Site selection criteria for urban innovation experiments – towards a guidance note for practitioners

Selecting a site for the demonstration of innovative technologies in urban settings is not usually straightforward, even after a specific city has been chosen. A city is not a place but a constellation of places and each place has its own socio-technical dynamics, networks and interactions. Outcomes will be different when the same  urban experiment is deployed in a city centre, in an industrial park or in a residential area. Here we will discuss how we encountered the challenge of site selection for OSRIC, a technology demonstrator funded by Innovate UK. We will outline a number of criteria for site selection that we hope will be of use to practitioners.

 OSRIC is a Northumbrian King, a minor character in Hamlet (played by Robin Williams in the Kenneth Branagh adaptation) and also the acronym for On-Street Residential Induction Charging, a £3m demonstrator of wireless charging points for electric vehicles (EVs) funded by Innovate UK. In a previous blog post we introduced the challenge wireless charging is meant to address. This is as EVs become widely adopted there is a danger of pavements being crisscrossed by charging cables, cluttering the streets and potentially causing a tripping hazard. Wireless charging can prevent that problem. After  introducing the problem and a proposed design solution, our previous blog entry also introduced the three locales where OSRIC chargers will be deployed: Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire County and the London borough of Redbridge. We concluded that wireless charging innovation means different things in different places: the OSRIC project in Redbridge is largely about air quality, Buckinghamshire prioritises the historic character of its streets and in Milton Keynes OSRIC becomes the continuation of an existing trajectory of transport innovation.

Wireless charging pad BMW 350e

Wireless Charging employs the same inductive charging technology already widely used for supplying power to devices such as mobile phones and electric toothbrushes to now also recharge the high-voltage batteries in electrified vehicles. (Source – BMW press club UK)

Since the earliest stages of the project we have known that the OSRIC wireless charging points will be deployed somewhere in those three specific towns/regions. Today, six months into the project, “somewhere” is not good enough: the project managers need to know the exact location for each charging point that will be installed so that the permits and traffic regulations orders can be issued, residents and potential users could be consulted and road crews could be prepared. It is also clear that decisions about where to install the charging points are at the same time decisions about how to use them – should OSRIC demonstrate the functionality of wireless EV charging by deploying a car club in a newly built residential area with limited access to public transport,  or would it be better to deploy it in a busy town centre with limited parking availability? How about providing charging points and EVs to support a volunteer organisation that delivers groceries for vulnerable persons that are self-isolating? Or perhaps wireless charging would be useful for groundskeepers in areas of outstanding natural beauty that want to be environmentally responsible but consider that conventional charging points would mar the landscape? As this is an ongoing project, this is not the right time to discuss in detail the potential locations but we can certainly say that we are spoilt for choice, with at least thrice as many locations as we could realistically use. It is a good problem to have…but still a problem. How does one choose the best locations for a technology demonstrator?

The Open University is a partner of the OSRIC project. One of the ways in which we support OSRIC is through the development of a series of practical criteria that can be used to systematically assess the  opportunities and challenges associated to sites under consideration for the deployment of technology demonstrators. The theoretical foundations of the criteria draw on insights from Strategic Niche Management (SNM), a perspective developed to guide the creation, development and controlled break-down of testbeds (experiments, demonstration projects) for promising new technologies and concepts with the aim of learning about them and enhancing the rate of diffusion. As it happens, the OU Design Group were part of the research team that developed the original SNM approach in the 1990s.

The key insight of SNM is that successful innovation is not just a matter of technology but at least as much a matter of socio-economic context, of mental frameworks, of individual behavioural patterns and of institutional and organisational patterns. Because of the multiple interdependencies involved, radical technological change is easier to initiate through small-scale interventions in protected environments, termed  ‘niche experiments’. SNM provides advice about how to select applications of a given technology that will make for good experiments and how to initiate and end the experiments in ways that will minimise disruption and increase the potential for success. Three key processes – Learning, network-building and expectation management – provide a sense of direction through the duration of the experiment, as follows:

Learning – The term “experiment” is used to emphasise the importance of practical learning. Niche experiments must be designed to facilitate situated learning about the technology as well as about the needs, problems and potentialities associated with its innovative applications. The following aspects must be included in the learning process: Design specifications, changes in policy and legislation that would stimulate the use of technology, cultural and psychological meanings, market demands, characteristics of the production network, characteristics of the infrastructure and maintenance networks, and the nature of societal and environmental effects.

Network-Building – Niche experiments should also be designed to build a constituency behind a potentially disruptive innovation, including users, firms, researchers and public authorities whose semi-coordinated actions are necessary to bring about a substantial shift in interconnected technologies and practices. For a technology to succeed, it requires the support of a broad actor network. In the case of innovative technologies, a successful network is likely to be a mix of old and new actors.  In designing an experiment, partners should be selected as to increase the mobilisation potential.

Expectation Management – Because of the very nature of innovation, the public is not likely to be familiar with the technology, its advantages are not evident and its value is unproven. Niche experiments therefore make implicit and explicit promises and raise expectations about the new technology and its applications. Promises are especially powerful if they are shared, credible (supported by facts and tests) specific, and coupled to specific societal problems that the existing technology is not expected to solve.  Therefore, niche experiments should be designed to substantiate the expectations.

