The Knowledge Exchange Blog

The official blog of The Knowledge Exchange from Idox

Housing at the push of a button

Sometimes it takes an intractable problem to inspire an inventive solution. Faced with an ageing construction workforce and a shortage of apprentices, the Netherlands has come up with what may prove to be the makings of a housing revolution.

Collaborating with the public and private sectors, Eindhoven University of Technology has been working on a plan called Project Milestone to build five 3D printed houses in the city of Eindhoven next year.

A technology whose time has come

3D printing is a media-friendly term that’s often used as an alternate name for the wider technology of additive manufacturing (AM). The process involves the use of a computer and computer-aided design software to relay messages to a machine which “prints” material in the desired shape. The technology has been in development over the past thirty years, but recently large-scale 3D printers have emerged which can handle materials such as plastic, metal and concrete.

3D printing gets building

Dutch architects and civil engineers have been leading the way in exploring the construction possibilities of AM. In 2016, DUS Architects 3D printed an eight-square-metre cabin, and later initiated a project to build a full-scale canal house in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, in the south-eastern town of Gemert, the world’s first 3D-printed concrete bridge was opened in 2017.

Project Milestone is by far the most ambitious AM construction initiative to date. A park in Eindhoven will be the site for five homes which have been designed to resemble boulders left behind by a retreating ice sheet. Van Wijnen, the contractor for Project Milestone, explains that the building process will be a learning curve:

“The houses will be printed one after the other, which means that each can benefit from what was learned on the previous and can be adapted directly to the wishes of the residents. For example, the first house will be a single-storey structure printed off-site. The ambition is to print the fifth home on location as three layers.”

The homes of the future?

Van Wijnen and other proponents of concrete printing in 3D believe it has the potential to drastically change the future of residential construction in terms of speed, affordability, sustainability, freedom of form and choice. Company director Rudy van Gurp forecasts that by 2022, about 5% of homes will be made using a 3D printer:

“We see Milestone not as an experiment, but as a pioneering innovation that will cause a stir in the construction sector.”

Final thoughts

In the UK, as the gap between demand and supply of housing continues to widen, the need to build more homes is growing. With savings in material waste, energy and CO₂ emissions, AM presents significant benefits for the construction sector, which will be closely watching developments in Eindhoven. Recent research suggests that, far from being a here-today-gone-tomorrow fad, AM is set to transform the future of building for good:

 “The adoption of AM as an advanced technology appears to have a secure place in the future of construction, one that will most likely be unbeatable when it comes to, amongst others: shorten localised value chains and production expenses, increase resource efficiency and environmental sustainability by the inclusion of recycled materials and cutting on transportation costs.”


For further examples of innovative housing, take a look at our previous blog posts:

Making the planning system more customer-friendly

By Donna Gardiner

Local authority planning departments are more often associated with bureaucracy than with delivering good quality customer service.

However, as the current reform of the planning system in Scotland puts the need to develop a modern, efficient service in the spotlight, thoughts have turned to how planning authorities can focus on the human side of delivering a good quality planning service.

Last month (August 2018), the Scottish Government published a report on customer service in the planning system.  It examined different approaches to customer service across a range of private and public sector organisations in Scotland, with a view to identifying the lessons from these that could be applied to the planning system. Although focused on Scotland, the lessons are transferable elsewhere.

A number of challenges

The research found that while planning authorities in Scotland viewed high quality customer service as highly important, they faced a number of challenges to delivering this in practice.

Limited staff and financial resources are a key constraint affecting planning authorities’ ability to deliver high quality customer service.  For example, customer expectations of the frequency and responsiveness of communication are often higher than what can reasonably be delivered.

There are also issues of inconsistency of service, both within and between local authorities in Scotland.  This is due in part to different interpretations of specific legislation, as well as different levels of investment in, and commitment to, customer service within individual planning authorities.

The risk of individuals confounding ‘customer service’ and ‘outcomes’ – where the planning decision reached affects the individual’s perception of the quality of service they have received – is another key challenge when measuring the customer experience.

Current approaches

Each year, planning authorities in Scotland must prepare an annual Planning Performance Framework (PPF) report, which details their performance over the previous year.

