Interview with Daisy Narayanan: sustainability, innovation, place and technology


10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

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In order to reach net zero emissions by the mid-century and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, society needs radical new models and mindsets. For both society and nature to benefit from new forms of economic growth, we need to rethink our economies and how we consume – and we need to innovate at speed.

With this in mind, Calvium has been speaking with leading figures who work at the intersection of people, place and sustainability, to share their ideas about what can be done to achieve sustainable urban futures.

Daisy Narayanan recently took on the role of Head of Placemaking and Mobility at Edinburgh City Council, bringing with her a wealth of experience in policy and public realm design that she gained through work as an architect and urban designer in India, Singapore, England and Scotland. Prior to that, Daisy was director of urbanism at sustainable transport charity Sustrans. She has been a member of the Edinburgh Climate Commission and Scotland’s Climate Assembly’s Evidence Group, and has recently been awarded an MBE for services to Inclusive Urban Planning.

Photos of Naisy Narayanan and Jo Morrison

In the first of our new series, Daisy talks about the importance of collaboration, joining the dots and how she remains a relentless optimist.

From your experience of working at the intersection of people, place and sustainability for a number of years, have you seen a change of approach/awareness/activity from governments, business and/or civil society and the public?

The short answer is yes, absolutely. There has been a sea change in awareness of the whole agenda around sustainability at all levels – national, local, regional and most importantly the community conversation. This is especially true in the work that I do in sustainable transport. 

Even looking back five years to where we’re at now; from funding across the board right down to citizen community engagement, the whole discussion around walking, cycling and public transport has transformed. It’s brilliant and it’s much-needed. That said, I don’t think it’s changing fast enough and we need to accelerate the pace of change, which means we need to have more difficult conversations quicker and not shy away from that.

Hire bike rack by Waverley train station, Edinburgh

What examples of great practice have you seen, in any area, for example policy, research, activism and so forth?

I call myself a relentless optimist. You look around and things can be quite grim; there have been so many resource pressures and things are difficult because during the pandemic most parts of life are uncertain. But to me, there’s so many shining examples of good work that are happening across the board.

I was a member of the Evidence Group of Scotland’s Climate Assembly, which was a ‘mini Scotland’ citizen’s assembly with demographics reflecting Scotland’s demographic. The youngest member was 16 and the oldest was 83 and it was an incredible process – the first time I’ve been in a place where I could witness this deep dive into how these conversations can happen ‘around the table’, with people with very different life views and experiences. What came out of this online engagement was a series of recommendations to government, which is pretty radical and ambitious. The process was so fantastic to see –  citizen involvement as a citizen assembly.

Scotland’s Climate Assembly is a brilliant example of the conversations required to make change happen. We need people to come together, understand what the problem is, and then to be able to work together to find solutions.

On a more local level, I’m really passionate about making our cities and places safer for women, especially given what’s happened over the past year, so it’s been interesting watching groups that have come from the discussion around safety for women. There is one in particular called InfraSisters in Scotland, which is a small group of women campaigning for safer cycling, especially for women. But it’s not just about cycling, it’s safer streets, and it’s brilliant to see that grassroots community-led voice being really powerful. They push people like me in the public sector to do better and think more widely.

"InfraSisters - cycling for safe streets" banner from Twitter

Who or what inspires you and why?

So many different people have, for different things, but the reason I do what I do has got a lot to do with my mum.

In 2005, she lived in Indonesia and was crossing the road and was involved in a hit and run accident. She was found on the road and had to be flown to a hospital in Singapore and was in a coma for a month and a half. She’s fine now and so inspiring, the way she’s come out of that and made her life. The doctors said she would never be able to walk. Two years after the accident, she walked up the Himalayas and went on a trek.

To see that road violence first hand and the impact of it is so personal. That’s what guided me to doing this work and making sure that I am doing what I can to make our streets safer. She inspires my best work just by being there.

How do you see digital technologies enabling innovation with urban futures?

The future is digital. We’ve seen what happened during Covid; having to relearn so much about the work that we do, how we do things like observations, talking to communities about our work. All of that suddenly had to switch to a new way, whilst at the same time making sure that we are able to reach people who are not digital users.