 The framework provided by Strategic Niche Management has been complemented through a study of the practical and strategic needs of the OSRIC project and the guidance provided by Innovate UK. We therefore add criteria to assess the degree to which the set-up, knowledge produced and potential endgame for each site may meet the goals of the programme and the expectations of Innovate UK. Given that one of the main objectives of Innovate UK is to nurture early-stage innovations to deliver measurable social and economic impact, we may expect that the criteria developed for this Innovate UK project will be relevant to many other innovation practitioners as well. The table below outlines 6 criteria to inform the selection of suitable sites and applications where a given technology may be usefully deployed as a niche experiment.

1-      Does the site meet project-specific performance criteria?
 Innovation projects tend to have an overarching strategic objective that goes beyond the mere demonstration of some new technology. It is important to ensure that any given site will deliver results that support that objective. In the case of OSRIC, Innovate UK calls for the demonstration of “creative new designs and technology for low-cost, scalable charging solutions for electric vehicle owners and users without off street parking”.
2-      Is the proposed application reasonably straightforward to set-up?
We may give preference to sites and applications that are likely to be welcoming and where installation and management of the infrastructure is within our control or is handled by organizations that share our interests. Some questions to think about include: can we deploy the proposed application in the proposed site at a reasonably low cost and without disruption? Is the experiment likely to be well-received? Are the participants likely to be tolerant of the learning curve and teething problems through the life of the experiment and particularly through its early stages?
3-      Will we learn something useful from this site?
It is desirable for the various sites selected for the demonstrator to provide opportunities for learning about the technology (pad installation, operations etc) as well as about the needs, problems and potential of the design. Some questions to think about include: Will vehicles at this location be used often enough to provide a good volume of data? is the selected application sufficiently challenging to produce useful technical learning? Is the selected application complex enough and related to user practices that would produce useful social learning? Will this complement other OSRIC trials (i.e. not duplicate or be utterly unique)?
4 – Is a deployment at this site likely to help us connect with new organisations and institutions and develop our networks?
For a technology to succeed, it requires the support of a broad actor network. We may give preference to sites and applications that will provide us with opportunities to connect with users, firms, researchers and public authorities whose semi-coordinated actions are necessary to bring about a substantial shift in transport technologies and practices. Questions to ask include: would we have workable channels for reaching out to the organisations and users of interest and maintaining contact with them through the experiment? Will the experiment give us access to organisations with the resources and potential interest to support follow-up activities after the end of the programme? Will this experiment help us work with a mix of large and small / established and innovative organizations?
5 – Is the proposed project visible, exciting, and likely to help us make compelling and credible promises regarding the future of electric transport?
Because of the very nature of innovation, the public is not likely to be familiar with the technology, its advantages are not evident and its value is unproven. OSRIC will need to make implicit and explicit promises and raise expectations about the inductive chargers and their applications. Promises are especially powerful if they are shared, credible (supported by facts and tests) specific, and coupled to specific societal problems that existing EV charging cannot solve.  Questions to ask include: Is this application likely to offer something that will be valued by participants? Does it serve the needs of a public or market segment that cannot be served optimally using the old technologies? Will our work at this site help us develop a body of evidence so we can make shared, credible, specific promises for future deployments of this technology? Is the proposed application visible and exciting enough to create buzz / create an atmosphere that will encourage further transport innovation at the location?
6 – Can we think of an exit strategy that will minimise potential end-of-project problems and increase the opportunities for positive follow-up activities?
OSRIC will have a limited duration. Ideally the project will become self-sustainable and it will continue to run even after the end of InnovateUK funding, but sites and applications must be selected to minimise disruption if activities are halted by Jun 2021. Would it be possible to terminate the project without producing undue disruption or backlash? Can we identify a clear path for mobilisation or upscaling of the experiment if it Is successful?

Having introduced the 6 criteria, we would like to acknowledge some caveats and to initiate a conversation. The first caveat is that the table above is not exactly the one we are using for the project. Having introduced the above to the project leadership, we produced a more detailed version. While the table above introduces 6 very open-ended criteria and made a useful starting point, the version we are using unpacks the 6 criteria into 25 more narrowly defined “yes or no” questions. The full version is arguably easier to apply systematically but it is very OSRIC-specific and of limited usefulness to practitioners working on a different project. A second caveat is that, as OSRIC is an ongoing project, the criteria discussed here are still evolving. What we can say is that they have been very useful already in providing a sense of direction to the conversations we  are having with the project’s leadership as well as with other stakeholders. However, the final version of the criteria will have to wait until the project is completed and we can reflect about it with the benefit of hindsight.

Having stated that the criteria above constitute a living document, we will close this contribution to the design blog post by extending an invitation to colleagues and to innovation practitioners – We intend to take this as the starting point for a conversation that will lead to the publication of a guidance note for practitioners. We would welcome your views on the criteria above and would like to know if you find them useful for thinking about your own projects.

OSRIC is funded by InnovateUK and the Office for Low Emission Vehicles. The OU research team is led by Professor Matthew Cook; the Co-Investigator is Prof Stephen Potter and the Research Associate is Dr Alan-Miguel Valdez

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