Changing government, changing society: what now for public innovation?

Image: CC Ross Findon via Unsplash

States of Change is an independent, global non-profit organisation which focuses on supporting and promoting learning around public innovation. During June, they hosted an online festival, bringing together practitioners, academics and policymakers from around the world in conversation. The recordings of all the sessions are still available online and in this blog we reflect on some of the discussions.

In the UK, we’ve seen over the last decade the growth and mainstreaming of government-supported initiatives, such as the network of What Works centres, and innovation centres such as Y Lab in Wales.

We’ve also seen the high profile introduction and use of agile methods and service design approaches, such as in the Government Digital Service and Gov.UK.

The question remains, however, how to build capacity for innovation at all levels of government and the public sector. To be successful this requires public sector managers and employees to be supported to develop the skills, mindset and culture that enables innovation.

We’ve written before on this blog about the transformational approach to public sector innovation in countries such as Singapore and Estonia. And during the States of Change Learning Festival there were some great discussions on international experiences. Of particular note, given the current UK Government’s stated desire to reform the civil service, was a webinar on How Singapore Learns, which explored how the Singapore government had, over a number of years, developed capabilities for forward thinking, openness to new ideas and agility.

From ideas to practice

Charles Landry, famous for developing the concept of the creative city, participated in a discussion during the festival on what being creative at an organisational or system-wide level actually means. He noted that what the current pandemic has done to generate urgency and a sense of focus within public sector systems, which may have included toying with small tweaks to bureaucracies, or taking an innovation approach built on numerous small-scale pilots or projects.

There were also sessions looking at tools and methodologies for public innovation, such as behavioural science and public innovation labs. And a discussion between Aarathi Krishnan and Panthea Lee highlighted the need for those working in government to recognise their own privilege. Questions such as “whose voices are we hearing and who is out in the cold?” and “who’s in the room when we ‘imagine’ new futures and how are we making the future just and equitable?” may seem challenging but they are necessary in order to build a different and better future.

How governments think

Another thought-provoking session was a conversation between Geoff Mulgan (Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation) and Aaron Maniam (Deputy Secretary in the Singapore Government) on how governments “think”. Mulgan highlighted two challenges for government that have been brought to the fore during the pandemic. Firstly, there is a need for new skills and transparent communication about the use of competing and often contradictory knowledge in decision making. Secondly, there’s a need for a new ecosystem of data governance, which would offer protection and public trust about the use of personal data by government. Interestingly, the session also highlighted the differing use of metaphors and language to describe the role of government. How ‘government’ is talked about shapes our view on what it could and should do. For example, is government a brain, or a war machine, or a facilitator, or a steward for future generations?

Evolving public innovation

The COVID crisis has forced rapid advances in how governments observe, make sense of patterns, use models and plan big interventions. They’ve had to make use of data of all kinds, draw on complex scientific advice, and mobilise local and national systems all while maintaining public trust and compliance.

As we move into the recovery planning phase, there is now a need for medium-term and longer-term visions on how every policy area could be different in the future, from health to social care to education to transport to urban planning. This use of the imagination has traditionally been seen as the specialist realm of futurists and horizon scanners. It also requires strong storytelling, to create confidence and acceptance of change. Whether governments around the world are able to leverage new visions, will determine whether the rapid changes we have seen in response to COVID-19 will lead to genuine positive transformations or ultimately just a return to the status quo.


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“Talent without Limits”: the impact of apprenticeships in Scotland

by Scott Faulds

Over the past six years, Skills Development Scotland has been working to increase the number of people starting apprenticeships across Scotland. Recent statistics have revealed that they are on track to meet their target of 30,000 new apprenticeship starts by the end of the financial year 2020. The provision of apprenticeships has been a key element of the Scottish Government’s youth employment strategy , which highlights the government’s belief that apprenticeships are an excellent opportunity for young people to gains skills, experience and a qualification while in employment.

