‘Future Places Centre’ to examine how computing will reshape places in which we live

A new ‘Future Places Centre’ will become a world-leading research hub examining how the computing technology that increasingly surrounds us can shape the places where we live and enable us to live healthier lives.

From dealing with micro-plastic pollution, fostering a greater understanding and appreciation of local natural environments, as well as informing improvements in healthcare and care homes, to the design of buildings and other urban infrastructure, the Future Places Centre will seek to discover new ways of creating and analysing data to address public concerns for healthier living, sustainability and the environment.

The Centre builds on Lancaster University’s pioneering research in ‘pervasive computing’, artificial intelligence, the natural environment and data science, and the university’s strong track-record of engaging and working closely with local communities.

The Future Places Centre is supported with a £6.8 million investment by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and forms part of a wider £29 million Digital Economy investment by UKRI. The Future Places Centre is one of five ‘Next Stage Digital Economy Centres’ delivered by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The Centre is also supported by 26 external partners.

Minister for Digital and Culture Caroline Dinenage said: “The UK’s world-renowned universities and fast-growing safety tech sector are coming up with answers to the important questions of the digital age – around privacy, security and online wellbeing.

“With this investment we are supporting organisations to build trust in the technology of tomorrow so people and businesses can use it to improve their lives and boost the economy.

“Add to that our forthcoming pro-innovation online harms legislation and we will give tech companies the clarity and responsibility to create safer online spaces for future generations to enjoy.”

Minister for Science, Research and Innovation Amanda Solloway said: “We rely on technology for so many things in our lives – from paying our bills and buying our weekly food shop to tackling climate change and finding new treatments for diseases. We must continue investing so we can keep pushing the boundaries of technological developments that improve our daily lives and transform industries.

“The six new research centres announced today will support our ambitious scientists and researchers to develop incredible innovations such as strengthening our online safety and delivering virtual education and healthcare, helping to cement the UK as a science superpower.”

Computers are increasingly ubiquitous. They are now in most of our pockets in the form of mobile phones or embedded in Internet-connected everyday objects – the so-called Internet of Things. This new reality, with computers collecting and streaming data all around us, is known by technologists as ‘pervasive computing’.

The Future Places Centre will seek to raise our understanding of the potential benefits these pervasive technologies could bring to our lives through three distinct research themes:

· A Natural Environment Theme. With Morecambe Bay as its focus, this theme will investigate the ecology of the North West coastal area and explore how new data-based insights can lead to a better public understanding, and appreciation, of how all of our everyday behaviours can impact on local environments.

· Built Environment Theme. Researchers will look beyond building smart homes and townships and rethink entire new ways of travel, energy and waste management. Using new data science tools and smart materials to change the places, and the ways, in which we live to become healthier and more sustainable.

· Healthy Living Theme. Researchers will use IoT tools and techniques to measure the relationship between people, places and health. Working with NHS and public health collaborators the research team will uncover rich, nuanced data and new insights on how people can more easily live healthy lives and receive timely and appropriate healthcare interventions.

Professor Richard Harper, Director of the Lancaster University Future Places Centre, said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to convert our academic and scientific research into actions that create a real impact. Working with these partners and local communities, we can bring science and technology into life”.

The Future Places Centre has also attracted more than £4.2 million of support from its external partners.

The Eden Project is a Foundational Partner and will take a prominent role in co-creating the centre’s activities. The educational charity, who plan to build Eden Project North on the Morecambe seafront, are involved in the Future Places Centre as part of a wider programme of joint research activities with Lancaster University and programmes of transformation for the area. This research will explore the themes of Eden Project North – the natural and built environments and human health and wellbeing – as well as shaping its development.

Gabriella Gilkes, Science Engagement Manager at The Eden Project, said: “We are delighted to be working in partnership with Lancaster University on this cutting-edge research hub. They have been with us from the beginning of the Eden Project North journey and continue to be key partners in the development of the project. We truly believe that the Future Places Centre, by working with the range of stakeholders and partners that we have put together, can have strong positive effects both regionally and globally.”

Other partners contributing to the Future Places Centre include: Lancaster City Council; Microsoft Research; West Lancashire CCG; Morecambe Bay Health and Care Partners; Public Health England; Micro:bit Foundation; Samsung; Improva Group; Regenda Homes; Halton Housing; Connected Places Catapult; the Local Council Roads Innovation Group; Bristol Council; Liverpool CCG; Heathfield Residential Home; Blackpool and Fylde College; The RSPB; Small World Consulting; Media II Matter; and Hardy and Ellis Innovations.

A truly inter-disciplinary research hub, the Future Places Centre brings together leading Lancaster University experts from a wide range of fields including from Lancaster’s School of Computing and Communications, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster Medical School, Health Innovation Campus, Imagination Lancaster, the Institute for Social Futures and the Data Science Institute.

Lancaster researchers involved in the Future Places Centre include: Professor Richard Harper; Professor Nigel Davies; Professor Rachel Cooper; Professor Gordon Blair, Professor Rob Short, Professor Charlie Gere and Professor Jo Knight.

Dr Sherry Kothari, director of the Health Innovation Campus (HIC) at Lancaster University, said: “This is an exciting and ambitious initiative, and one which has the potential to have a tremendous impact.

“The last six months have overwhelmingly highlighted the importance of using technology and data to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges, and there has never been a more opportune time to focus on the power of pervasive computing to inform future health policies and interventions through a truly place-based approach.

“We are delighted to support and work with the Future Places Centre on this.”

The UK’s Next Stage Digital Economy Centres will take forward inter and multidisciplinary applied digital economy research to “the next stage”, ultimately easing the pathway to better commercialisation. The EPSRC contribution of £22 million has leveraged more than £29.5 million of partner contributions from industry and the universities involved.

EPSRC Executive Chair, Dame Professor Lynn Gladden, said: “New and emerging digital technologies will have a profound impact on many aspects of our lives, from our health and wellbeing to our work and leisure time.

“The investment announced today will not only support new ways of capitalising on this opportunity but will also help to ensure that those using these new technologies are safe while doing so.”

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