There is something that we need to bridge in making sure the work that is done within the digital sphere translates into what is required for those of us, either in the public sector or third sector, delivering on the ground. Things change so quickly in the digital world and you’re right at the heart of that. How we can harness that change and shape that change to see how it is used best is critical.

We’ve been using digital tools for community engagement, for example, in my previous role at Sustrans, we used virtual reality in one project so people could come in and actually experience what the street could look like. I’ve seen some work with Edinburgh University channelling digital technology to do some really interesting work.

The future is here and we need to make sure that we are able to join those dots and get it right.

Edinburgh street with pedestrians, cyclist and cars

Fast-tracking tech innovation has been defined by a ‘make things fast and break them’ mentality underpinning practice. This has proven really unhelpful in many ways and has been discredited by many – although the approach persists. When launching tech-enabled products into the public realm e.g. micro-mobility solutions such as rental e-scooters, how can we fast-track innovation in ways that do not cause negative disruption and harm to members of the public?

I’m going to go back to my constant mantra of collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. Not one sector or one group has all the answers. If we’re talking about digital technology or micro- mobility, we need to make sure that all those who are impacted in that sphere – people who contribute to the richness of our places: our communities, residents, businesses, young people – and people who are bringing the digital technology into the sphere – people like us in the public sector who are enabling and facilitating that to happen – are all around the table, understanding what the issues and opportunities are, and then making decisions that allow us to do something that stands the test of time.

I think, sometimes, the issue where things have not had that longevity is when it seemed done by one group as ‘oh look, let’s try this out’ rather than saying ‘let’s all of us get around the table and see what the unintended consequences are and mitigate that at the outset’. So much of what we need to do needs to be true collaboration, otherwise things won’t last as long as they should.

Canal, boat, buildings and green habitat

Which organisations do you feel are doing the most exciting and impactful work regarding environmental sustainability, or civil society? Why might that be?

I think Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, which is out of the Centre for Carbon Innovations part of the University of Edinburgh, is doing a great job in joining the dots in making sure that academia is joined up with the private sector, joined up with the council. Through different projects, it’s great to see the sustainability agenda being brought across the board.

But again, there are so many organisations in Edinburgh especially coming together to work together as a city. We have Edinburgh Climate Commission – a cross-sector group of civic leaders and professional leaders who come together to help steer the city – and they have the Edinburgh Climate Compact, which is getting people to sign up to do sustainable pledges and goals. It brings different sectors together and it allows us to have that conversation. Everybody’s doing their bit. It’s not just a council strategy, it’s for the city. I love that and I love that approach.

Bristol is doing great work. I was invited to speak at the Citizens’ Assembly a year ago and it was amazing again to see how the dots are being joined in Bristol. I worked for Sustrans for nine years, which had offices in Bristol, so it’s a city quite close to my heart as well.

There’s some amazing work happening in Manchester too. It’s great to see the focus on the Bee Network, which is a network of cycling and walking infrastructure. You look further afield to Paris and the incredible speed at which the Mayor has brought change in the city – to see cycling infrastructure transforming the streets from being quite car-dominant to what it is now.

Road junction with graphically added cycle lanes, crossings and pedestrian spaces

I’m leading a research project for the NHS that explores digital placemaking to support health and wellbeing in London. What do you see as the critical aspects of city living that can enhance people’s relationships with their neighbourhoods?

If a place is really well-designed, and everything is right in the shaping of that place, then you shouldn’t be able to notice it; you should just enjoy being there because everything works. The most successful places are the ones where you don’t even notice that there has been a design process around it. If you can design streets where a parent doesn’t need to hold their child’s hand to cross the road and they feel safe enough to let them go, that’s the kind of place that you should be aspiring towards.

The 20-minute neighbourhood work that’s happening at the moment is really interesting. We’re doing it in Edinburgh now and trying to pull that together into a deliverable programme of work. That has been really eye-opening because it’s constructive collaboration. It’s taking that place lens and not just a transport-led solution; it’s about public health, transport, planning, economic development and everything coming together to decide the future vision and delivery of what a good place can be.

That approach – through community involvement as well, because people who live and work in that community are local experts – provides a framework to bring in public health, transport, planning, social justice and all the different pillars that are required to make a successful place.


Thank you Daisy for sharing your time and insights, it has been a pleasure and inspiration to speak with you and learn from you.


Calvium is a member of the SME Climate Hub.

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