This week (2nd March to 6th March) Skills Development Scotland has launched Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2020, with the theme “Talent without limits”, designed to celebrate the benefits apprenticeships bring to businesses, individuals and the economy. This blog will explore the impact of apprenticeships on business, education providers and young people in Scotland. It will also consider the benefits of work-based learning, graduate apprenticeships and workplace diversity.

Work-based learning

The availability of good-quality apprenticeships allows those who may not be interested in pursuing further education an alternative route in which to gain a formal qualification whilst gaining experience in the world of work. This is known as work-based learning, which is widely considered to be beneficial to the apprentice, education provider, employer and the wider economy.

According to research conducted by the European Training Foundation, workplaces where employees are constantly learning new skills tend to be more productive, more profitable and have lower staff turnover. A recent survey conducted by Skills Development Scotland found that 83% of modern apprentice employers agree that apprenticeships have improved productivity, whilst 79% said that employing apprentices improved staff morale.

Additionally, work-based learning has been found to improve the job prospects of learners, allowing them to build relationships with employers who may offer them full-time positions on completion of their apprenticeship.

The development of apprenticeship programmes allows employers and education providers to develop a close working relationship, which enables a better understanding of the skills required by the labour market. This allows for the creation of educational programmes that are more relevant to the demands of all employers, not just those who operate apprenticeship schemes. As a result, the skills developed by apprentices will be directly relevant to the skills required by the labour market. This could potentially improve the likelihood of securing a job following the completion of an apprenticeship. Thus, it can be said that work-based learning features benefits for apprentices, education providers, business and the wider economy.

Skills, growth sectors and graduate apprenticeships

Apprenticeship schemes provide the government with an opportunity to improve the collective skill base of Scotland by encouraging the development of apprenticeship opportunities in key sectors and areas which have the potential to generate economic growth. For example, analysis conducted by Oxford Economics has found that there will be a 4% growth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related roles in Scotland from 2015 to 2027. This equates to the creation of approximately 42,600 skilled jobs.

Therefore, it is of no surprise that the Scottish Government has been focused on trying to increase the number of apprenticeship opportunities available in STEM roles. In the past year alone, four out of ten modern apprenticeship starts, and the vast majority of all graduate apprenticeship starts, have been in STEM occupations.

Traditionally, securing a STEM role would require a formal qualification secured via an academic route, which can often be costly and take up to four years. Research conducted by Ekosgen has revealed that there has been a decline in the number of pupils studying and passing STEM-related subjects at schools and a decline in STEM enrolments in Scottish colleges. As a result, the traditional academic route in which to secure a STEM role may not be able to produce enough STEM-qualified individuals to meet the demands of industry.

In order to meet the demand for skilled workers, Skills Development Scotland has worked with industry and education partners to develop graduate apprenticeship schemes. These apprenticeships offer people the opportunity to gain up to a Master’s degree qualification in subjects such as civil engineering, data science and software development. The development of this model of apprenticeship has been praised by organisations such as PwC, Aegon and Universities Scotland, as a vital way in which to develop a highly-skilled workforce that will meet the demands of the growing STEM sector.

Diversity and equality

A key theme identified by the Scottish Government within their youth employment strategy is the need to develop clearer routes into apprenticeships for those from previously under-represented groups. The strategy explicitly discusses the need to increase the number of apprenticeship starts from minority ethnic communities, young disabled people, looked after children and a desire to improve the gender balance of apprenticeships (particularly those in male-dominated sectors).

According to Skills Development Scotland’s recent Apprenticeship Equality Action Plan, efforts to improve under-represented groups’ access to apprenticeships have had mixed results. Over the past four years, the number of disabled and BME (Black and minority ethnic) individuals starting modern apprenticeships has risen year on year. However, 72% of modern apprenticeship frameworks continue to have a gender imbalance of 75:25 or worse. This is particularly prevalent within the construction sector where only 2% of participants are female. Additionally, there has been a slight decrease in the number of care experienced people starting modern apprenticeships. Therefore, it is evident that whilst some progress has been made at improving the diversity of individuals starting an apprenticeship, there is still work to be done, particularly when it comes to improving gender balance.

