Towns and cities as a testbed for innovation

By Tom Bridges and Siri Arntzen | 02 June 2020

Our towns and cities are experiencing an extraordinary transformation. While the Covid-19 pandemic has hit local economies hard, there is now a real impetus for towns and cities to use innovation to solve societal challenges and drive growth. Local authorities have already moved at huge pace to keep services running, support vulnerable people, and help businesses. There is now an opportunity to bring together innovators, entrepreneurs and providers of public services to develop solutions to some of the problems our local communities face.

Local authorities are developing plans to re-open town and city centres and high streets, retrofitting them for the next phase where there will be a requirement for continued physical distancing. Now is the time to re-think and innovate as we plan a longer-term economic recovery. This is easier said than done, especially when the emphasis needs to be on moving quickly. Bouncing back better requires practical projects and more room for experimenting while not forgetting to evaluate and gather evidence.

Testbeds provide a solution. Real-world testbeds are defined as “Controlled or bounded environments for testing innovation in real-world, or close to real-world, conditions in the manner (or close to the manner) in which they will be used or operated.” Examples include Milton Keynes’ testbed of robot delivery services, operating since 2018, the way in which smart mobility technologies, such as autonomous shuttles, have been tested at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park; and the recent Isle of Wight drone trials. 

In our research on Testing Innovation in the Real World for Nesta, we looked at a hundred testbeds globally and recommended a framework and design principles on how to create a successful testbed. We suggest six main calls to action:

  1. Encourage all sectors to innovate: Some sectors are usual suspects when it comes to innovation, for example the digital sector. Encourage innovation in other sectors such as social care, retail, highways, waste and housing. Think about how town and city centres can provide a platform for this innovation in the way different services, public sector assets, data and people come together.
  2. Use the testbed approach to get the right people around the table: Testbeds provides a useful framework to collaborate with various stakeholders. When designing a testbed, include property owners, relevant businesses and institutions and agree on the desired outcome.
  3. Involve the public: One of the core benefits of testbeds is that they allow products, services and processes to be tested with the relevant user groups - members of the public. People might be more open to new approaches in this time of disruption.
  4. Allowing to fail fast and improve: Build in evaluation to allow what you are testing to be evidence-based and fail fast should it not be the right response.
  5. Work with regulators: Should you want to test technologies or services at a scale that need regulatory involvement, include them early in the discussion.
  6. Use the testbed approach to achieve inclusive design: There is a chance now to re-design our environments, for example pop-up cycle lanes or accommodating for more vulnerable groups. Testbeds can be used to trial new design principles making the public realm more inclusive.

Testbeds are versatile. This time of disruption and rapid change is a good opportunity to test new technologies such as autonomous deliveries, new business models, repurposing road space from cars to pedestrians and cyclists, and attracting new tenants. The local high street can be turned into a testbed. Covid-19 has accelerated the shift from bricks to clicks in retail. We must instead experiment our way to the high street of the future.

Tom Bridges is UK cities advisory leader and Leeds office leader, and Siri Arntzen is economic development specialist - both at Arup.

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