At present, the PPF has no specific measure of customer service delivery.  Instead, planning authorities must submit a ‘narrative commentary’ of their customer service performance, along with relevant case studies that demonstrate their actions.

This means that individual planning authorities decide how best to gather information about their own customer service performance.  Some of the key methods used include:

  • Customer charters – which communicate customer service commitments to customers and employees
  • Customer satisfaction surveys – mainly online, however, some were still postal
  • Forums – the use of customer forums or focus groups to engage with customers
  • Complaint handling procedures – published details of organisational systems, protocols and SLAs for registering and responding to complaints
  • Customer service standard accreditation – g. Customer Service Excellence (CSE), Investors in People (IiP), ISO9001, Customer Satisfaction Measurement Tool (CSMT) etc.

So what can be done? The benefits of e-planning

The report identified a number of ways in which customer service within the planning system could be improved.

First was the need to achieve a greater consistency of processes, enforcement and quality of service across Scotland.  Clearer national guidance on implementing legislation would go some way to achieve this. Establishing a national survey of customer service in the planning system is also a priority. Lessons could be learned from the building standards system, which currently incorporates a Key Performance Outcome relating to improving the customer experience.

Planning authorities also overwhelmingly believed that e-planning had improved customer service.  The benefits included:

  • more efficient information flows
  • better prioritisation of work
  • reduced printing costs
  • greater transparency
  • easier access to information by the public

What is clear is that the move to e-planning is bringing a ‘culture change’. By speeding up the planning process and making more efficient use of resources, e-planning frees up both time and money to be spent elsewhere in the planning process.  As one planning authority notes:

“It’s about how you work with the customer to bring them on the e-planning journey with you and change their mindset. In the long run the customer benefits because it speeds up the service.”

As technology and customer expectations evolve it will be important that e-planning solutions reflect this in the future.

Future directions

Good quality customer service helps to make the planning system easier to understand and processes more accessible and usable.  This in turn opens up the system to those who might otherwise feel that it is too complex or time consuming to participate.  This may be of particular importance when encouraging young people to become involved in consultations.

Improving customer service within the planning system is not something that is just ‘nice to have’. Planning has changed significantly over the years – and with change comes the need for reliable, cost-effective processes to drive end-to-end efficiency.


For 30 years, Idox has been supporting the work of local government planning departments. iApply, a planning application submission portal launched by the Idox Group in 2015, offers local authorities the opportunity to benefit from an out-of-the-box end-to-end digital solution that makes submitting planning, building and licence applications simple for customers and cost effective for the authority.

Idox congratulates the winners of the RTPI Research Excellence Awards 2018

Quality of placemaking and the role of planning in supporting wellbeing were key themes among the winners of the 2018 Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Awards for Research Excellence, which were announced this week.

These awards are unique in recognising the best spatial planning research from the RTPI’s accredited planning schools, and highlighting the positive contribution of academic research and consultancy within policy and practice.

Idox is proud to have supported the awards since 2015, and this year we again sponsored three of the five awards (the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, the Consultancy Award, and the Student Award).

Tom Kenny, RTPI’s acting deputy head of policy and research, was enthusiastic about the winners and commended entries:

“The winners and highly commended entries have demonstrated how academic researchers can positively reach out to practitioners and policymakers with insights and findings to inform and influence their work.”

Setting standards for green infrastructure

The Sir Peter Hall Award went to a project exploring how green infrastructure can be better planned and recognises the wide benefits of the creation of the UK’s first green infrastructure benchmark.

The “Building with Nature” benchmark defines and sets the standard for high quality green infrastructure design and aims to address the gap between policy aspirations and practical deliverability. It results from the team’s research which revealed that uncertainty surrounds what constitutes high quality green infrastructure and that delivery is inconsistent.

The project brought together partners from academia and the third sector – Gemma Jerome (Gloucester Wildlife Trust and the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments, University of the West of England), Danielle Sinnett, Nick Smith, Tom Calvert, Sarah Burgess, Louise King (Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments, University of the West of England).

