MetroLab Crosses the Pond

Earlier this month, we joined a delegation of midwest city and university officials from MetroLab member cities, the UK Science and Innovation Network and the British Consulate-General, Chicago Prosperity Office for a trip to London, Bristol, and Glasgow.  We set out to learn more about the work these cities and their local universities are doing to develop healthier, safer and more connected communities. In each of the cities visited, the excursion highlighted the innovative partnerships and projects tackling urban challenges.

The movable, sensor enabled floor at the UCL lab PAMELA

In London the group visited PAMELA, a transportation and mobility lab at University College London. The lab has a real-world scale platform for assessing pedestrian movement through the built environment. The lab is covered in sensors and can be outfitted to conduct a wide variety of projects. Recently they built an entire subway car on the platform to record pedestrian activity and model their movements and adjust train time tables accordingly. You can see more pictures and learn more on their website

Sample maker projects from the citizen engagement group at KWMC

In Bristol, joined by leaders from the University of Bristol and Bristol City City Council, we made a trip out to Filwood Green, a sustainably-built business park and home of Knowle West Media Center, a group working with local governments and universities to use technology and the arts to engage with communities. From building homes that allow for the elderly to stay in their neighborhoods to building sensors to detect mold and mildew, Knowle West Media is working on challenges important to Bristol residents. Knowle West is also partnering with the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England to work on research projects focused on the community.

The third and final stop in Glasgow, highlighted the partnerships developed between Glasgow City Council, the University of Glasgow, and the University of Strathclyde, largely spurred by Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2014. The University of Strathclyde is home to the Institute for Future Cities, a hub for urban research and home to the city observatory, which creates urban data visualizations for Glasgow-specific challenges.  Their aim is to provide data-driven context for policymakers focused on topics such as green energy investments, crime, and public health. The University of Glasgow is home to the Urban Big Data Center, a partnership between universities across the UK, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, to collect and manage big data for interdisciplinary research and policymaking for cities.  

Janette Hughes, City Observatory Project Manager shares a data visualization on Glasgow street crime.

The trip was fascinating and we left a few takeaways.  First, both the US and UK have complex — albeit different —  systems of government. As a result, both US and UK cities are expected to deliver results to their residents with differing toolkits.  That has a particular effect on how both US and UK cities manage, integrate, and protect public data. To that end, it is clear that the data systems that we want will not be built overnight.  Instead they’ll be developed through years of hard work, partnership with other levels of government, data standardization, community buy-in, and investment in university partnerships.

Adam Smith at the University of Glasgow

Second, US and UK cities are now dealing with similar economic transitions.  At the University of Glasgow, we paid respects to one of their most famous alumni and professors, Adam Smith.  His theories underpinned the industrial revolution, which transformed the British and later American economies into industrial powerhouses.  Both countries are now dealing with twin effects of their industrial past. First, they are focused on driving sustainability goals by transitioning to cleaner energy and transportation systems.  Second, they are dealing with the social implications of fast-pace economic transition. In London, Bristol, and Glasgow, we heard about the severe health and opportunity gaps that exist across communities —  challenges all too familiar to US cities. 

Managing economic transition brings us to our final takeaway.  Both the US and the UK are increasingly seeing economic growth and opportunity concentrated in cities.  And there are benefits to that: there are tremendous opportunities for collaboration among cities internationally on their pressing priorities —  climate change, transportation, and energy, to name a few. But collaboration can’t just be limited to managing the built and natural environments.  We also must focus on issues like economic dislocation, community empowerment, and the future of work. Our ability to drive equitable long-term growth will rely on our governments’ ability to meaningfully address those important priorities.  

We are lucky to have participated in this amazing trip and look forward to our strengthening partnership with UK cities and universities.  If you are interested in learning more about these projects or partnering with universities or cities mentioned, we’ll be happy to connect you.