Innovation and changeDigital TransformationLearning from Newcastle City Futures

Learning from Newcastle City Futures

What lessons can be learned from the successful Newcastle City Futures project?

Newcastle City Futures (NCF) was established in 2014 by Newcastle University as a collaborative platform to bring together Research and Development potential with long term policy trends and business needs in the city.

In 2015, the City Council established the City Futures Development Group (CFDG) comprising local authorities, universities, the LEP and private sector to think long term about the city’s prospects and research needs. The CFDG reports to the Science City Partnership Board but aims to identify growth opportunities, multi-partner and multi-sector projects, public and business engagement on city futures, and new research projects.

NCF was part funded in 2014-15 by the Government Office for Science Future of Cities Foresight Project, led by Sir Mark Walport and Sir Alan Wilson; its long-term report, Newcastle City Futures 2065, was published in July 2015 identifying evidence and priority themes, and set out the case for Newcastle to be seen as a test-bed city for innovation.

In 2016, NCF became a £1.2m Research Councils UK/Innovate UK Urban Living Partnership (ULP) pilot project (one of only five nationally) that aims to address the future needs of Newcastle and Gateshead through the collaborative design of projects that can be delivered across the city region.

The key themes of the ULP were engagement, visualisation and digital enablement.

Unique project

While it was one of a number of ULPs, the Newcastle project was a unique one according to Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, Director of Newcastle City Futures and Professor of Town Planning at Newcastle University. He said: “This was an unorthodox research project, focusing on outward partnerships and systems thinking, but was a true pilot – the first ever research project that was jointly owned by all seven research councils and Innovate UK, the first to require multi-disciplinary and multi-sector working under the ethos of co-production, and the first to target a specific place.

“We not only had to find ways to link together neighbouring academies, Newcastle University and Northumbria University, but also two neighbouring local authorities, Newcastle City Council and Gateshead Council, set within a region that is known to have its occasional internal rivalry.”

The idea of collaborative working extended to an extensive list of business partners too. “Over the two years of the project, NCF developed its ULP partnerships from 20 to over 180 organisations: 80 per cent of the partners are businesses,” says Tewdwr-Jones. “But, critically, the NCF team also committed a considerable amount of time to develop a spirit of partnership and trust across sectors, to encourage joint working and platforms for the creation of innovative ideas and developments. That spirit of partnership and ethos has also extended within universities across 12 different academic schools, linking social science to arts and humanities, science and technology, and medicine.

“So NCF became something of a mechanism of convenience for the university and its partners, in a space between public, private and community sectors, and between disciplines, a valuable commodity when the gap between agencies and academies can seem to be unbridgeable.”

Some of the key outputs from the project include:

  1. The project team held 196 meetings with 141 different non-academic organisations across the four sectors of the quadruple helix (academia, public, private and community), where over 50 project ideas for the Newcastle Gateshead City Region have been co-created. This has included one-to-one meetings with 36 public sector, 90 private sector, 15 community and voluntary sector organisations, and 37 higher education engagements (beyond Newcastle University).
  2. The collaborative platform of Newcastle City Futures and the co-created project ideas supported successful funding bids and helped leverage over £20m in new investments – a 50 times (so far!) return on the project budget.
  3. Eighteen local workshops have been held involving over 400 participants, and two specific digital engagement exercises attracted 500 children at The Big Draw event, and 3,000 participants and 24,000 website visitors for Metro Futures; specific engagement events for the Pitchside and Future Homes project, plus all the Great Exhibition of the North events this summer.
  4. NCF developed three new digital outputs, a ChangeExplorer planning app, a Brutalist Mapper app, and JigsAudio, all as open source platforms for public downloads and use.
  5. NCF has also formed MoU for Newcastle University with two multinationals – Engie and IBM – on smart cities; the Engie relationship has generated a £500k investment on incubation space for the city council, and the IBM relationship has led to a £400k equivalent investment for the free use of their Bluemix platform for staff, students and startups in the city.
  6. NCF has made a concerted effort to embed the quadruple helix ethos into the city’s governance and created a commitment among partners for Newcastle and Gateshead to be seen as a “test bed city of innovation”, thinking how to marrying up digital possibilities with the city’s needs, as a “smart and socially inclusive city”, through “proof of concept projects” that can be scaled up. This has been legitimised through the agreements of the special purpose governance vehicles, the city council’s City Futures Development Group, and the Newcastle Science City (NSC) Science City Partnership Board.

