EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of Computing


Across the UK political spectrum there is a consensus that communities need to play a greater role in local government, both in the decisions made that affect people's everyday lives, and in the design and delivery of services provided by local government to communities. With the enormous public uptake of digital technologies including broadband internet, mobile phones, laptop and tablet computers, there are opportunities to create more representative and sustainable forms of local democracy and service provision.

Digital Civics is the endeavour of developing theories, technologies, design approaches and evaluation methods for digital technologies that support local communities, local service provision, and local democracy. However, this area poses new challenges for researchers across a range of disciplines. It requires researchers that are not only experts in local government and the services they provide (such as education, public health and social care), but also researchers that can: (i) understand the limitations of existing technologies and approaches to design and use; (ii) innovate in the design, delivery and evaluation of services; (iii) produce underpinning technologies that meet the real-world requirements of local service provision and local democracy. The primary goal of our Centre for Doctoral Training is therefore to train the next generation of researchers that can meet these challenges.

The Centre has three distinctive features. Firstly, it brings together academics from 5 internationally leading centres of excellence already extensively engaged in Digital Civics research at Newcastle University: (i) experts in human-computer interaction and participatory media from Culture Lab; (ii) experts in security, privacy & trust from the Centre for Cyber Crime and Security; (iii) experts in public health and social care from the Institute of Health & Society; (iv) experts in education from the Centre for Learning and Teaching; and (iv) experts on planning and politics from the Global Urban Research Unit. Working together in a Centre for Digital Civics these academics will lead the training and supervision through a 1-year taught program in Digital Civics, and a carefully coordinated collection of 60 PhD 3-year research projects over the funded lifetime of the centre.

Secondly, the research will be conducted in the context of real-world service provision and communities, through the engagement of three local councils (Newcastle, Gateshead & Northumberland) who will act a host partners to the research. The centre also has a significant number of deeply committed commercial, public sector and third sector partners who will actively engage in the design and delivery of the research training. These include many of the leading national and international organisations with a direct interest in building research capacity in Digital Civics. These include Philips Research, Microsoft Research, eBay Research Labs, Orange Labs, IBM Research, BBC R&D, Tunstall, BT Labs, Promethean and SMART Technologies. In addition to these partners, we also have a partnership of local and national social and commercial enterprises, and a network of international academics who will support academic exchanges placements which will provide an international profile to our students' portfolio. Only those collaborating partners who have demonstrated a real and substantial commitment to engage have been included in this proposal.

The research training provided to students will be cross-disciplinary in nature and focused upon 3 challenging application domains for digital civics research. These are: local democracy, education, and public health & social care. There will also be 2 underpinning technology training programmes: human-computer interaction and security, privacy & trust. These 5 topics span the research expertise of our 5 international centres of excellence at Newcastle University.

Planned Impact

The proposed CDT for Digital Civics aims to develop a cohort of 60+ students engaged in theorising, designing, developing, and evaluating personal & community-based digital technologies to explore and create forms of civic engagement that support local communities, local service provision, and local democracy. The CDT will work directly with several local authorities (in the Northeast of England), a variety of SMEs and NGOs and some larger international corporations. As such there are various potential beneficiaries of the CDT.

Firstly, there are the students themselves who will graduate as highly skilled academic and applied researchers - well-versed in interdisciplinary collaboration and trained to transfer, leverage and exploit the insight generated from their research and who are able to contribute to the economic and social development of the UK.

The research they will conduct will be focused on supporting local communities, and given the aim to enhance public service provision and support engagement in local issues. It is likely that their research will enhance quality of life, health and wellbeing in these areas, improve social welfare and social cohesion in the participating communities and generally increase public awareness of social and economic issues that are likely to be affecting these research participants, and this will be done at various levels from older adults through to school-aged communities.

The research is also intended to have impact at a Government level, and through our direct collaboration with our participating local authority partners student research projects will directly influence policy making at local, regional and national levels. Case-based research will transform evidence-based policy, and provide evidence to support changing organisational cultures and practices (for example enhancing the role of public participation in local governance) and through shaping and enhancing the effectiveness of public services, by directly designing and developing digital augmentations. As such the research projects directly intend to enhance the efficiency, performance and sustainability of public services through the user-centred development of new digital technologies and the promotion of local activism and civic engagement.

Another significant impact of the CDT will be the development and training of skilled people in non-academic professions through the development and open-sourcing of learning materials, which aim to transfer research insight (including skills and processes as much as research 'findings') to non-academic organisations, such as SMEs, NGOs and larger corporations (sourced through our broad partner network). These SMEs, NGOs and corporations (alongside the doctoral students themselves) are also likely to be commercial beneficiaries of the research. Active processes of knowledge transfer will directly contribute towards wealth creation and economic prosperity by supporting the enhancement of research capacity, knowledge and skills in businesses and organisations and through the commercialisation of research in the formation of spin-out companies to serve the private, public and third sectors.


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