Planning for healthier outcomes

The Consultancy Award was awarded to a study that helped planners in Southwark, London, achieve healthier outcomes. The research found that building trust with local communities is crucial to understanding perceptions around health issues, and that there is concrete evidence showing that changes in built environment design such as street layouts can improve the health of residents.

The winning project was ‘Healthy Planning and Regeneration: Innovations in Community Engagement Policy and Monitoring’ involved Helen Pineo (BRE and Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering, UCL), Simon Bevan, Andrew Ruck, Clizia Deidda (Southwark Council).

Cross-cutting impactful research

A study led by a team at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London won the Academic Award for exploring the issue of the low quality of residential dwellings converted from offices without the need for planning permission, following the deregulation of the planning system in England in 2013.

Just 30% of converted ‘studio flats’ meet national space standards, and many office conversions in the middle of industrial estates have undergone barely any changes to make them fit for habitation.

The winning project was ‘Assessing the Impacts of Extending Permitted Development Rights to Office-to-Residential Change of Use in England’ – Ben Clifford, Jessica Ferm, Nicola Livingstone, Patricia Canelas (Bartlett School of Planning, University College London).

The Early Career Award went to the project ‘Estimates of Transaction Costs in Transfer of Development Rights Programs’ – Sina Shahab (School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin), J. Peter Clinch (Geary Institute, University College Dublin), Eoin O’Neill (University College Dublin)

And the Student Award went to ‘What do they know? The Power and Potential of Story in Planning’ – Jason Matthew Slade (Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield).


The full list of shortlisted finalists for the 2018 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence are available here. We also interviewed the winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, Dr Paul Cowie from the University of Newcastle, about the impact of winning the award for the Town Meeting project, which used theatre to engage communities in planning.

We blog regularly on planning and environmental matters. Read some of our other articles:

What will councils and community groups do for funding after Brexit?

With a recent study indicating that the majority of local authorities have made no provision for Brexit in their medium-term budgets, there is now a real risk for councils if a ‘no deal’ scenario goes ahead after 29 March 2019. So what does a potential black hole in funding mean for local authorities already beleaguered by austerity?

A recent paper from GRANTfinder, the leading authority on grants and funding in the UK, examines this question and why councils need to be preparing now.

The extent to which the public sector is failing to prepare for Brexit is alarming given that local areas were meant to receive over £8bn in EU funding from 2014 to 2020 from sources such as the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund, and the UK Government has not yet provided detail on replacement funding streams.

What many people may not be aware of however, is that funding applications under EU schemes can be submitted up until the date that the UK leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019. So, there are still nearly eight months left in which councils and local groups can apply for, and benefit from, EU funding.

The full paper considers how local authorities may best attract funding to their local areas through applying to EU funding whilst the current arrangements still apply, as well as considering alternative funding sources beyond the EU. Usefully, it also identifies key types of local authority projects which commonly attract support.

Although it’s clear that councils are facing considerable financial uncertainty, and many are creating their own risk and Brexit impact assessments as a result, there is still funding support available. Given the short timescale and tight resources within councils however, it makes sense to turn to expert help and tools to identify where funding for local areas and community groups could be sourced. In this respect, GRANTfinder is relied upon by councils across the country to help secure investment.


Read the full guide via the GRANTfinder website. Our GRANTfinder colleagues work across the UK and in Europe to help councils, community groups, businesses and universities to source funding. They also provide training and consultancy in grant application processes and bid writing.

Build to rent: opening up opportunities for supply in the private rented sector

Anyone with any experience of the private rented sector (PRS) will tell you that it is a complex entity. Disjointed, difficult to regulate and control, but for many, an essential part of the housing market.

Despite the many criticisms often levelled at the private rented sector, demand is high – so high that in many areas it is outstripping supply. If you consider that the market in Scotland alone has grown by over a third since 1999 that will give you an idea of the scale of growth across the whole of the UK.

It has been suggested that this rise in demand for PRS properties has been driven in part by falling numbers of accessible social housing, and increasing numbers of people forced to rent in the private sector as they are unable to afford a deposit for a mortgage. The irony in many instances is that this group – largely segmented in customer profiles as “young professionals”, usually graduates with a reasonable wage – would probably be able to afford repayments on a mortgage but whether for the convenience and flexibility of renting, or lack of ability to save for a deposit (which in many areas of the UK are painfully high) they live in private rent housing.