Recent research has highlighted that diversity is essential for organisations who are looking to foster a culture of sustainable innovation. As previously discussed, future jobs are likely to be created in innovative STEM-related sectors, and therefore the need to improve under-represented groups’ access to apprenticeships will be vital to ensure that the quality of the Scottish workforce is able to meet the demand of growing innovative industry.

Final thoughts

In summary, the provision of apprenticeships has had a great deal of impact across Scotland. From developing the skill base of Scotland’s workforce to helping to improve the relationship between industry and education providers, the impact of apprenticeships goes far beyond providing young people with access to work-based learning and a formal qualification.

However, work still needs to be done to improve under-represented groups’ access to apprenticeships. Diversity has repeatedly been shown to increase workplace creativity and performance. Both of these traits will be critical in ensuring that Scotland is able to develop a workforce that can meet the needs of the innovative industries set to experience growth in the future.  


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Spinout success: commercialising academic research

Research and teaching in UK universities is widely recognised to be among the best in the world.  In fact, the University of Oxford has topped the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 for the fourth year in a row.

However, in November last year, venture capital firm Octopus Ventures published a new measure of UK universities’ success – the Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking.

Instead of focusing on traditional measures of success, such as research, teaching and citation impact, Octopus Ventures’ new index measures UK universities’ effectiveness at translating this research into commercial success via the creation of “quality, investor-ready spinout companies”.

The results are a little surprising – with Queen’s University Belfast reaching the top spot, ahead of big players such as the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.

In this blog post, we consider these findings in more detail, and discuss the potential to further capitalise on the potential of spinouts in the UK, and the key factors that underpin their success.

A brief history of spinouts

A university spinout has been defined by Octopus Ventures asa registered company set up to exploit intellectual property (IP) that has originated from within a university”.

In other words, it is a company that has been established based on ideas derived from a university’s research.  Often, former or current researchers are directly involved in the management team, and start-up funding is provided by the university (or one of its connected venture funds).

UK universities have been allowed to commercialise the results of their research since the mid-1980s. Between 2003 and 2018, approximately 3000 IP-based spinouts were created by UK universities.

Since 2010, there has been a notable increase in investment into university spinouts – both in terms of the number of deals achieved and the amount of money invested in university spinouts, from both private and public investment sources.

High rates of success

There is good reason for this increased investment – the survival rates of spinouts are high compared to other types of start up enterprise.  Research published in 2018 by law firm Anderson Law found that nine out of ten spinouts survive beyond five years.  By way of comparison, only two out of ten new enterprises survive beyond five years in the wider start-up environment.

Indeed, many spinouts not only survive, but thrive.  The UK has produced a large number of very successful spinouts – for example, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a University of Oxford spin-out company that has gone on to reach a £1.5 billion valuation.  ARM Holdings is another example – a designer of smartphone chips, established by the University of Cambridge, and acquired by Japanese firm Softbank for £24 billion in 2018.

Unrealised opportunities

However, while the UK has seen a number of high profile spinout success stories, Octopus Ventures, argue that there is yet more untapped potential to be realised:

The UK has produced a host of successful university spinouts, but there are many unrealised opportunities that have been left in labs or got lost on their funding journey. These could be worth trillions of pounds to the UK economy.”

This potential is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the unrivalled success of many universities in the United States.  Take, for example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  MIT has been the genesis for around 26,000 spinout companies, with a combined annual company turnover of US$2 trillion.  This is a huge amount from one university – and is equivalent to around 65% of the UK’s entire annual GDP!  The resultant spinouts have also created in the region of 3.3 million jobs. MIT clearly illustrates the huge potential that exists to capitalise on universities’ research.

Index results

Back in the UK, this massive potential has yet to be realised.  Indeed, one of the key aims of the new Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking is to identify where this potential exists, and which universities are making notable progress towards capitalising on it.

The key data points included are:

  • total funding per university;
  • total spinouts created per university;
  • total disclosures per university;
  • total patents per university;
  • total sales from spinouts per university.

