Author Archives: Surge Aberdeen

Cohort 3 Finals

The teams from Cohort 3 presented in the Tempo café at the end of March to an audience of potential stakeholders from an array of private, public and third sector organisations. Below are summaries of the 4 ideas presented by the groups, as well as a quote from a member of each team about their experience of the CityLabs programme as a whole.

Team Advent looked at changing the way both locals and tourists access information about what’s going on in the city. They designed an event information hub, with interactive screens to allow people to scroll through content and explore the city through an interactive map, for example. The content displayed would change to cater for people and events depending on the time of day. The idea came about because many the group are current international students, and found it difficult to know exactly what is going on in Aberdeen.

A spokesperson for the group on what they thought of the City Lab experience: “CityLab wasn’t what I expected. It was a lot more realistic, we were doing work that will hopefully see real-life progress. We had to go out and speak to stakeholders, and in that respect, it was a lot more grounded than the usual university work. It didn’t feel like an academic subject, which was great.”

Tales from the Silver City
Next came Tales from the Silver City. This group focussed on the theme of restoring cultural pride, and their idea involved a platform for people from Aberdeen to share their stories. An online platform would capture stories from the everyday lives of people in the city, and share them with others in the area as well as beyond. This would also involve an annual book, documenting a snapshot of Aberdeen during that year. Plans for a mobile app which broadcast stories based on location were also included in their presentation.

What a team member said about the programme: “CityLab was surprising and rewarding. As expected, it was nice to blend disciplines, to get those different perspectives. For me as a graphic design student, this was a very unique opportunity to get my skills out there and involved in something different. CityLab develops team working skills that I wouldn’t have been able to develop elsewhere, due to the diversity of our group. Oh and the constant supply of biscuits during the workshops was well received by all!”

Next Step Energy
Next Step Energy went through the process with a couple of different ideas. Initially they were discussing rooftop community gardens throughout the city centre. However, what they ended up focussing on was the use of pads under the ground to generate electric power via footfall. With these pads that already exist and are used down in London, it was proposed that streetlights could be powered purely by people walking through town. The pads could also be used to provide data on footfall.

What they said about CityLab: “CityLab was definitely a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. It pushes you outside your box, your brain space, your current way of thinking. I had never done anything cross-disciplines at university, and I thought that would have been problematic but it worked a lot smoother than predicted. I would say that for next time the groups should be formed based on having multiple disciplines. We needed all the time, all the 10 weeks we were given. I would recommend CityLabs, but as a warning to those who may think it’s a kop out from other modules – it’s not. For people who have a passion to see change in the city, it’s a must.”

Event Horizon
Finally, the team that won on the day of the final: Event Horizon. Their idea centred around a double-decker bus that would deliver STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) educational workshops and activities to school children across the city and shire. This would travel around the Aberdeenshire area, particularly to areas of deprivation, to provide an interactive learning experience. The group had already identified and spoken to the Aberdeen Science Centre, as a potential stakeholder who could not only help with the content of lessons provided, but also possibly man the bus with their already existent staff.

What they thought of CityLab: “It was extremely multi-cultural, the diverse range of students taking part was fantastic. This is the most important element of groups like this, because it allows for opinions from an array of cultures to influence the final project we presented. It was a very immersive experience, I felt very involved in everything we were doing and it has provided a number of transferrable practical skills.”

While the projects were unique in the application of technology, there are certainly potential links between them that could be explored. It will be exciting to see which, if not all, of these projects take off…


Weeks 4, 5 & 6

Week 4

Dawn Shand from the Scottish Institute for Enterprise was in to run a workshop. She talked to the students about identifying trends in the market, through looking at a series of signals from a variety of innovations currently developing around the world. After the presentation, everyone was tasked in groups with combining two or more of the example innovations, to form something completely new. Having personally taken part in this workshop before, way back when I was starting up my own enterprise, I was already appreciative of how these insights can influence your own ideas and thought process.

Following on from Dawn’s workshop, the students were then back into their teams, narrowing down their challenges to a single solution. By the end of Week 4 each solution had a name, a focus to their project and a rough idea of who they need to speak to.

