more apparent in outer London.

As a result of these trends, there is a serious concern that levels of traffic in London may exceed the levels experienced prior to the lockdown. Currently, road traffic is at roughly 90% of normal levels, if this rises to 110%, the resulting congestion will result in gridlock and could have major implications for London’s economy.

How should we use grey literature?

This webinar was organised by the CILIP Health Libraries Group, for CILIP members to learn about and discuss how grey literature is used by libraries, and the benefits and challenges of making use of such content.

The main talk was delivered by two members of the library team from the King’s Fund – Deena Maggs and Kathy Johnson – who emphasised the importance of grey literature as a means of delivering timely and up to date information to users, particularly in the context of health and social care policy, where information needs tend to be very immediate.

The session involved discussions about the usefulness of grey literature in terms of Covid-19 recovery planning, as well as the challenge of determining the credibility of content which is not peer reviewed or commercially published.

The speakers gave practical advice around selecting and evaluating such sources, and highlighted the broadening range of ‘grey’ content that libraries can make use of, such as audio recordings, blog posts, and Tweets.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Connecting the future: what is 5G?

By Scott Faulds

Over the years, as technology has evolved, the way in which we all use and access the internet has changed dramatically. The devices that can access the internet have shrunk and become portable, from laptops that allow us to work anywhere to smartwatches that we can use to play music from our wrists.

At the same time, as more devices have gained the ability to easily connect to the internet, our usage has changed massively; we now consume a great deal of audio and video online. This has become even more apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many of us turning to video conferencing tools to work from home and keep in contact with our friends and family.

Additionally, in recent years, we have begun to see our homes, cars and cities become ‘smart’ via the power of the internet, enabling a whole new generation of devices that can connect and exchange data.

In response to changes in the way we all use and access the internet, the mobile network infrastructure has evolved to allow for greater bandwidths, lower latency and ultimately faster connection speeds. The next generation of mobile network technology – known as 5G – will facilitate new data-driven technologies, such as, automation, self-driving cars and artificial intelligence.

What is 5G?

5G is the next generation of mobile internet technology, which operates across a broad spectrum of radio waves that will allow for faster, always-on access to the internet. It’s estimated that 5G will enable internet speeds up to 600 times faster than those experienced on 4G networks today. This would allow you, for example, to download an ultra-high-definition movie in 25 seconds. The ability to transfer data at these speeds allows for technologies, such as artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, to operate effectively. Some experts claim 5G could lead to a new era of productivity and growth.

However, the physical infrastructure required to build a 5G network can be difficult to deploy. The fast speeds achieved by 5G networks rely upon what is known as millimetre waves, which operate at a higher frequency than our current mobile networks. These waves have a shorter range and can be easily disrupted by obstacles, such as buildings, people and even rainfall. Therefore, to ensure network reliability, a 5G network will have to operate across low, medium and high frequencies. Each of these frequencies will require separate network infrastructure and will have various trade-offs, in terms of speed and service area.

As a result of the distance and obstacle limitations of 5G, there will be a need for a dramatic increase in the amount of physical infrastructure required to ensure reliable service, particularly in built-up urban environments. According to a recent report by McKinsey, a 5G network will require 15 to 20 network access points per square kilometre in densely populated areas, compared with 2 to 5 network access points required for existing mobile networks. Subsequently, the cost involved with establishing this new infrastructure ensures that in the short-term, we are unlikely to see the launch of nationwide 5G coverage anytime soon.  

The power of data

The ability to exchange large amounts of data at speed can have a significant positive effect on our economy. Research from Barclays, indicates that the deployment of 5G has the potential to increase annual UK business revenues by up to £15.7 billion by 2025. Additionally, the ability to exchange data at speed opens up new opportunities for us to improve the efficiency of the operation of our cities.

The advent of the smart city, where everything from streetlights to trains can communicate with each other, can only truly come to fruition when combined with the data speeds facilitated by 5G networks. The main benefit of establishing a fully-fledged smart city is the ability for cities to become sustainably more efficient, through the extrapolation and analysis of data. For a smart city to be at its most efficient, the collection and analysis of this data will have to occur in almost real-time and will rely heavily on artificial intelligence and automation. 

A study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that in New York City congestion could be reduced by up to 75% through the deployment of a ride-sharing algorithm built using real-time data generated by taxis and incoming requests. The system would allow drivers to work shorter shifts, create less traffic, reduce air pollution and shorten commutes (with an average wait time of 2.7 minutes).

The creation of smart cities, underpinned by 5G, could potentially allow us all to live in cities which are more efficient and responsive to changes in our behaviour. Analysis conducted by Cisco, has revealed that the efficiencies generated by smart city technology could result in cost savings of up to $2.3 trillion globally.

Therefore, it could be said that 5G technology has the potential to allow businesses and governments to make costs savings and generate new forms of revenue.

Final thoughts

The deployment of 5G networks will provide the base for the technology of the future to operate and enable innovation to thrive. It is likely that the speeds and reliability offered by a fully-fledged 5G network could generate economic benefits and allow governments to make cost savings by leveraging big data to make our cities operate in a more efficient manner.

However, the deployment of 5G will be a complex and potentially costly undertaking, and it will be a long time before we see the establishment of nationwide 5G coverage. Therefore, although there is a wide range of benefits associated with the establishment of a 5G network, it should not be seen as a silver bullet that will generate instantaneous economic benefits.

Ironically, the future of high-speed internet, will take time and will require a great deal of investment before the benefits are realised.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on smart cities and 5G: