From big data to creative ‘binfrastructure’: new ideas for tackling litter

As we’ve previously reported, litter is a big and expensive problem for the UK’s local authorities. A 2015 report by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee put the annual cost of cleaning up litter in England at around £850m. Litter also generates strong emotions. Research by Populus has found that 81% of people are angry and frustrated by the amount of litter lying all over the country.

The CLG committee and the UK government have put forward a range of proposals for tackling litter. But at home and overseas local authorities and the third sector have been looking at inventive ways to keep our streets clean.

 Philadelphia’s data-driven litter index

Earlier this year, Philadelphia’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet launched a digital tool to help catalogue the type and location of litter in the city’s neighbourhoods.

The Litter Index provides a full picture of the different types of waste in each of the city’s neighbourhoods, as well as recording the incidence of litter during different weather conditions. Using tablets, city workers record how much waste they’re seeing in their neighbourhoods, take photos and give ratings. The information can then be used to devise a plan for cleaning up litter in different parts of the city, and to pinpoint where resources are needed.

The Philadelphia plan is ambitious, but, as Nic Esposito, the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Director says: “If we’re not changing infrastructure and attitudes, we’re not going to solve the problem.”

 Edinburgh’s intelligent litter bins

New technology has been undergoing tests by the City of Edinburgh Council to measure how full litter bins have become and provide alerts via mobile when they reach capacity.

Sensors positioned inside the bins use ultrasonic technology to measure how full a bin has become. The data is then transmitted to notify the council’s waste management system when a bin needs emptied. The system can also help the council to spot fly tipping when there is sudden spike in the results, and a heat sensor detects fires inside the bin.

During the initial pilot project, collections in areas fitted with the new bins increased by 24% on average, and some collections quadrupled in frequency. The data from the sensors will be used to provide reports on waste generation patterns and can help in planning the most efficient routes for litter bin collections.

Driving litter underground

A growing number of European cities have invested in underground collection units in an effort to make their streets less cluttered.  In the Slovenian capital of Ljulbljana, these units are located around the city centre, with different receptacles for paper, glass, and packaging. In addition, residents of the city have access cards which open receptacles for organic and other specialist waste types, which in turn determines the level of their monthly waste management bill. Separation of waste in this way drives down the cost of managing it, and makes recycling much easier.

In the UK, Cambridge City Council has also taken an interest in subterranean waste units. Steel chutes have been set into the pavement with the aim of replacing thousands of wheelie bins. Residents have corresponding bins for their kitchens, which the city council believes will help create a sustainable living space.

Once completed, the 150-hectare site will have 450 underground recycling and general waste banks across 155 locations.

Thinking outside the bin

Environmental charity Hubbub has examined research and examples from around the world to develop a catalogue of creative and playful ideas for tackling litter effectively. Among the suggestions are:

  • an open-air gallery featuring local people to raise awareness of personal responsibility for waste management;
  • flashmobs to cheer on people who pick up litter and put it in the bin;
  • brightly-coloured bins that draw attention to litter campaigns; and
  • ‘talking bins’ that reward users with belches or coughs.

Hubbub has not confined its efforts to urban waste. Earlier this year, the charity unveiled a campaign targeting countryside litter. A “trashconverter” van toured the Forest of Dean, accepting trash, rather than cash, in exchange for flowers and hot drinks.

Final thoughts

As the Populus survey demonstrates, litter has a negative impact on how people view their own neighbourhoods. At the same time, as the recent Blue Planet 2 programme highlighted, our litter can have terrible effects on the natural environment and on birds and marine life, both in our own coastal waters and in oceans thousands of miles away.

Data, technology and behavioural insights all have important roles to play in tackling the blight of litter. Unusual initiatives, such as those employed in Philadelphia, Edinburgh and Cambridge, as well as Hubbub’s inventive ideas, are worth exploring if they can make an impact on human behaviour, and contribute to the conservation of the natural world.


If you found this article interesting, you might also like to read our previous blogs:

Talking rubbish: the never-ending problem of litter on Britain’s streets

Throwaway lines: poets celebrate the “hideous beauty” of landfill and the unsung heroes of waste management

Housing models for the future

Housing is one of the challenges of our time. The task for architects and designers is to create affordable, robust housing that can accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing, but also ageing population. And it’s not as easy as simply building. The demands and expectations on house builders to also be community builders and the architects of mental and physical wellbeing through design have led architects and designers to consider alternative ways to house us in the future. This includes innovative use of materials and construction methods, addressing the issue of financing through co-operative living models and using bespoke design to create lifetime homes which can be adapted to accommodate the changing needs of our population.