The growth in the build-to-rent market

One of the emerging markets within the PRS, which has been popular for a few years now in cities in the USA, is the build to rent market and it is being heralded as (part of) the solution to the supply-demand challenge in the UK’s PRS.

Build to rent in principle involves an investor – usually a large multinational like Legal and General or Shell – putting up the money to build a complex, usually of self-contained studio, one or two-bedroom flats (although increasingly the model is being applied to suburban “family” homes too). There is usually also a communal space, where people living in the complex can come to meet one another, or perhaps work if they are able to work flexibly from home. There is also usually a shared kitchen area, as well as facilities like gyms, and even cinemas. These commercial landlords provide attrractive, and based on current models, high-end accommodation which often most suits the needs of the “young professional” market.

A solution to a social as well as a housing conundrum

Those who support the build to rent model within the PRS highlight that it has wider benefits than simply providing more accommodation in an increasingly stretched market. They also stress the benefits of the social aspect it can provide to residents, as well as facilities which enable flexible working and spaces which promote healthy living such as onsite gyms.

However, others criticise the projects on a number of fronts. Some are concerned that the projects could encourage gentrification of an area. With rents often being as much as a small mortgage, they are, critics argue, aimed at a market who are choosing to rent, either while they save for a house, or because the flexibility of renting suits their lifestyle, allowing them to be closer to jobs for example. They stress that those who are already being exploited by the PRS will see little to no benefit from these developments, which could potentially price them out of existing areas.

Supporters counter this by saying that these developments are aimed at a specific area of the market, and that actually introducing more mid-market renting accommodation may free up cheaper accommodation for lower income renters. Critics also question the benefit to the wider housing market, suggesting that while it looks good on the surface, in practice, build to rent is not going to solve the housing crisis.

How do we make it appealing to local authorities?

In Scotland, certainly, build to rent is in its infancy, with no specific build to rent projects in operation currently, although there are a number of planning applications in process, and some retrofitted buildings, previously derelict and remodelled to fit the build to rent spec. Meanwhile, there are a number of projects in the pipeline in England, where the model has already taken off in a number of locations, including London and Manchester.

However, it appears that in many instances, local authorities are cautious, and even at times reluctant to support build to rent projects, in part because of uncertainty about the schemes. In addition, a lack of support for the model, particularly among traditional planners is making them reluctant to bring build to rent projects forward. It is up to those within the sector to persuade sceptical local authorities that build to rent can work in a number of different settings, and does not just suit a young professional market in an inner city (although that is its current demographic target).

The future of build to rent

The housing sector is reliant on all areas of it functioning properly, and this includes the private rented sector. While build to rent is not being proclaimed as a panacea for the housing crisis in the UK, it can for many be a useful option within the PRS. How it will be utilised, and the potential impact on the PRS in the UK remains to be seen.


If you are interested in this topic, you may also be interested in the following blog posts:

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City trees: green infrastructure to help cities clear the air

This long, hot summer has certainly been one to remember. But while many of us have enjoyed the sunshine, the soaring temperatures have had a critical effect on air quality, particularly in urban areas. In London and some other UK cities, pollution warnings were issued during the July heatwave.

The hidden killer

Air pollution in Europe is a bigger killer than obesity or alcohol. In the UK, 40,000 deaths a year are attributable to the effects of poor air quality. During the summer months, cities become heat islands that push air pollution to ever more dangerous levels. This summer has seen reports of increased numbers of people, particularly children, admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties, which many have blamed on air pollution.

As we’ve previously reported, in 2017 and 2018, national, regional and city authorities are acting to improve air quality, and around the world urban planners are trying out innovative ideas to combat the heat island effect. Last year, we blogged about Milan’s Bosco Verticale – a ground-breaking project that installed thousands of plants on the balconies of two residential tower blocks. The towers absorb 30 tons of CO2 a year and produce 19 tons of oxygen a day. Noise and heat are also reduced, and the buildings provide habitat for more than 20 species of birds.

