Re-imagining our Urban Futures: 10 groundbreaking research projects


8 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Arts & Culture

Re-imagining our urban futures

The concept of placemaking is not a new one. From the 1960s, the pioneering Project for Public Spaces have focussed on making urban spaces accessible, interactive and inviting for the public. Fifty years on, placemaking projects of all kinds are visible across most urban landscapes, from outdoor pianos and giant board games in city centres to sun loungers in business parks to storytelling and art in public spaces.

Placemaking isn’t solely a physical or visible pursuit: it can include digitally enabled experiences too. Digital placemaking shares much of the same philosophy as its non-digital counterpart, but explores the territory between visceral, tactile experiences and a layer powered by technology. This ‘hybrid space’ urges us to think about places differently, not simply in terms of what we can see and touch, but how location-specific digital technologies can enhance our experience of being in a place.

The Calvium team has been investigating these concepts for years and often shares insights from our own work – most recently the report Ideascape: Digital Placemaking for Porth Teigr, which concentrates on digital placemaking and urban regeneration. However, fascinating and valuable projects are being undertaken around the world that explore how the creative use of digital technologies can enhance everyone’s experience of cities. I’ve selected some of the ones that I find the most interesting and useful: projects with the potential to change how we live in and interact with our cities.


With a strong focus on ‘citizen empowerment’ and ‘high-impact engagement’, Umbrellium creates urban technologies which bridge the gap between people and places. Their ‘Starling Crossing’ project is a great example:

By taking a pedestrian crossing and transforming it into a responsive, dynamic, real-time crossing point, Umbrellium have shown how cities can be adapted to put people first, and ultimately increase their safety. The temporary installation in South London utilised Neural Network Technology to distinguish between vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, and accurately anticipate and respond in real-time to their movements, creating a safer road environment for everyone.

Active Public Space (APS)

The objective of APS (co-funded by the EU’s Creative Europe programme), is to develop knowledge around active public spaces. Their installations in major cities like Barcelona, Prague and Vienna have helped to raise public awareness on issues including sustainability, pollution and the importance of greenery in urban spaces.

In Prague, their collaborative Air, Motion, Sound installation consisted of a live performance staged in one of the city’s most polluted areas. The objective of the installation was to highlight the issues of mobility, noise and air pollution, and to encourage public debate.

In addition to promoting Smart Urban Technologies and collaborating with artists, APS actively invest in the future of digital placemaking and urban architecture by offering workshops to develop skills in areas like data visualisation and augmented reality.

Future Cities Lab

Describing themselves as an ‘experimental art and design studio’, Future Cities Lab’s portfolio boasts a diverse range of installations which impressively merge art and technology. From their Light Lines project (an ambient, illuminated outdoor furniture piece) to Datagrove (a ‘whispering wall’ which harnesses and regurgitates information from its urban environment and social media), their work is thought-provoking and interactive, bridging the gap between the individual and the space.

Sidewalk Labs

What would a city built by Google look like? We’ll soon find out. A subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Group, the Sidewalk Labs project is set to be huge in both scope and impact.

Sidewalk’s aim is to ‘make Toronto the global hub for urban innovation’ – with a predicted cost of $1 billion. How? By redeveloping 12 acres of Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront and transforming it into a ‘smart’ high tech city, complete with millions of cameras and sensors which will collect data on everything from air quality and noise levels to whether or not people are using the park benches.

Senseable City Lab, MIT

With their multitude of urban research projects, Senseable City Lab collate valuable information on our ever-changing relationship with the urban landscape. Their projects like ‘Share-ability’ (how urban factors affect the potential for sharing rides like Uberpool) and CityWays (how factors like morphology, traffic and weather influence outdoor human activity in cities), reveal the problems many people in cities experience and how technology can help alleviate the issues.

In SCL’s own words, ‘the way we describe and understand cities is being radically transformed…. The mission of the Senseable City Laboratory – a research initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – is to anticipate these changes and study them from a critical point of view.’

The Mobile City

With a focus on the effects and influence of digital technology on urban living, The Mobile City is an independent research organisation. Their project ‘The Hackable City’ explores how digital media can democratise the process of citymaking.

Based on a regeneration site in the north of Amsterdam, its aim is to discover how members of the public can work collaboratively with designers and local government to create a dynamic, liveable city. The project explores how digital platforms can positively enhance the process of citymaking, and asks ‘whether knowledge sharing and incremental change might be a better way forward than top-down masterplans’.

Designing Resilient Cities

Written by academics at the University of Lancaster, Designing Resilient Cities is the result of a four year, £3.1 million research project, funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on Urban Futures.

The in-depth guide puts forward a concept called the Urban Futures Method, designed to measure the predicted outcomes of urban ‘sustainability solutions’. Looking forward to the year 2050, the publication explores ‘the potential impacts of today’s urban planning and design decisions, and challenges the conventional mainstream approach to sustainability by incorporating changing priorities and different ways of thinking into today’s actions’.

Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism

The inaugural Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism took place from September to November 2017, with representatives attending from cities all over the world. The objective of the 2017 event was to explore and better understand the challenges of modern urbanism, and how technology can help forge a path towards a more sustainable and fairer future.

London Made, Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, 2017 from Alice Masters on Vimeo.

Focusing on ‘issues and proposals, not authors and works’, the event offered a wide range of educational and exploratory experiences, designed to engage both professionals and members of the public. From a Build Your Own Architecture workshop for infants to roundtable talks about urban design, Seoul Biennale aims to democratise the process of how our urban landscapes are shaped.

The Programmable City

Exploring the intricate network between digital technologies, infrastructures and governance in city life, The Programmable City project focuses on how code and data are processed and managed within newly emerging  smart cities.

A recent Programmable City seminar explores the possibilities of data being manipulated if left in the hands of governing powers, and how hyperconnected cities can prevent this problem. In a future where the city itself provides the data, AI would be responsible for analysis and blockchain would reassure the public that the data is safe and unadulterated.

Ambient Literature

Ambient Literature – a collaborative project between UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University, University of Birmingham and Calvium – explores the future of the book and how technology can create an immersive, location-based experience for readers.

The Cartographer’s Confession Launch October 2017 from DCRC on Vimeo.

Building on the power that literature has to mentally transport us to a different time and place, Ambient Literature adds another layer of immersion by using the physical space to enhance the reader’s connection to the story. The project has commissioned three authors to write stories specific to certain locations so that the reader or ‘listener’ can actually physically inhabit the world they’re reading about.


The city has always been at the centre of social and political change – it’s where things happen, and most importantly it’s where people want to be. Nowadays, with so much pressure on resources and space, our cities are at a critical crossroads.

As demonstrated by the projects above, the wealth of research and action being undertaken by independent researchers, government funded initiatives, small businesses, academics and so forth, shows how digital technologies can incrementally, or radically, change our experiences of urban living. As our cityscapes evolve, one thing is for certain – digital placemaking and the emergence of the hybrid space has the power to create more sustainable, connected and pleasurable cities.

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