Visualising urban futures: TechTown dares to dream!

Tracey Johnson

By Tracey Johnson, on November 21st, 2016

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The TechTown network has been walking the talk, experimenting with digital tools both in transnational meetings and in between them to maintain momentum and keep the focus firmly on innovating, pushing boundaries, thinking of new ways to work. But low tech animation techniques can also help to open our minds, embrace the future and dare to dream about what we can achieve through exchange, learning and delivering.

During the last meeting in Limerick Ireland, TechTown Lead Partner Tracey Johnson opened the session by inviting city partners on a guided visualisation in order to really imagine how a successful digital future could be beyond the term of the URBACT network. Here’s how it went…..

“Close your eyes…

It’s 2021  

TechTown finished 3 years ago. You developed an integrated action plan. You helped to see it delivered. It continues to evolve and be at the heart of your digital community and your local agenda.

3 years since the last conference – the one where we all got a bit teary, said we’d keep working together, Daniel Gwen and Evija kept us all up until 5am dancing and eating falafel and, as dawn broke, Alison invited us all to join her on a yoga retreat in India.

We keep in touch. TechTown has become a banner we all work with, a badge of innovation and excellence. To be a TechTown is for a city to hold up their collective hand and say digital is in everything we do. To be a TechTowner is to be an innovator, an agitator, a thinker and a doer.

David is working with Michelin and Duplo to help start ups innovate new solutions for their production line – he’s still in touch with the Clermont Ferrand team as they all work collaboratively with these big corporates.

Anja is now talking to Elon Musk about replacing the recently opened Loop city rail link with a Hyperloop prototype   Cesis just hosted the biggest coding retreat Europe has ever seen – it’s wall to wall hipster beards (still!) and super cool geek girls.

Everyone keeps seeing pictures of Alisa and Niksa on the TV celebrating the very first Smart Old Town with talking fortified walls and hoverboard tours … and they’re jetting all over the world as there’s finally direct pilotless drone flights to Dubrovnik out of season!

Siracusa is sending its local start ups and digital people  to towns and cities all over Italy, sharing their hackathon and innovation techniques, connecting disconnected communities.

Limerick is the beating digital heart of west Ireland eclipsing capital of culture Galway’s 2020 celebrations with a festival of innovation, technology and robotics featuring the worlds first Irish dancing robot   San Sebastián is a fully connected surf city using tide and city data to structure a pop up surfing destination each time the waves hit their peak.

Basingstoke has had to move the corporates out to make way for the burgeoning start up scene and Reading has been absorbed as a suburb of amazing stoke    Gavle has transitioned from paper mills to data mills and is the Mecca for data … Big data small data open data… They’re at the heart of a new industrial revolution.

Barnsley is the snappy puppy in the tech start up scene. There’s spin outs from collaborations across industries and some award winning digital healthcare and Internet of things start ups. I’ve invested in them all and I’m living in a mansion on a hill.  

Your job’s probably changed. Your life too – maybe new relationships, kids, life events. You communicate by ever more diverse channels, there’s people around you doing jobs there wasn’t even names for five years ago. You’ve more time than ever before as data makes thing just, well, happen.

cup of teaSo visualise yourself. You’re at home alone. You’ve got a glass of wine, or a cup of tea. You know the kids, or your best friend will appear on your smart watch for a quick video chat later. Your delivery from the local organic produce collective is due in an hour. All your favourite things from the farm to the door without you having to lift a finger as they’ve got a great system that knows exactly when the crops are ready, how much will sell locally and how much they can wholesale without losing a single blueberry to waste.

Your partner is in let’s call it an Uber-Google self driving pod heading off to the capital for a night out happy  in the knowledge the same pod will bring them back safely no matter how much palenka they consume.

The house is just the right temperature and humidity, and the lights instinctively know you want to relax so they dim just a little. Your home knows you, your habits and your preferences. You know the cat needs feeding as you checked your homecam and its bowl has been empty since 4pm as you forgot to fill the autofeeder. Bad cat parent. Technology can’t help you with that. Because your house knows you want to chill, there’s a bit of slow Brazilian bossa nova playing through all the rooms and you sink into your sofa pondering whether to hit your Amazon dash hologrphic button for a dish of pad thai from that place the other side of town with the delivery drones, or whether the fish you bought two days ago is still good.

You ask the fridge and it says use it tonight or lose it. Decision made.

This night isn’t remarkable. This is life in 2021. These things have moved from innovation to just being part of what we do and how we live.   So … is your town part of this? Which part?

I want you to think of what a start up in your city could be in 2021.  Give it a name.  What is it doing?  Where is it based?  Is it solving a social problem?  Is it helping a big corporate do things better?  Is it making your life better, easier, quicker or smoother?  What’s their biggest challenge – money? Space? Skills? Adoption? Scale? Testing? Awareness? Data? Loneliness? The draw of the big city? Open your eyes.

This is your start up. Hold it with you over the next two days. Remember it when we are thinking about all the challenges we have. Start to make it feel real. Talk about it within your city teams. Think about it over dinner tonight. Don’t get hung up that it has to be the best idea, or that it definitely has to work. Just attach yourself to it and refer to it through all of these sessions.  We will keep coming back to this. Not in an in depth way but just a little parallel journey to our meeting.

But all the policy in the world isn’t going to help you if you don’t know where you need to get to and who you’re trying to help. This is just a visualisation exercise but the start ups in your city are real and they need you – so you need to understand them from the inside out.

Quickly go round the room, share an idea for the name of your start up and tell us whereabouts it’s based in your city – existing space? Somewhere not imagined yet? Within another business?”


logo_techtownWhen reflecting on the 2 day meeting as a whole several TechTown cities and their ULG members picked out the visualisation exercise as a tool which had really helped them to understand the raison d’être for the network. Each city was able to recognise themselves in the picture painted, to imagine how they might use it to grown digital jobs back home and to dream about where the TechTown journey might end up…. URBACT partners are invited to try this out in their local and transnational meetings. Dare to dream!

Find out more about the future of digital jobs by listening to the TechTown podcasts on URBACT You Tube Channel. We recommend you start with the first one: Cities Talking Digital

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