The cities of the future will talk to us via our smartphones

A researcher monitors a man's response to a particular street-scape. Image: Future Cities Catapult.

Earlier this year, the Future Cities Catapult teamed up with Microsoft and Guide Dogs to conduct "Cities Unlocked": a project, to improve cities for the visually impaired. But, says Claire Mookerjee, it could hold provide benefits for all of us.

Imagine if the city you worked in worked hard for you, too. If signs showed what you needed to know, when you needed to know it; stations didn’t need barriers, because trains and busses already knew you had a ticket; store fronts told you that they stocked an item, just because it was on your shopping list.

It’s not the pipe dream it sounds. With maturing mobile technology, a growing pool of personal data in digital form, and increasingly smart streets, this kind of city experience is an increasing reality. At the Future Cities Catapult, we’ve been working on a project with Microsoft and Guide Dogs to investigate how that idea could be used to help visually impaired people navigate their cities better.

To do that, we wanted to understand how the visually impaired experienced the world; to know what they found confusing, frustrating or, occasionally, helpful. So as part of Cities Unlocked we followed participants, watching them and monitoring their emotional reactions using EEGs to see how urban environments made them feel. Now we know, for instance, that visually impaired people find pedestrianized areas particularly frustrating, while both sighted and non-sighted individuals find green space relaxing.

Armed with those kinds of insights, we worked with Microsoft to build a prototype device, that supplies a 3D soundscape to augment the sounds of the street. Running on a smartphone, the app uses location data and interactions with nearby wireless networks to provide audio cues – about orientation, navigation and nearby points of interest – via a set of bone-conduction headphones, which don’t block out ambient sound. In real-world trials – on a route between Reading and London involving walking, bus and train journeys – participants reported feeling significantly more confident and comfortable in their surroundings when using the device.

But it’s not just the visually impaired that can benefit. Participants in our study all felt happier because they knew more about their surroundings: something we all deserve.

Now, more than ever, our cities can communicate with us about themselves. They can provide information, answer our questions and even express their characters in interesting new ways: that can mean basic navigational prompts in a city we’ve never visited, provided via discrete vibration of a smart watch, or nuanced local knowledge about the vibe of a coffee shop, articulated through music.

The technology’s certainly ready. We each carry a smartphone that’s capable of knowing where we are, sending and receiving large amounts of data, interacting with other devices and logging rich streams of information. Indeed, tools like digital maps are already using much of it to curate digital representations of space for us, to provide the information we most likely need. All of this allows more opportunity to interact with a world of invisible information that currently circulates in our city streets, be it public Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth beacons in shops or Near Field Communication sensors at tills.

So we find ourselves at a tipping point. The technology is woven into our cities, becoming increasingly rich by the day: what we need now is for city leaders to make the most of it and test new ways of using it at scale. With the integrated city systems market up for grabs worth an estimated £200bn by 2030, there’s certainly a huge financial incentive to do so.

Some people are already seizing the opportunity. Take Neatebox: a smartphone app that wirelessly triggers the push-button at a pedestrian crossing when you stand by it for a few seconds. It’s an elegant, if simplistic, example of how wireless networks and proximity data can be used by your smartphone to make life easier. Originally designed for those with disabilities, it could make life more straightforward for all of us.

But we think cities can achieve far more. What if every signpost in the city sensed your presence? Walking towards a sign wouldn’t just allow you to read it more clearly, but also to interact with it: it could point you in the direction of the store you’re already trying to find, tell you how long it will take to get home including the walk to the bus stop or even change language on the fly.

Taken to the extreme, this kind of interconnected city would create opportunities to redesign the public spaces. If a train knows that you’re allowed to be boarding it because you’ve already paid for your travel online, the need for ticketing – and with it the associated kiosks, machines and barriers – simply melts away. Instead, the station can become a more open and inclusive space, which allows for free movement and an emphasis on accessibility, rather than ticket purchase and validation.

That example, of course, requires the use of technology to be absolutely pervasive. But at a smaller scale it’s already happening. Now, it’s time for city leaders to make sure it's done right, in a way that makes citizens lives easier and more enjoyable, while protecting their privacy and security. The city can work hard for us – we just need to make it do so.

Claire Mookerjee is project lead for urbanism at Future Cities Catapult

 
 
 
 

It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.