We’re delighted to share this post from guest blogger Paula White, who is a Software Architect with IBM. Paula lives in London and has a special interest in cities. Here, Paula shares her experience of ‘Innovation in the City,’ the first in a series of future-planning events which took place last week – you can find details of the next event towards the end of this post.

Last week I attended an Innovation in the City event with Urban Design London.  I had been really looking forward to the event and my team and I arrived with the supplies for the workshop to define challenges for housing, transport, planning and streets. The event was attended mostly by local authorities, housing associations, charities and TfL employees.

We heard initially from Steve Haskey, IBM’s Design Studio lead about IBM Design Thinking. The key idea with Design Thinking is to think about people rather than things, and to consider peoples’ needs. It requires empathy. Design thinking can be used in the design of anything, and part of the approach is to put aside constraints and assumptions.

This helps in creating something that is not only functional, but also makes a significant difference to the person using it. Even more vitally it can create real step changes in innovation. Tim Brown, an authority on design thinking, gives the example of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who with his vision of the train gliding through the landscape, being part of an integrated transport system and of real service to society, was a design thinker. Watch Tim Brown’s Ted talk on design thinking here.

In London, as most people will be aware, we are growing at unprecedented rates, with a population of 10 million estimated for 2030. The workshop was to be centred around questions of how our infrastructure will cope, and are there different ways to think about how we will adapt?

The Empathy Map and scenarios for 'Amy,' our fictional character, which got the group thinking about ways to improve her experience of transport in the city

The Empathy Map and scenarios for ‘Amy,’ our fictional character, which got the group thinking about ways to improve her experience of transport in the city


So with our new design thinking hats on, we split into teams and created our own empathy maps, journeys and problems statements around the theme of family and friends. The empathy maps are made up for a fictional character and show what they do, think, say and feel. It help us to identify with that person and start to see latent needs and imagine ways of improving the situation for them.

My group choose Amy, a 29 year old cricket player. We identified new scenarios with an electric self-driving bus to collect players to take them to the match, coaching tactics en route, nutritional advice and better celebrations. We did this with a sense fun, in a fast and furious way – crazy and jovial ideas were allowed too to encourage the creativity – constraints held back for now.

We then heard about some existing innovative projects in our city:

  • Chris Cole, a transport planner from the London borough of Bromley talked passionately about the A21 with all it’s congestion and it’s need for a better capacity – not unlike many roads in London. He is already putting design thinking principles to good use by working on an incubator project to look at new ways to solve this problem. The approach is called tidal flow – the idea being that the road infrastructure can change dynamically to control the traffic in different ways at different times. In particular, he is exploring the use of lights to create road signs, rather than paint, to allow changes as needed throughout the day. There was lots of enthusiasm from the audience and discussion about how these idea could be adopted further in other boroughs too.
  • Trevor Dorling, Assistant Director, from Employment & Skills Digital Greenwich showed videos of self-drive vehicles they have been using. As well as a video from the BBC in the sixties on an innovative self-parking carpark. Just to show the point that innovation isn’t really new either and a continuous journey we take.
  • We heard from Jon Little, a transport consultant, about the Walthamstow Forest borough mini-Holland project. Some bold steps were made here by the local council to temporarily close off various roads that had become rat-runs and run a live consultation using Commonplace – a citizen engagement tool. Turf was laid down in the streets, parked cars moved and people said that the experience was ‘like living in a village again’. By using technology the team were able to reach a broader audience and wider demographics, hearing what both young and old had to say.


However, in order for all the invention from the past and the future to be truly useful, it needs to have peopled-centre outcomes in mind  and not be technology for technology’s sake.

So, for the last part of the day we put our design thinking hats on again. We split into three groups: housing, transport, planning and streets and defined empathy maps, journeys and problems statements. There was some fantastic work looking at the needs and problems of some fictional characters we invented:

  • Bob, who is 40, thinks “Someone should do something to make the streets cleaner, safer and easier for me to park” but is way too busy to report his concerns.
  • Steve who is a 20 year old IT trainee who is bored waiting for the bus and can’t wait to get a car.
  • Pat, 51 divorced with 2 kids who works for the council as a traffic manager, juggling home and work life.
  • And another Steve who is 45 years old, is a stressed planner feeling a bit overwhelmed and frustrated by the amount of process to follow and amount of data to synthesise.

We are now writing up the workshop and looking at how to use it as a starting point to define some digital challenges for London. We hope for this to take the form of some sort of competition to create applications to help make our city even better.

This event was just one in a series that are being conducted by UDL in partnership with IBM and UCL. The next is the innovation in the city events in September. Please watch out for more and enrol via UDL.

All views expressed in this blog are my own. If you have any questions or comments on this event, or those coming up, I can be contacted at paula.white@uk.ibm.com or on Twitter: @ukpwhite.

Paula White.

Posted by Stephen Irvine

Stephen is the Community Manager and Digital Blog editor for Transport for London

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