An interesting element of the index is that it is also adjusted to account for the total funding that a university receives.  This means that it is not dominated by Russell Group universities simply on the basis of them receiving the most funding.

Indeed, Queen’s University Belfast was ranked first – putting it ahead of both the University of Cambridge (2nd place) and the University of Oxford (9th place) in terms of its production of spinout companies and successful exits, relative to the total funding received.

Queen’s University Belfast, through QUBIS Ltd, the university’s commercialisation arm, has had a number of spinout successes, including KainosAndor Technology, and Fusion Antibodies, all of which have been listed on the London Stock Exchange.

In Scotland, the highest ranking university was the University of Dundee (6th), which has had a number of successful spinouts, including Platinum Informatics, which specialises in the provision of software to analyse ‘big data’.

What makes a successful spinout company?

As well as identifying the most effective universities in terms of spinouts, the Octopus Ventures report also looks at the shared success factors that have contributed to their effectiveness.

There are three key factors:

  • Funding – Access to early funding is essential to success. Universities that ranked highly in the index were ones that raised funds to help get ideas off the drawing board. As Simon King, a partner in Octopus Ventures states: “Universities that enable early-stage proof of concepts and prototyping by making early-stage funds available, either internally through their own funds or through collaborative schemes with other funds are more successful at creating spinouts.  That’s a key takeaway.”
  • Talent – the issue of talent is considered a ‘consistently challenging’ issue for spinouts.  There is a huge demand for the right skills, and spinouts are often viewed as being high-risk propositions compared to more established enterprises.  Other challenges include a lack of academics’ understanding of the business world, and limited incentives for them to engage in the commercial world in light of the pressure to ‘publish or perish’.
  • Collaboration – As well as university-industry collaboration, collaboration between different universities was a key factor in the creation of successful spinouts. Collaboration helps to increase both scale and capacity, whilst also helping to attract and retain top talent.

Future support for spinouts

Measuring the relative effectiveness of UK universities’ ability to commercialise their research provides a number of signposts for the future in regards to how best to support and further develop this potential.

This is increasingly important given the economic uncertainties surrounding Brexit and the availability of a number of European funding streams once the UK leaves the European Union.

The UK’s Industrial Strategy places a clear emphasis on academic entrepreneurialism as a driver of economic growth.  And in 2018, the UK Government launched the £100m Connecting Capability Fund to support university collaboration in research commercialisation.

Commercialising academic research is far more complex, risky and expensive than establishing a typical start-up.  But their potential contribution to the economy, and wider society, is huge.


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Former Universities Minister sets out plan to increase R&D funding in the UK

The relationship between the Government, the private sector and universities in promoting R&D and the commercialisation of research is explored in a new report by former Universities Minister and Visiting Professor at King’s College London, David Willetts.

The report, published by The Policy Institute at King’s College London, sets out his personal view of the current state of research funding policy. While welcoming cross-party plans to raise R&D spending from 1.7% of the UK’s GDP to 2.4%, the report proposes a series of measures and guiding principles that would help Government to both achieve this ambition and further strengthen the UK’s research sector.

Boosting R&D funding

The plan identifies priority areas of additional funding, in particular the need for a ‘substantial increase’ in the core budgets of the Research Councils, covering a wide range of disciplines.

However, the report goes further and suggests that the current political consensus regarding the need for more funding for R&D should also be used to tackle some of the nation’s biggest and longest-running research challenges, particularly applying and commercialising research. Overall, the system should be well-balanced between the pursuit of fundamental understanding and of usefulness.

Willetts argues that some of the UK’s problems in applying research (in comparison to other countries) arise because much more of our research is conducted in universities where the incentives work against successful commercialisation. This includes the emphasis on academic publication as a measure of performance.

At the core of the report is a 12-point plan designed to boost British science and technology and ultimately attain more value from it.

University research:

  • Fund the full economic cost of a research project instead of the current 80%.
  • Announce that counting start-ups is no measure of a university’s performance in promoting innovation.
  • Discourage universities from going for such big stakes in companies created by their academic staff, which is currently a barrier to private investment.
  • Remove the requirement that all eligible researchers should be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework – to boost practical applied research and cut bureaucracy in academies.