Large-scale development

One of the big challenges for urban areas is large-scale development strategies for designing and delivering housing to meet need. For developers and planners going forward there are a number of factors to consider: the type of investment introduced to an area; how the schemes fit with a wider development plan for the city; and the importance of engaging the community in any plans to develop or regenerate an area.

“Placemaking”, not just house building is central to large scale development discussions, emphasising to planners, architects and developers the fact that they are not just building houses, but creating communities. As a result, designers and developers should be mindful of their important role in community building, to build the right sort of homes in the right places, at affordable prices and with a legacy in mind. They should, create high quality, long lasting units, which will stand the test of time but that also can be easily adapted to accommodate people’s changing needs.

Alternative construction and design

Innovative models and options for future builds have been discussed for a number of years but they are becoming an increasingly mainstream way to build affordable housing that meets the current need, particularly of students and young professionals, and of older populations looking to downsize or move into assisted care accommodation.

Offsite manufacture or modular homes  Offsite manufacture of timber framed houses is becoming increasingly common, with the constituent pieces of the house manufactured off site, then transported to the site and constructed on a concrete block where foundations and services such as plumbing have already been created. Offsite housing can either be open panel, which requires the finishing such as bathroom and kitchen installation to be done on site, or closed panel which provide the entire section complete with decoration and flooring (this is becoming a common way to build cheap, efficient student housing).

Custom build  Custom build projects are similar to self-build in that they give clients flexibility to select their own design and layout, However, custom build provides slightly more structure and certainty which can make it easier when considering elements like financing and planning applications. In essence, customers select the spec of their house in the same way they might make custom modifications to a car.

Build to rent  This model has been adapted from the United States, where build to rent is popular. The model is based on self-contained flats, with central and shared amenities, entrance and communal space. Designed to attract graduates and young professionals, these are being increasingly designed using a “user first” approach. Developers identify the sort of person they want to live in the development, identify what sort of things they might look for in a development, including floor type, furniture, layout, amenities, gadgets, and then build the development around that.

Dementia friendly – Building homes that are safe and affordable, but allow for independence in old age, is one of the major demands on house builders currently. Housing stock is seen as not suitable for current need, but building bespoke sites for people with illnesses like dementia has been seen as a bit of a niche previously. Virtual Reality (VR) is being used by some architects and developers to try to help them understand the needs and requirements of people with dementia and how they can build homes suitable for them to be able to live as independent and full lives as possible. Building dementia friendly homes not only means making them accessible and open plan, but also adapting the layout, adding signage where appropriate and if possible locating the homes within a wider community development. Dementia villages like those seen in Amsterdam are being used as the model for this.

Co-housing

Co- housing offers an alternative to communities in Scotland, and while lessons can be learned from elsewhere in Europe, where co- housing models have been successful, there are also pockets of good and emerging practice in the UK too. More traditional examples include Berlin, where almost 1 in 10 new homes follow the Baugruppe model, and Amsterdam (centraal wonen) where some of the oldest co-housing projects originate. In Denmark, 8% of households use co-housing models.

Co-housing provides the opportunity for groups of people to come together and form a community which is created and run by its residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home as well as shared community space. Residents come together to manage their community, share activities, and regularly eat together. A “Self-build Cooperative Group” is a joint venture between several private households who plan and build their own house together. Usually they are supported by an architect. Often co- housing groups are able to realise high-quality living space at prices below local market rates, although it is not really considered suitable for large-scale development within the current UK market.

Opportunities for a new way forward

Practitioners are often challenged to push the boundaries of design and building in their field. Looking to new models for future building design provides an opportunity to think creatively about alternative uses of materials and space and to consider options for construction, funding and investment in the built environment that challenge the norm. Learning lessons and exchanging ideas from elsewhere, architects and planners have the opportunity to come together to consider how the built environment in Scotland can help to create places  not just buildings  and how this can contribute positively to the wider wellbeing and happiness of people living in Scotland in the future.


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Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit

Scientist working with a large cylinder-shaped piece of lab equipmentBy Steven McGinty

There have been many twists and turns in the Brexit story. The latest, has been Theresa’s May’s failed attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and gain a personal mandate for negotiating her own version of Brexit.

However, since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) researchers and professionals have consistently voiced their concerns over the potential negative impacts of Brexit, particularly in areas such as funding, collaboration and skills.

Prospect – a union for 50,000 scientists, engineers and technical specialists – has made it clear that they believe:

Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy.”

Their research highlights that British participation in prestigious Europe-wide research projects could be under threat, such as the mission to find the ‘oldest ice’ in Antarctica and the European Space Agency’s project to develop the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme.

The Financial Times also highlights that British researchers have been very successful at winning important grants from the European Research Council. As a result, the UK receives 15.5% of all EU science funding – a disproportionate return on the UK’s 12% contribution to the overall EU budget.

Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an academic from Liverpool University, underlines how essential EU funding is to his work: “in some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU.

Figures from technology consultancy Digital Science suggest that leaving the EU could cost UK scientists £1bn per year.

Universities UK has also investigated the wider economic impacts of EU funding in the UK. In 2016, their research found that EU funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, adding £1.86 billion to the UK economy. Later research has also shown that international students and their visitors generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy. In addition, as a single group, they add £690 million to the UK retail industry.

What do the politicians say?

With their ‘Save our Scientists’ campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been outspoken in their support for continued scientific co-operation across Europe. Their 2017 General Election manifesto stated that they would underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 – the largest ever EU Research and Innovation programme – worth nearly €80 billion in funding. It also promised to protect and raise the science budget by inflation, and stop cuts to medical research.

But the UK government has also made efforts to lessen the concerns of STEM researchers and professionals. Similarly, Chancellor Philip Hammond has guaranteed to underwrite EU funding won by UK organisations through programmes such as Horizon 2020, even if these projects continue after Brexit. On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her 12 objectives for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Within this speech, she stated that:

We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies.”

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, has also tried to provide reassurance by emphasising the important role for science and innovation in the government’s industrial strategy. He has highlighted that the strategy includes £229 million of funding for a ‘world class’ materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre for excellence for life sciences. In addition, a new funding body will be created – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – which will bring together several funding councils to create a ‘loud and powerful’ voice for science.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has also published a report arguing that positive steps should be taken to ensure UK science plays a significant role in the global economy. One idea put forward by the report is that:

The UK should offer to host – in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries – one or more new, large-scale international research facilities. This would be a bold move to signal the UK’s global standing in science.

International partners – David Johnston Research + Technology Park

At a recent innovation event in Glasgow, Carol Stewart, Business Development Manager of David Johnston Research and Technology Park, set out the thoughts of researchers and companies based at their innovative research park in Waterloo, Canada. Unsurprisingly, their key concern was restrictions on the free movement of labour, and the impact Brexit might have on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

However, Ms Stewart was positive that there would still be plenty of opportunities, noting that the UK and Canada has a relationship as part of the Commonwealth, and that London will still be regarded as a global technology hub.

Overcoming negative sentiment

One important concern is that there is widespread anecdotal evidence that EU nationals are feeling less welcome. Stories of researchers either leaving positions or citing Brexit as a reason for not taking up posts in the UK are becoming the norm. Anxieties caused by a lack of clarity over the long-term status of EU nationals and the complexities in obtaining permanent residency, can only be damaging to the UK’s reputation for international science.  As physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox explains:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the world’s finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

With the latest election results, the UK is likely to go through a period of political instability. It will be important  that, regardless of political changes, the UK continues to exercise its role as a leader in science, technology and innovation. That not only means providing funding and facilities for research, but also rebuilding the UK’s reputation as a place where the very best scientists and innovators want to live and work.


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Designing for positive behaviours

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

By Heather Cameron

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, 1943

This much borrowed saying from the former prime minister was made during the 1943 debate over the rebuilding of the House of Commons following its bombing during the Blitz. Although many were in favour of expanding the building to accommodate the greater number of MPs, Churchill insisted he would like it restored to its old form, convenience and dignity. He believed that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, it has since been widely acknowledged that the built environment has a direct impact on the way we live and work, thus affecting our health, wellbeing and productivity. A new report from the Design Commission, which opens with Churchill’s statement, is described as “a very valuable contribution” to the debate on how the design of the built environment can influence the way people think and behave, “making a healthier, happier and more prosperous and sustainable country”.

Impact of design

The report, which follows a year-long inquiry, is described as providing “solid evidence in difficult areas” on what it is in the built environment that makes people’s lives better. Evidence was gathered on four specific areas believed to be the most important to national policy:

  • health and wellbeing
  • environmental sustainability
  • social cohesion
  • innovation and productivity

It is suggested that design acts at two levels: it can affect individual choices of behaviour, which can then affect health and sustainability; and it can affect the way people are brought together or kept apart, which can then affect communication and creativity, or social cohesion.

The inquiry therefore looked into how people’s behaviour, health and wellbeing are affected by their surroundings; the role design can play in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours; the role design can play in social cohesion through its effects on creating or inhibiting co-presence in space; and how the design of work environments can drive innovation and improve efficiency, therefore tackling the current ‘productivity crisis’.

The evidence

The evidence highlights the built environment as “a major contributing factor to public health”. A range of public health issues, including air pollution and obesity, were suggested to be directly linked to factors within the built environment. Other recent research has similarly highlighted this link between health and urban design.

Evidence of the potential for design to positively influence sustainability behaviours, such as greater cycling and walking activity, was also highlighted, with New York cited as a good practice example.

Providing evidence on social cohesion, a senior university lecturer stated that “to divorce the physical from the social environment is inappropriate”. Other submissions referred to the “alienating effects” of various aspects of modern corporate life on civic participation, including estate management, crime and safety, the perceived negative impacts of poorly-conceived urban planning and poor or no maintenance.

Well-designed places, on the other hand, are suggested to improve access and facilitate social cohesion. Nevertheless, the evidence also noted that regardless of how well designed a place may be, “neglecting its aftercare will lead to antisocial behaviour and environmental damage.”

The relationship between the built environment and productive behaviours is supported by substantial evidence, according to the report. In the context of the UK, a lack of access to daylight and fresh air is cited as a reason for offices failing to get the best out of their workers. One study cited, indicated an increase in levels of both wellbeing and productivity in office environments with so-called ‘natural elements’.

Policy – “muddled and fragmented”

While there is evidence of good practice throughout the UK, a principal argument from the report is that more needs to be done.

Policy making for the built environment has traditionally been “muddled and fragmented”, according to the report. It suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the significance of the influence of the built environment on behaviour among policy makers at all levels and therefore makes recommendations for central government, local government and the private sector.

It argues that the relationship between government and local authorities requires reconsideration, calling for greater power at local government level.

Despite encouraging steps with regard to devolution in positively impacting behaviour and quality outcomes, such as in London, it is suggested that more can be done in terms of better collaboration between all stakeholders.

It is also noted that as national policy will be now be conducted in the context of Brexit, adaptation of the regulatory regime will be required.

Final thoughts

The key message from the Design Commission’s inquiry is evidently that the design of the built environment is particularly important in the context of current challenging times for the UK:

 “The way we design our built environment could be one of our greatest strengths in navigating the course ahead… If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our previous posts on related topics:

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Scotland’s space sector: a launchpad for economic growth

Discovery space shuttle on launchpad

By Steven McGinty

In March, the UK Space Agency announced it had awarded £50,000 to the University of Strathclyde’s Scottish Centre for Satellite Applications (SoXSA) for its work with Glasgow City Council to attract entrepreneurs and start-ups to Glasgow’s innovation hub, Tontine.

Six companies will benefit from the support, which includes space industry specific business support, dedicated workshops and expertise, and administration and accommodation costs for two years.

The award is another sign of faith in Scotland’s burgeoning space industry, which has seen it become a global leader in the ‘New Space’ economy.

The development of New Space

The space industry, like many other technology fields, has been traditionally dominated by nation states, often in terms of national security.

But now, a new space industry is emerging, where private companies and entrepreneurs are developing innovative products and services in or for space. Reasons for this include reductions in funding to national space agencies, such as Donald Trump’s recent cuts to NASA, as well as the private sector’s success in innovation. For example, the company Space X has managed to launch rockets that had previously been into space – a practice which has been estimated to reduce the first stage of space flight from $60 million to $500,000.

Scotland’s role

Within a few miles of Glasgow’s city centre, a small number of research groups and private companies have gained international reputations for their work on space technologies.

For instance, Glasgow – a city more known for its heavy industries and shipbuilding – has found a niche in manufacturing low cost nanosatellites. This has led to Glasgow being crowned ‘Europe’s Satellite City’.

Glasgow’s first satellite company, Clydespace, has been tremendously successful over the past decade by developing CubeSats (a satellite the size of a wine bottle). These have been used in a range of missions, including UKube-1, the first mission to be commissioned by the UK Space Agency as a demonstrator for space technologies.

The city has also seen investment from Spire Global – a satellite powered data company headquartered in San Francisco. Spire’s satellites, which are used to gather data on weather, maritime, and aviation, were built by Clydespace. Peter Platzer, CEO of Spire, explains that:

We have up there about 20 satellites, all exclusively built here in Glasgow.”

Mr Platzer highlights that Scotland’s confidence in Spire was one of the reasons that they opened their European office in Glasgow’s Skypark. The company received a £1.5m Scottish government grant through the agency Scottish Development International (SDI).

Scotland’s low cost base and universities with strong interests in engineering and space technologies were also highlighted as key selling points.

Young innovators have also sought to get involved in Scotland’s space sector. For example, Tom Walkinshaw, founded Alba Orbital from his bedroom when he was unable to secure a job in the space industry. His company provides PocketQube satellites (based on a design of one or more 5cm cubes) and now employs 10 skilled employees. Alba Orbital’s first satellite, Unicorn-1, is backed by the European Space Agency and is due for launch later in the year.

In academia, the University of Glasgow’s LISA Pathfinder team won the 2016 Sir Arthur Clarke Award for “Space Achievement in Academic Research or Study”. The award was given for the team’s work on developing the Optical Bench Interferometer (OBI) for the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder spacecraft – a demonstrator aimed at measuring gravitational waves in space.

The future of Scotland’s space economy

A report by London Economics investigated the potential benefits of a spaceport in Scotland.

Prestwick Airport in South Ayrshire and Machrihanish, near Campbeltown, are currently competing to win a licence from the UK Government.

London Economics have set out three main advantages to having a local spaceport:

  • Spaceport operations – The activities associated with a spaceport will lead to the direct creation of jobs in commercial spaceflight or providing satellite launches, as well as indirect benefits for local suppliers.
  • Space tourism – Tourists visiting space stations or taken part in space travel are also likely to spend money in the surrounding areas and on other attractions.
  • Space-related education – Spending will increase on research and development due to the creation of a spaceport.

Tom Millar, managing director of DiscoverSpace UK, has also stated that sending small satellites into space would be a ‘viable revenue stream’. A local spaceport would reduce the costs for Scottish satellite companies as at the moment they currently have to ‘piggyback’ onto launches with larger satellites.

The report concludes by finding that a spaceport in Scotland would increase growth from 9% to 10% of the UK’s space economy in 2030.

The implications of Brexit

The results of the 2016 EU Referendum has caused uncertainty for the Scottish space sector. For example, many companies will be concerned for the rights of EU national employees, as well as their ability to recruit from this workforce in the future.

The Financial Times has also reported that changes in terms could keep UK companies out of lucrative European space contracts, such as the €10bn Galileo satellite navigation system. The European Commission are looking to change the terms of the Galileo project so that contracts can be cancelled if a company is not based in a member state. They also require companies to pay the costs of finding a replacement. If these terms are approved, it would effectively rule out UK-based companies bidding for EU projects, which would have a negative impact on the sector’s growth.

Final thoughts

Scotland’s space sector is estimated to be worth £134 million and accounts for 18% of all UK space industry jobs. Its success has been built on a combination of government support, talented entrepreneurs, and a supply of skilled engineers.

As the industry continues to grow, there will still be an important role for government, particularly in supporting innovation centres and granting licences for UK spaceports. The promotion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects will also be crucial, as we look to develop a new generation of space entrepreneurs to keep us ahead of this new industrial space race.


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Inventive eco-solutions to the planet’s environmental challenges

Nappies made from jellyfish; drones that make electricity; a flame-free alternative to cremation. Unlikely as they may seem, these are just three of the ideas that are emerging to tackle some of the environmental challenges facing the modern world.

Those challenges are many and growing. Climate change, deforestation, water scarcity, rising levels of waste, and dwindling energy supplies all pose threats to health, wellbeing, quality of life, and even to the existence of humanity.

While national and local governments have responded to these challenges by passing legislation and investing in sustainable initiatives, entrepreneurs are coming up with some intriguing eco-friendly ideas.

Taking the sting out of waste management

An Israeli company has found an inventive way to simultaneously tackle a growing global menace in the world’s oceans and a pernicious waste issue. Increasing levels of ocean acidification – sometimes called climate change’s evil twin – have resulted in an explosion in jellyfish populations. Now, scientists working with Tel Aviv-based startup, Cine’al, have found a way to turn jellyfish into a super-absorbent material called “hydromash”. Within next year, the company plans to market nappies, tampons and bandages made from hydromash, which takes less than a month to biodegrade (compared to the hundreds of years for synthetic disposables to break down).

Will consumers take to products made from jellyfish?  Cine’al’s chairman thinks so.

“I’m not worried about this, and in many products it’s likely that the consumer won’t even know about it, similar to many other products with ingredients that are derived from animals and plants.”

 Lift-off for airborne energy

In March of this year, wind farms in Scotland set a new record for the amount of electricity sent to the national grid, generating the equivalent of 58% of Scotland’s entire electricity needs for the month. In recent years, Denmark has also reported impressive achievements from its investment in windfarms.  Such examples demonstrate the potential of wind power, which is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels.

But conventional wind power equipment is expensive to set up, with the foundations and towers for the turbines making up around 30% of the capital required. However, an alternative may soon be breezing onto the wind power scene.

In April, German energy giant E.ON announced plans to invest €3 million in developing the commercialisation of autonomous flying drones to produce electricity. The technology – which uses a kite-like sail to harvest the energy of high-altitude wind currents – is still in its infancy. But E.ON clearly believes in the potential of airborne power. Last year the company invested €5.9 million in a Scottish developer which plans to create a kite-driven power station.

 Ashes to ashes – without the global warming

Benjamin Franklin, famously observed that death and taxes are the only certainties in this world. As a prolific inventor with an interest in energy conservation, he might have been cheered to learn that 21st century entrepreneurs have discovered an eco-friendly way to deal with one of those certainties.

Resomation (also known as biocremation) is a process that uses water and potassium hydroxide to break down organic materials within a few hours, but without the environmentally harmful greenhouse gases generated by conventional cremation methods. The resulting water can be funnelled into municipal water treatment facilities, while the ashes are returned to the family of the deceased.

The idea has already been applied commercially in the United States, and is now set to be introduced to the UK. In March, the Rowley Regis crematorium in the West Midlands received approval from Sandwell Council to install resomation equipment. The council noted that:

“…resomation allows individuals and families to express their environmental concerns and values in a very positive manner with one of their final actions in life.”

Innovative remedies for a planet in need

While these examples may seem odd, and even unnerving, it’s worth remembering that ideas once considered implausible, dangerous or downright daft are now becoming more widely accepted.

Forty years ago, recycling was regarded as something of an oddball activity. Today, it’s seen as imperative for households, businesses and local authorities. Similarly, vegetable oil has advanced from a purely experimental fuel to a cleaner alternative to diesel.

It seems that, when it comes to the environmental challenges facing the world, necessity really is the mother of invention.


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More, better, faster: the potential of service design to transform public services

Découverte

For government at all levels – national, regional and local – the year ahead promises even greater challenges.  The need to provide more, better and faster services, using fewer resources, while responding to unprecedented levels of technological, demographic, and social change is greater than ever.

Increasingly, public sector organisations are taking an interest in the concept of service design as a means of responding to these challenges and developing better public services.

In this blog post, we provide an overview of service design and consider how it can contribute to public service innovation.

What is ‘service design’? 

Initially a private sector concept, ‘service design’ is an innovative approach that has successfully been applied to the public sector in order to ‘do more with less’.

The Service Design Network defines it as:

“the activity of planning and organising people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers”

Some of service design’s key principles include:

  • the creation of services that are useful, useable, desirable, efficient, and effective;
  • the use of a human-centred approach that focuses on customer experience and the quality of the service encounter;
  •  the use of a holistic approach that considers in an integrated way strategic, system, process, and ‘touch-point’ (customer interaction) design decisions;
  • an implicit assumption of co-crafting services with users (e.g. co-production).

Approaching service design in this manner has a number of advantages, including improved knowledge of user requirements, lower development costs, improved service experience, and improved user satisfaction.