Another innovative product, Voyager, has been developed by Idox Transport to enable road users to monitor travel information, including air quality and road accidents. The comprehensive travel information system helps drivers avoid congestion hotspots and takes the stress out of planning a journey.

Clearing the air

One important way of improving urban air quality is to increase the number of trees and plants in towns and cities. But all too often the barriers to tree planting in urban areas can be hard to overcome.

Which is why the “City Trees” project is so significant. Designed by a German startup, a City Tree is a “living wall” of irrigated mosses with the pollution-absorbing power of almost 300 trees. A rainwater-collection unit is built into the City Tree, as well as a nutrient tank and irrigation system, allowing the assembly to water itself.

Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Oslo were among the first European cities to install City Trees, and in the UK they’ve appeared on the streets of NewcastleGlasgow and London

There is evidence that green infrastructure can have significant effects on air quality. However, recent studies have indicated that, while vegetation and trees are beneficial for air quality, they cannot be viewed as a solution to the overall problem of poor air quality. That requires a coordinated approach to tackling the causes of air pollution, including diesel emissions from transport.

City Trees may not have all the answers to tackling the hidden killers in our air, but they are helping to blunt the impact of air pollution, helping us all to breathe a little more easily.


You can read more about efforts to tackle air pollution in our previous blog posts:

Idox Transport provides a range of products and services to support strategic and localised transport control. Its solutions are designed to ease congestion, improve air quality, detect and manage incidents and promote ‘green wave’ travel.

Open access is rapidly rising but is it succeeding?

900px-Open_Access_PLoS.svg

Image by PLoS via Creative Commons

In an increasingly digital world where accessibility is a common goal, it is no surprise that open access (OA) publishing is increasing at a rapid pace. For UK research, there has been particularly notable growth in OA adoption. In 2016, 37% of UK outputs (25% globally) were freely available immediately on publication, up from 20% in 2014. This figure reached 54% within 12 months of publication – the first time the 50% OA barrier has been breached for UK articles in the Scopus database (Elsevier’s peer-reviewed abstract and citation database).

These are among the findings of a recent report from Universities UK (UUK), Monitoring the transition to open access, which illustrates the growth in OA and its implications. While the advancement of OA is generally seen as a positive outcome, this transition is not without its challenges.

What is open access?

OA is fundamentally about making research outputs freely accessible to all with limited restrictions with regard to reuse.

There are two main routes to OA, as highlighted in the UUK report:

  • Gold or immediate OA – this refers to articles published in an OA form in a journal, allowing immediate access to everyone electronically and free of charge. Publishers can recoup their costs in various ways, including through payments from authors called article processing charges (APCs), or through advertising, donations or other subsidies.
  • Green OA – this refers to the posting of a version of the published article so that it is accessible via a website, institutional or subject repository, scholarly collaboration network or other service. Access to the publication can either be granted immediately or after an agreed embargo period.

OA articles can also be published in hybrid journals which are subscription-based but provide some articles as OA, usually for a fee. According to the UUK report, more than half of UK articles in 2016 were published in hybrid journals, the proportion of which were published on immediate Gold OA terms was 28% – up from just 6% in 2012.

Growth

The numbers and proportions of both OA and hybrid journals have continued to rise, while the proportion of subscription-only journals has fallen. The number of articles published on immediate Gold OA terms is also rising, with a high level of take-up in the UK of hybrid OA options. Particularly notable findings from the report include:

  • the proportion of titles published globally offering immediate OA rose from under 50% in 2012 to just over 60% in 2016; and to nearly 70% for journals in which UK authors have published;
  • the proportion of UK-authored articles published on immediate Gold OA terms rose from 12% in 2012 to 30% in 2016, an annual growth rate of over 30% sustained throughout the period;
  • the global proportion of subscription-based articles accessible in some version, on Green OA terms, within 24 months of publication via a non-publisher website, repository or elsewhere, rose from 19% in 2014 to 38% in 2016, while the UK proportion rose from 23% to 48%;
  • OA articles are downloaded on average between twice and four times as much as non-OA articles; and in the UK, where the numbers of full-text articles in UK repositories increased by more than 60% between 2014 and 2016, the number of article downloads more than doubled from 6 to 12 million.