Non-university research

  • Create a pot of public funding to support catapults, technology parks and other non-university institutes.
  • Restore greater freedoms to public research establishments.

Key technologies

  • Immediately launch government investment in key technologies.
  • Create a new technology strategy based on expert horizon scanning for new technologies.

Business

  • Boost Innovate UK’s SMART awards budget by around £300 million a year.
  • Better align bodies such as Innovate UK, the British Business Bank and Business Growth Fund so that new technology companies can access funding schemes more easily.
  • Insist that 1% of public procurement budgets for large infrastructure programmes is used to promote innovation.
  • Simplify Research Council grant processes and speed up how UKRI investments are reviewed and approved.

A strategic approach to innovation

The report also examines Conservative Party proposals to introduce a British version of the American DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The history of ARPA/DARPA in the US has been characterised by an approach which is free from the constraints of peer review and more able to support risky projects with a significant chance of failure. The report outlines how such a body might work in the UK, and states that lessons could be learned from how confidently US funders track and invest in technology compared with a relative lack of confidence and doubts about the UK’s capabilities that exists within the UK.

Promoting the UK’s research community

Launching the report David Willetts said: “These proposals are intended to promote one of Britain’s greatest single intellectual and cultural achievements – the vigour and creativeness of our research community. From producing Nobel Prize winners to supporting technicians maintaining and developing the kit which makes their discoveries possible, excellent R&D underpins Britain’s distinctive and wide-ranging research base. But we need to ensure extra funding is well-spent, enabling us to harness research to create wealth and prosperity to boost our living standards in the future. This 12-point plan shows how we could achieve that.”


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‘Digital prescribing’ – could tech provide the solution to loneliness in older people?

Notruf und Hilfe für Rentner und Kranke

The number of over-50s experiencing loneliness could reach two million by 2026. This compares to around 1.4 million in 2016/7 – a 49% increase in 10 years.

It has also been estimated that around 1.5 million people aged 50 and over are ‘chronically lonely.’

With an ageing population and increasing life expectancy, it would seem likely that loneliness among older people is set to continue; unless something significant is done. According to Age UK, tackling loneliness requires more than social activities. A new report from Vodafone suggests technology could be the answer.

Impact

The impact of loneliness in older people can be immense, not only for the older people themselves but for those around them. It can also put strain on the NHS, employers and organisations providing support to people who are lonely; and have a negative impact on growth and living standards.

Research has suggested that those experiencing social isolation and loneliness are at increased risk of developing health conditions such as dementia and depression, as well as increased risk of mortality. The damaging health effect of loneliness has been shown to be comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Older people who are lonely are therefore more likely to use health services than those who are never lonely.

The economic impact is also significant. It has been estimated that increases in service usage create a cost to the public sector of an average £12,000 per person over the medium term (15 years). Vodafone’s report suggests that loneliness has a £1 billion a year impact on public services. It has also been found to cost employers £2.5 billion per year.

How tech can ease the burden

According to Vodafone, “new technologies are a key part of the solution” alongside more traditional public and community services. Two key routes through which technology can be used to reduce loneliness are highlighted:

  • by supporting older people to remain independent in their home and community; and
  • maintaining and building networks and contacts.

From wearable devices and touchscreens to personal robots that act as the eyes, ears and voice of people unable to present physically, these are all highlighted as viable and positive uses of tech to ease the burden of loneliness. And there are already a number of examples of innovative use of technology that can benefit older people.

1024px-AV1

No Isolation AV1 robot. Image by Mats Hartvig Abrahamsen, via CC BY-SA 4.0

Good practice examples

One such example is Vodafone’s smart wearable wristband, the V-SOS Band, which supports independent living while also increasing the wearer’s safety. It can directly alert family members via their phone if the wearer needs help. It also uses fall detection technology so that families can be alerted automatically if the wearer falls either in the home or when they are out.