Indeed, in 2012, the UK Design Council has estimated that for every £1 invested in the design of innovative services, their public sector clients have achieved more than £26 of social return.

Service design in the public sector

How should service design be applied within the public sector?

A report by the Service Design Network, drawing on research by public service designers around the world, identified five areas of the public sector that are particularly relevant for service design:

  • policy making
  • cultural and organisational change
  • training and capacity building
  • citizen engagement
  • digitisation

The report presents a number of examples of the successful application of service design in the public sector.  Two such examples are highlighted below.

Case study: Transforming mental health services in Lambeth

The London borough of Lambeth was under pressure to cut mental health budgets by more than 20%, at the same time as experiencing double the average rate of prevalence of mental health issues in England. In response, it employed a service design approach to transform its model of care for people suffering mental health problems.

The transformation was achieved over several years. Lambeth incorporated the use of service design by introducing a social networking site called Connect&Do, employing in-house service designers and prototyping new services through a multi-agency hub for community-based wellbeing.

These have all contributed to making Lambeth an award-winning pioneer in participation and innovative, collaborative commissioning.

Case study: Transforming services for vulnerable people in Brent

Brent Council worked with a design partner to support the review of three areas: employment support and welfare reform; housing for vulnerable people; and regeneration.

The council also wanted to strengthen its internal capacity by developing an innovation hub and training a cohort of managers and officers in service design methods.

Three reviews were conducted in parallel by a multidisciplinary team of designers, researchers and managers. They conducted extensive research, including ethnographic interviews, observations, focus groups, pop-up community events, expert interviews, data analysis and visualisation. At key points, the teams came together to share insights and critique each other’s work as they progressed from research into idea-generation and prototyping.

The new innovation hub aimed to build staff capability, hold idea-generation events and provide an accepting environment for rule-breaking experimentation. It also included leadership development for innovation through specialist guidance of the senior management team.

Thinking outside the box

Service design encourages people to get alternative perspectives and develop creative solutions that go beyond their usual comfort zones. By doing so, it has the potential to positively transform public sector service delivery and improve efficiency. In effect, service design is all about viewing things from a different angle, which – as Albert Einstein observed – can often open up new possibilities:

“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our previous blog on service design.

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From data to intelligence and improvement – what cutting edge councils are doing in the UK

Group of workers having a meeting

By Steven McGinty

Data has the potential to revolutionise the delivery of local services. Just like the private sector – where organisations such as Amazon and Facebook have leveraged user data – local councils have the opportunity to reap significant benefits from analysing their vast silos of data. Improving efficiencies, increasing levels of transparency, and providing services which better meet people’s needs, are just some of the potential benefits.

Although many councils are still at the early stages of utilising their data, some are innovating and introducing successful data initiatives.

Wise Councils

In November 2016, the charity NESTA published a report highlighting the most ‘pioneering’ uses of data in local government. The report emphasised that most local services would benefit from data analysis and that a ‘problem-oriented’ approach is required to generate insights that have an impact on services. The case studies included:

Kent County Council

Kent County Council (KCC), alongside Kent’s seven Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), have created the Kent Integrated Dataset (KID) – one of the largest health and care databases in the UK, covering the records of 1.5 million people. The core requirement of the dataset was to link data from multiple sources to a particular individual, i.e. that information held about a person in hospital, should also be linked to records held by other public bodies such as GPs or the police.

This integrated dataset has enabled the council to run sophisticated data analysis, helping them to evaluate the effectiveness of services and to inform decisions on where to locate services. For example, Kent’s Public Health team investigated the impact of home safety visits by Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS) on attendances at accident and emergency services (A&E). The data suggested that home safety visits did not have a significant impact on an individual’s attendance at A&E.

Leeds City Council

Leeds City Council have focused their efforts on supporting open innovation – the concept that good ideas may come from outside an organisation. This involved the initiatives:

  • Data Mill North (DMN) – this collaborative project between the city council and private sector is the city’s open data portal (growing from 50 datasets in 2014 to over 300 data sets, in over 40 different organisations). To encourage a culture change, Leeds City Council introduced an ‘open by default’ policy in November 2015, requiring all employees to make data available to the public. A number of products have been developed from data published on DMN, including StreetWise.life, which provides local information online, such as hospital locations, road accidents, and incidents of crime.
  • Innovation Labs – the city has introduced a series of events that bring together local developers and ‘civic enthusiasts’ to tackle public policy problems. Leeds City Council has also provided funding, allowing some ideas to be developed into prototypes. For example, the waste innovation lab created the app, Leeds Bins, which informs residents which days their bins should be put out for collection.