Successful projects

Over 50 new projects were initiated by Newcastle City Futures, ranging in size, scope and scale. Some are at a mature stage, others are still emerging.

A full list of the projects and their details can be found on the Newcastle City Futures website – but for starters here are three case studies:

Future Homes: Digitally Enabled Sustainable Housing for the Lifecourse

The project is developing new housing exemplars that will combine innovations in flexible living, materials, digital technology and zero/low energy systems to provide supportive homes for everyone at any life-stage. Future Homes fuses a programme of public conversations and citizen centred co-design with scientific research to create a test-bed where entrepreneurs, established businesses and new entrants to the market can develop new solutions that are a step change in urban responses to the biggest global challenges.


  • Comprehensive engagement and co-design process with a wide range of stakeholders
  • £4,429,000 funding secured
  • Project has matured and formalised – it has been incorporated as a CIC (Community Interest Company)

Metro Futures: Digital Train Design for an Inclusive Society

Tyne and Wear Metro is one of the UK’s busiest light rail systems, carrying 40 million passengers a year. Nexus wants to ensure the design of its new fleet reflects the aspirations and needs of people across the community, and throughout their lives.

The project worked with people across Tyne and Wear to understand their needs and develop proposals for future Metrocars through pop up labs and an interactive website. These insights will then be used as designs for new trains and developed with suppliers in 2018/19.


  • DfT approved £337m bid for upgrades to rolling stock – bid was informed by Metro Futures process
  • More than 24,000 visits to the Metro Futures website
  • Over 3,000 ideas submitted by passengers

Parking App for Newcastle City Centre

Newcastle City Futures is working with North East company ProxiSmart and NE1 to develop an app for Newcastle that allows drivers to gain parking credits when they spend money in local shops. The partners are also interested in extending this model to public transport use.

What can we learn from the project?

Now that the project has matured, what can we learn from Future Cities Newcastle? Louise Kempton, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies at Newcastle University and Project Manager at Newcastle City Futures shares some pointers.

  1. We focused our outcomes on 2065 – the reason we looked so far into the future is that it avoids getting hung up on local, immediately sensitive issues. It was far enough into the future to allow us to bypass any tension.
  2. We ensured there was transparency and interaction will stakeholders from the outset. We invited the general public, as well as partners, to shares their views by actively asking them for it and allowing them to deliver their thoughts in whatever medium they wanted – including via drawings. We then ran a Delphi survey to pull out some key themes.
  3. We took a step back to think strategically. The council is having such a tough time with austerity cuts that they’re finding it hard to take a wider look – so as partner we took the lead on helping them to look at the bigger picture. The public sector shouldn’t be afraid to let partners do this.
  4. Don’t be afraid to experiment with technology – and don’t be afraid of failure. Technology can be transformative but it doesn’t always work first time.
  5. Don’t just focus attention on specialists. For example, if we were working on a project about housing, we wouldn’t just bring together people from the housing business community. We would, however, add people from energy, digital, data and so on. By bringing together different disciplines we came out with much more innovative outcomes. We made it a requirement that they had to have at least one representative from each of the four sectors – public, private, academic and community. Crucially, this should happen right at the outset of the project.
  6. Everyone needs a slice of the pie, but no one gets to eat the whole cake. Everybody has to have a reason to be around the table, but the overall project has to be bigger than any one organisation or person.
  7. The private sector is enthusiastic. In fact, we couldn’t cope with the demand. I think that’s because they see the local authority as a bit of maze – this project showed them the way in.
  8. There are some concerns and challenges around overlapping of roles and responsibilities and the need to share, as well as relinquishing some ownership. This has to be overcome very early on.
  9. Don’t start with a fixed endpoint. It was open-ended at the outset, which drove greater innovation and creativity.
  10. Innovation happens in the ‘spaces between’ which can be an uncomfortable place to operate. We’ve needed very broad shoulders and have had to take some knocks over the course of the project – but that’s where innovation happens, and you need to be prepared to take it.

For further information on the Newcastle City Futures project head along to

Image courtesy @Northumbria University

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