Kraydel is another example. Its smart TV-top hub links elderly people to their carers or family members, through their TV screens, helping people be more independent and remain in their own homes for longer as well as helping them be more socially connected. It provides for user-friendly video calling via the TV and can help people return home from hospital earlier. Via connection to the cloud, the device interprets the data it receives to build up a picture of the user’s daily activities, health and wellbeing. It issues medicine and diary reminders, and alerts caregivers if it sees something amiss, or identifies potential risk.

Although aimed at children, No Isolation’s AV1 – a smart robot designed to reduce the risks of children and young adults with long-term illness becoming socially isolated – demonstrates the positive impact innovative technology can have on social isolation and loneliness. The robot avatar, with its 360 degree camera, acts as the child’s eyes, ears and voice in the classroom or at other events, keeping children closely involved with school and in touch with their friends.

Of course, loneliness is particularly prevalent among people who don’t use smart technology such as smart phones and tablets, one of the reasons cited by Kraydel for using the TV – probably the most familiar and widely used screen globally. This issue also led No Isolation to develop KOMP, a communication device for seniors that requires no prior digital skills. It enables users to receive photos, messages and video calls from their children and grandchildren, operated by one single button.

Another new project recently launched in Sweden – considered one of the world’s loneliest countries – uses a unique conversational artificial intelligence which enables older people to capture life stories for future generations while providing companionship. Memory Lane works with Google Voice Assistant and is able to hold meaningful conversations in as human a way as possible. A pilot test showed that the software “instantly sparked intimate conversations” and led to stories that hadn’t been told before.

Final thoughts

With a significant number of older people lacking confidence in their ability to use technology for essential online activities, support for digital skills is obviously still important. In response to this issue, Vodafone has launched free masterclasses across the UK, as part of a programme called TechConnect.

Many of the above innovative examples bypass the traditional barriers to realising the potential of technology in reducing loneliness as most:

  • don’t rely on older people engaging directly with the technology; and
  • are based on mobile technology that can be constantly connected, whether inside or outside the home.

However, there is still the issue of awareness of such technologies and their accessibility to older people. The Vodafone report suggests that access could be improved through social and digital prescribing and revitalising support for independent living, and calls for a challenge fund to support innovation. It is suggested that these innovative ideas are just the start and that combined action is needed from across all levels of government, business and community groups, amongst others.

Perhaps if such action is taken to address existing barriers, we will see a reverse in the loneliness trend over the next 10 years.


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Engaging the ‘silent majority’ in planning: is digital the answer?

It has long been a concern that traditional planning consultation methods do not adequately capture the views of the majority.

Instead, they tend to be dominated by individuals with certain characteristics – typically older people or retirees, with high disposable income and social capital, and the time and means to attend in person.

This is partially because traditional planning consultation methods, such as public exhibitions, mainly involve individuals physically attending events at pre-specified places and times.

Younger people, students, people with disabilities, and working families with or without children, may find it difficult to attend and engage with such consultation methods.

In addition to this – people are also more likely to engage with the planning system when they are opposed to something.  Research by Shelter found that people opposed to local housebuilding were three times more likely to actively oppose an application than supporters were to actively support it (21% compared to 7%).

However, the majority of people surveyed were actually supportive or neutral regarding local house building.  This means that in many cases, there is a ‘silent majority’ – people whose voices are not being heard by the planning system.

This ‘silent majority’ often includes young people and others who may have the most to gain from new housing, employment and other benefits created by local developments.

In the rest of this blog, we consider the potential of social media and digital apps to make the planning system more accessible, inclusive and representative.

The potential of social media

Social media is everywhere – and as such it has a huge potential to reach and engage people from all walks of life.

Through adverts or posts in relevant groups, information about developments can be shared, with likes and comments providing feedback.  Short questionnaires or polls can also be administered to help gauge public opinion on a range of matters, such as locations, layouts and designs.

At present, social media is not a widely used planning consultation method – however, there is support for it to become so.