Newcastle City Council

Newcastle City Council have taken a data-led approach to the redesign of their children’s services. The Family Insights Programme (FIP) used data analysis to better understand the demand and expenditure patterns in the children’s social care system. Its aim was to use this insight to support the redesign of services and to reduce the city’s high re-referrals and the number of children becoming looked-after.

The FIP uses data in three different ways:

  • Grouping families by need – The council have undertaken cluster analysis to identify common grouping of concerning behaviours, such as a child’s challenging behaviour or risk of physical abuse. When a child is referred to long term social work, senior social workers analyse the concerning behaviours of the case, and then make a referral to a specialist social work unit. Since introducing this data-led approach, social work units have been organised based on needs and concerning behaviours. This has resulted in social workers becoming specialists in supporting particular needs and behaviours, providing greater expertise in the management of cases.
  • Embedding data analysts – Each social work unit has an embedded data analyst, who works alongside social workers. Their role is to test what works, as well as providing insights into common patterns for families.
  • Enabling intelligent case management – Social workers have access to ChildSat, a tool which social workers use to help manage their cases. It also has the capability to monitor the performance of individual social work units.

Investing in data

Tom Symons, principal researcher in government innovation at Nesta, has suggested that councils need support from central government if they are to accelerate their use of data. He’s suggested that £4 million – just £1% of the Government Digital Service (GDS) budget – is spent on pilot schemes to embed data specialists into councils.

Mr Symons has also proposed that all combined authorities should develop Offices of Data Analytics, to support data analysis across counties. Over the past few months, Nesta has been working on this idea with the Greater London Authority, and a number of London boroughs, to tackle the problem of unlicensed HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation). Early insights highlight that data analytics could be used to show that new services would provide value for money.

Final thoughts  

After successive years of cuts, there has never been a greater need for adopting a data-led approach. Although there are undoubtedly challenges in using council data – including changing a culture where data sharing is not the norm, and data protection – the above examples highlight that overcoming these challenges is achievable, and that data analysis can be used to bring benefits to local councils.


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 digital articles. 

Innovation – just another meaningless buzzword?

Innovation Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

By Heather Cameron

As one of the trendiest terms of recent times, innovation has become familiar across the business world. But has its excessive use to refer to anything new effectively made the term a meaningless buzzword?

Lack of meaning

Certainly, critics argue that innovation is overvalued by its promoters and that it is what follows innovation that is really important.

An article published in Aeon magazine last year discusses this view. It highlights that over the last decade questions have been raised over the intrinsic value of innovation, citing a number of statements, including:

‘Innovation is in grave danger of becoming the latest overused buzzword’

‘Innovation died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve… In the end, “Innovation” proved to be weak as both a tactic and strategy in the face of economic and social turmoil.’

Even a professional innovation consultant interviewed for the Wall Street Journal said he had advised his clients to ban the word at their companies, describing it as just a ‘word to hide the lack of substance’.

The article suggests that maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the labour that sustains functioning and efficient infrastructures, has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

Indeed, an idea can be argued to be of little value on its own.

Meaningless or misinterpreted?

An array of definitions can be found for innovation, perhaps the most widely referred to being that of the OECD:

‘the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations’

The important term here is implementation. Other definitions similarly refer to innovation as the implementation of such things that add value. Therefore innovation isn’t just about the new idea/technology/process, it is about the application of it and the outcomes it achieves.

As a recent blog in the Huffington Post noted, while being ‘new’ matters to the definition of innovation, ‘it is far less important than the description of what’s achieved through innovation’.

With so many definitions, it is hardly surprising that innovation has not only been overused but has often been misused. In particular, it has often been used instead of invention. The difference between these two terms is that an invention is the creation of an idea whereas innovation is an activity or process that adds value.

As the Aeon article suggests, innovation isn’t technology and that highlighting maintenance ‘involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends‘.

Final thoughts

Perhaps the Aeon article’s conclusion sums things up pretty well:

Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer.

Rather than labelling innovation as meaningless, perhaps it is more accurate to say that innovation means little on its own.


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