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Shaping Newcastle into a smart city

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Major cities around the globe are currently struggling to cope with the need to:

  • improve infrastructure
  • deliver public services
  • cope with changing demographics

At the same time, it is widely recognised that cities can be the engines of future economic growth and there remains untapped potential to create innovative solutions to benefit citizens and businesses.

Across many nations, there is a belief that citizens and businesses – at the heart of coping with change in cities – need to play a greater role in understanding and shaping places, both in:

  1. the decisions made that affect people’s everyday lives
  2. the design and delivery of services

Shaping innovation for city futures: the Newcastle model

Millennium Bridge Gateshead, Photo: Mark Tewdwr-Jones.
Millennium Bridge Gateshead, Photo: Mark Tewdwr-Jones.

Since 2014, our work here in the City of Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead has focused on using the city to develop a new model to shape and deliver a series of innovative projects.

Set up by Newcastle University, and initially funded by the UK Government Office for Science Future of Cities Foresight project, ‘Newcastle City Futures’ (NCF) has taken a long-term future of the city over the next 50 years.

It has:

  • constructed an evidence base of the city’s assets
  • forged partnerships
  • developed cross-sectoral thinking
  • created long term scenarios

NCF was able to scale up its activities after May 2016 when it became one of five Urban Living Partnership (ULP) pilots funded by RCUK and Innovate UK. Led by Newcastle University but partnered by Northumbria University, the NCF now comprises 22 partners covering public, private and third sectors in the city (See Box 1).

NCF has priority themes of:

  • ageing
  • sustainability and infrastructure
  • social renewal
  • young people.

Made up of 12 disciplinary fields, NCF is led by academics leading research council projects, including:

  • EPSRC Centre for Digital Economies
  • AHRC Creative Fuse North East
  • Treasury’s UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure & Cities (UKCRIC)

It is committed to facilitating project development not only within each of these areas, but between them, as this is where there is the greatest innovation potential.

Each theme is underpinned by a commitment to enhance:

  • digital development
  • visualization and imagery for engagement
  • collaborative working

Significant investment supporting whole city development

Councillor Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council, and a principal supporter of Newcastle City Futures initiatives, Photo: Mark Shucksmith.
Councillor Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council, and a principal supporter of Newcastle City Futures initiatives, Photo: Mark Shucksmith.

This joined up approach is timely. Newcastle and Gateshead is undergoing a transformation at present, creating a dynamic test bed city and innovative urban research hub.

In the last 18 months, the city has been at the forefront of a number of significant investments, including the award of three new national centres for:

  • Ageing Science and Innovation (£40 million);
  • Smart Data Institute (£20 million),
  • Energy (£10 million)

These are all located on the Science Central campus in the heart of the city.

Adjacent to the centres, a new £58 million Urban Science Building and a new £20 million Newcastle Laboratory will be completed in 2017. And a £1 billion investment strategy for the Metro and £200 million for investment in the airport have just been announced.

Web of city-related research and development activity

Newcastle City Futures is placed at the heart of a joined-up web of city-related research and development activity.

With a constant requirement to keep diverse groups together on a project by project basis, we expected the ULP to take some time to generate a novel way of working and to become embedded into the consciousness.

But NCF has taken off, and regular ‘mash-ups’ and speed-dating exercises occur to bring diverse sectors together.

There are almost 20 projects now at different stages of design, all brokered by NCF.

These include a desire to:

  • build demonstrators that are digitally enabled homes for an ageing society
  • develop smartphone apps to enable the new design of metro trains suitable for accessibility issues
  • develop green main shopping streets with sustainable urban drainage and digital sensors
  • link more opportunities for children to read earlier with digital opportunities of creative SMEs
  • secure the communication of health and wellbeing issues with a series of arts and cultural practices through urban installations
  • allow infrastructure developments that also address a range of impairments through digital and visual platforms

Businesses outside the city have been in touch wanting to be involved. Organisations not originally part of the ULP have asked to join in and requests have been made to identify areas of potential investment.

Why is the private sector interested in this complex design process?

Simply, because each project:

  • is innovative in form and content
  • links directly into the R&D potential of the universities
  • gives businesses direct access to their potential customers

All of this activity makes Newcastle and Gateshead a hotbed of urban living activity.

Challenges of Newcastle City Futures project

There remain challenges, including:

  • businesses want to invest now, and are not prepared to always wait for 18 months-worth of rigorous academic scrutiny
  • governments are not able to react at speed until metrics have been devised for cost benefit ratios
  • universities can sometimes wonder what they will gain from projects if their role is essentially one of brokerage

Strength: academic project managers build bridges

What the NCF ULP demonstrates, however, is the success of having a number of boundary-spanning academic project managers who liaise, network, support, and shape conversations in the city continually, and want to demonstrate not only what we are good at, but what we are good for.


Mark Tewdwr-Jones is Director of Newcastle City Futures, and Professor of Town Planning at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University.

BOX 1 Newcastle City Futures ULP comprises: Government (Newcastle City Council, Gateshead Council, North East LEP); Industry (IBM, Arjuna, Intu, Newcastle Airport, Nexus, AECOM, Arup, BuroHapold, Zero Carbon Futures, Northumbrian Water, Northern Gas Networks, Northern Power Grid, Federation of Small Businesses, TechCity); and: Public and voluntary sectors (NHS, Newcastle Schools Forum, Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service, Quality of Life Partnership, and the Royal Society of Arts).

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