In 2016, a YouGov survey explored local councillors’ attitudes towards the use of social media during public consultation.  It found that:

  • 75% of councillors felt that social media was an important or very important engagement tool
  • 74% believed that social media would add value when reviewing planning applications
  • 60% felt that developers should be doing more to engage with local communities through social media
  • 60% believed social media will increase in importance as a public engagement tool over the next three years

It has been argued that social media is a much more relevant way to share information and consult on development proposals, particularly for young people.

It also has the potential to help overcome many of the time and accessibility barriers that prevent people from attending traditional ‘time and place’ consultation events.  And it has an incredible potential reach too – with Facebook having a total of 44 million active users and Twitter 14 million.

There are, however, some concerns – particularly regarding the verification of an individuals’ locality and the public management of negative comments, particularly as users can remain anonymous.  The potential for cyberactivism against a development and the spread of ‘fake news’ are also concerns.  Social media training would no doubt be required for those using social media to consult on developments.

Innovative apps

In addition to social media, digital apps offer an exciting new way for people to engage with the planning system.

Hailed as ‘Tinder’ for urban planning, CitySwipe is a new digital tool being used in Santa Monica’s downtown area to learn citizens’ preferences and concerns about the city’s urban core.  It enables local residents to swipe left or right to indicate their preferences regarding various different urban development scenarios.  For example, users may be asked to choose between different types of outdoor seating.  The app also covers attitudes towards things such as walking, bike lanes, housing and other such areas of interest to urban planners.

If CitySwipe is Tinder, then TrueViewVisuals can be likened to the Augmented Reality (AR) mobile gaming app ‘Pokémon Go’.  AG is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view of both.  TrueViewVisuals makes use of this to enable users to use their mobile device to view proposed developments in existing locations and is thus particularly useful in assessing their potential visual impact.

Bootlegger is a mobile app originally designed to film live music, which is now also being applied to the urban planning context.  It enables users to collaborate and share their footage with others, and edit them into a single video.   In Berwick-upon-Tweed, Bootlegger has been used to enable members of the public to make their own ­films regarding planning proposals and the neighbourhood area and share them with others.

ChangeExplorer uses location data to provide users with ‘push notifications’ when they enter a geographic location that is subject to redevelopment plans.  Users can then view and comment on the plans, making it much easier for local residents and visitors to have their say on planning decisions.  It has been used successfully by North Tyneside Council, where it was found to be “an effective tool in encouraging participants to think about what they would like to change and for them to feel empowered in raising relevant issues”.

Enhance and evolve

These are just a handful of the ways in which technology can be used to engage young people and others within the ‘silent majority’.  It is an area which is developing all of the time – as recent reports by the Scottish Government, Future City Catapult and the RTPI show.

It also comes at a time where there is wider discussion of the need to make planning more inclusive.  In order to do this, it is essential that the views captured by planning consultations truly represent the needs and preferences of all local residents.

Of course, online engagement cannot replace the need for traditional consultation approaches and techniques entirely.  Instead, they should complement one another, offering both an enhancement and an evolution of the current planning system.  And in doing so, the planning system can meet both the needs and expectations of an increasingly digital world.


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New year, new high street: it’s time to reshape our town centres (part one)

Wigtown town centre © Copyright Jim Barton

One thing is certain. The high street landscape has now irrevocably changed and there is no point clinging on to a sentimental vision of the past. We have to start planning for a bold new world.”

This was the conclusion of the Grimsey Review in 2013.  Five years on and the challenges facing the high street remain – now with the added economic complexities presented by Brexit.

Yet there remains optimism.  In the last year, a number of reviews have been published, illustrating how we can bring town centres and high streets back to life.

In summer last year, an update to the Grimsey Review was published. Its title – ‘It’s time to reshape our town centres’ – is something of a call to arms.

It sets out 25 recommendations to help support the high street to transform “into a complete community hub incorporating health, housing, arts, education, entertainment, leisure, business/office space, as well as some shops, while developing a unique selling proposition (USP)”.