The rapid rate of growth in the UK appears to demonstrate the effects of policies to promote and support OA. The government has long been committed to the transition to OA, particularly since the Finch Report, and these figures show that the UK is world leading in “a significant global movement which is fundamentally changing the way that research is conceived, conducted, disseminated and rewarded.” (UUK)

Rising costs

Most would argue such growth is a positive outcome but the rise in OA has also contributed to other issues, such as the transitional costs to universities and research funders. The findings show that costs are also rising, and at a rate significantly above inflation. The mean average APC payment rose by 16% between 2013 and 2016, compared with a rise of 5% in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

And the number of APCs paid has grown rapidly, with the ratio between subscription and hybrid APC expenditure falling from roughly 19:1 in 2013 to 6:1 by 2016. There is evidence of various offsetting deals, although these vary significantly and can be complex. The majority of known funding for APCs has however been provided by UK funders. Therefore tools that help universities identify and manage funding, such as RESEARCHconnect, could become even more important.

Concerns have also been raised around the financial implications for learned societies that publish academic journals. Although the findings show that publishing revenues have risen steadily over the period (18%), publishing expenditure has risen by 27%, resulting in falling margins.

A mixed picture is highlighted in terms of societies’ overall financial health, with a sharp rise in the number reporting a loss, although some of the most recent losses arose from strategic decisions or exceptional items. Of course, OA is not the only factor and the wider economic and political uncertainties are recognised as particular risks.

To mitigate the financial risks, societies are diversifying their income streams which could strengthen their role. But despite publishing margins being under increasing pressure, the report identified no evidence of systemic risk to UK learned societies or their broader financial sustainability from OA.

Final thoughts

In terms of the aim of policy in the UK to achieve a shift towards OA, the fast-paced growth can be considered a success. However, as the UUK report shows, there are still a number of challenges that need to be addressed.

According to the Chair of the UUK Open Access Coordination Group, the continued engagement of all stakeholders will be important “to ensure that the transition to open access is maintained, is financially sustainable, and that the benefits to research and to society are maximised.”


RESEARCHconnect is Idox’s latest funding service which provides information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK research community. It supports universities, research institutions and research-intensive companies across Europe in identifying and disseminating R&D funding. In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure to exploit alternative funding sources and RESEARCHconnect ensures that global funding opportunities will not be missed. Find out more.

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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.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. 

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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. 

Shortlist for prestigious RTPI Research Awards 2018 announced

The RTPI have announced the shortlisted finalists for this year’s RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. The Awards, which cover five categories, aim to recognise and promote high quality, impactful spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools, and planning consultancies around the world. This year the shortlist includes research from across the UK, Hong Kong, China, South Africa, Canada and Ireland.

Idox sponsors three of the Awards categories – the Planning Consultancy Award, the Student Award, and the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement.

David Meaden, CEO at Idox said: “High-quality research is key to increasing our understanding of how planning can help create sustainable places for people to live and work. As the UK’s leading provider of planning and building control solutions, Idox is very proud to be continuing our relationship with the RTPI and supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence in 2018.”

A diverse shortlist

The shortlist provides a snapshot of the diversity of areas that planners work in, and the importance of planning in solving societal issues. Research projects include work on planning for different religions, participatory planning, unlocking residential development on high streets, and Scottish marine planning.

Projects on heritage, build-to-rent housing, walkability and improving streets, have also been shortlisted, reflecting how research is currently trying to improve planning practice.

The standard of entries this year was very high, leading to twenty research projects being shortlisted – an increase of nearly 20% on last year.

Improving planning practice

Tom Kenny, RTPI’s Acting Deputy Head of Policy and Research, said: “Each year we’ve run the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence the quality and variety of entries has grown. The Awards are one way the Institute is helping to promote outstanding research and ensure it helps to improve planning practice across the UK and Ireland.”

Winning and commended entries will be announced on 3 September during the opening ceremony of the UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference, in Sheffield.


The full list of finalists for the 2018 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence are available here. We also interviewed the winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, Dr Paul Cowie from the University of Newcastle, about the impact of winning the award for the Town Meeting project, which uses theatre to engage communities in planning.

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