In November, Lichfields also published a number of recommendations for high streets, based on their own research.  Their conclusions echo that of Grimsey: “Town centres and operators within them should embrace online, promote themselves better and develop their own unique selling point(s). They must broaden their offer and attract new anchors and other uses, which make them more family friendly, and improve the overall ‘experience’ for visitors”.  It also highlights a number of examples of innovative practice.

In addition to these, at the end of December, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published the findings and recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel, and a related report by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) – ‘High Streets 2030’.

The IPM report gathered the opinions of local people, including young people, about their town centre, what they would like to see developed, and the related challenges that they perceive.

Over the next two blog posts, we will look at some of these reports’ key recommendations, and highlight some innovative examples of good practice.

A diverse high street

A recent tweet by Fountain Bookstore in the U.S. highlighted the difficulties presented by ‘showrooming’ – where people visit high street stores to view items which they subsequently purchase online, often only for a marginally cheaper price.  The tweet went viral and sparked much debate.

However, realistically, online shopping is not going away – and in recognition of this, it has been widely recommended that high streets should diversify their offer, placing greater focus on services and experiences that cannot be replicated online – including food and drink uses, and leisure facilities, such as cinemas and gyms.

There does appear to be some evidence of this happening in practice – barbershops and beauty salons were ranked first and second respectively in terms of their number of net retail openings in 2017.  And Fountain Bookstore may be pleased to learn that there has been a small increase in the numbers of indepedent booksellers in towns across the UK.

A unique high street

Another key recommendation is for town centres to identify their own unique selling points (USPs).

Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, is a fantastic example of a town that has developed a USP in order to regenerate the community.  In 1998, Wigtown was designated Scotland’s national book town, and it has since become home to a wide range of book-related businesses, including both new and used booksellers, and an annual book festival that attracts many people to the town.

Other towns have sought to capitalise on their heritage to bring people back to the town centre – such as through the relatively new Heritage Action Zones programme and the £55 million fund announced in the 2018 budgetfor heritage-based regeneration, restoring historic high streets to boost retail and bring properties back into use as homes, offices and cultural venues”.

A digital high street

While the ubiquitous growth of technology has presented high streets with some of its key challenges – in the form of online shopping and showrooming – it also presents a number of opportunities.

As well as making the most of click and collect services, many town centres may also be able to capitalise on the ‘clicks to bricks’ phenomenon – where online retailers open physical stores in order to provide their customers with an enhanced experience, such as being able to trial goods before purchasing.

Grimsey 2 also outlines a number of other ways in which high streets can capitalise on technology – from providing free wifi and spaces for freelancers to work/come together, to becoming involved in digital marketing campaigns and gathering/using local datasets.

In Scotland, a number of ‘Digital Town’ pilots have been set up with a view to improving the high street’s digital infrastructure and skills, and supporting high streets to take advantage of these in order to boost tourism and local economies. Related guidance on the development of ‘Digital Towns’ has also been produced.

A well-supported high street

There is also a range of innovative supports for high streets – some more traditional, like business improvement districts, and others more unconventional – such as the growth of popup shops and other supports for local entrepreneurs.  We have discussed the many benefits of markets for town centres in a previous blog post. There have also been various awards and awareness-raising campaigns, such as Love Your Local Market, and the Great British High Street.

Another approach is to use the planning system.  One particularly innovative example of is that of the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ – Scotland’s first Simplifed Planning Zone (SPZ) focusing on town centres.  It was set up in 2015 and built on the success of Glasgow’s award-winning Hillington Park SPZ.

The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle. According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Renfrewshire Council have published a ‘how to’ guide detailing their experience.

To be continued…

These are but a few of the many innovative ideas and experiences that have helped town centres across the country.

In our next post, we will continue this theme and outline some additional ways that town centres can help to address their challenges and increase footfall – through community involvement, good quality, inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street.


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Do planners dream of electric streets?

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

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

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

Out with the old

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

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

Delivery of EV infrastructure through the planning system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges remain

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

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

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

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

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

Innovative solutions

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

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


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

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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