Week 5
Week 5 was mostly all about the groups cracking on with their solutions, and identifying potential stakeholders. Groups also had to come up with the specific questions they’d ask in meetings with these stakeholders, and were given contact details by the CityLab team to get in touch with people in the upcoming weeks. They each presented their ideas to the other groups for the first time, giving constructive feedback one another. The first thing that became apparent to everyone was how the projects could potentially fit together if they get off the ground. At this point I observed that groups were quite nervous to question others, and most of the questions came from the CityLab team. That began to change going into Week 6.

Week 6
Students acted out how their product or service would be used, through role play. Each group had a different approach- some utilised all group members and had clearly put a bit of thought into it, others just winged it. After each performance, the floor was opened up to more questioning from the other groups, as to why certain things happened and how the scenario could play out differently depending on alternative circumstances. Utilising this peer to peer feedback, as has been the case throughout the past few weeks, is a way of analysing all the projects at once, including the student’s own group, as similar issues crop up such as where data is coming from with all the solutions.

Additionally, we had a visit from a representative of Opportunity North East, the private sector’s response to the challenge times currently facing the region’s economy. They will also be there at the final presentations, and is definitely and organisation the student groups will hope to impress with their ideas. The students definitely impressed with their role playing scenarios, which bodes well for the final presentations coming up.

The weeks have flown in, and the solutions are taking shape. The diversity I’ve mentioned before within the group of students making up this Cohort is reflected in the four projects, which will make for a very interesting final few weeks.

Cohort 3 Begins

To those of you unfamiliar with what CityLab is, I’ll attempt to summarise it for you. It’s a 10 week programme where students come up with ideas to tackle some of the major challenges facing the city of Aberdeen. They are split into groups, and each group presents the foundation for a project that could be implemented to potential stakeholders at the end of the 10 weeks. Run as a joint project between Aberdeen City Council, the Robert Gordon University and the University of Aberdeen, it mixes students from both institutions in teams to come up with the solutions.

The programme is headed up by Zoe Evans from the Council, Dr. Jon Pengelley from RGU, and Dr. Bruce Scharlau from the Uni of Aberdeen. There are various people dipping in and out of the progamme helping out, including myself (Chris Burnett, Surge Aberdeen). Students meet up every Wednesday morning, more often than not at the MAKE facility on Belmont Street, in the centre of town. CityLab Aberdeen started a year ago, with Cohort 1 running February-April and then Cohort 2 September-November.

And that brings us nicely up to now: Cohort 3, which is already a few weeks in. Here’s what happened during Weeks 1, 2 and 3.

Week 1
img_5410The first week inevitably consisted of a lot of introductions, both to the programme and some of the key people related to CityLab. We touched on Human Centred Design, which is the main theoretical backdrop for the programme. It’s all about thinking about your end user when coming up with new ideas. Guest speakers included Councillor Ross Grant (also from Aberdeen Inspired) and Simon Haston (Head of IT and Transformation at ACC).


What struck me was the sheer mix of students making up this cohort; the variety of disciplines, nationalities, stages of university career, this group has it all. It’s refreshing to see such a diverse group of students interested in the city they’re studying in, and aiming to make an impact.

Week 2
Sue Fairburn from RGU’s Gray’s School of Art was along during Week 2 to talk about a project quite similar to CityLab, that took place a few years ago. It was a collaboration between art schools across Scotland, and had students working in teams deigning new innovations over the programme. Ian Watt (Digital Transformation Manager at Aberdeen City Council) was along to discuss the underlying theme of this Cohort: digital.


Then came the ideation process. Ideas were jotted down on sticky notes, which were placed under sub-categories of the overall digital theme. The students gravitated toward the theme they were most interested in pursuing a project under. And voila! Teams were formed.

Week 3
The third week was all about the User Centred Design theory, and a look at touchpoints. Students were tasked in groups to make a trip to a specific shop to buy a packet of biscuits. During their shopping trip, they had to think about and record all aspects of the journey, including the purchase transaction. It was interesting to see the groups approach the task of sharing their trips back in different ways, ranging from a simple list of touchpoints, to a storyboard, to a full on video with interviews of the group members.

Everyone then got into their project teams, and started brainstorming and narrowing down ideas towards a solution to go forward with. We had a visit from Bogdan (a previous CityLab participant and winner of Cohort 1), who reassured them that the groups who hadn’t quite narrowed down to a single solution yet they still have plenty of time.


And that, is a very condensed version of the first three weeks of CityLab Cohort 3. Things are beginning to take shape, and what’s clear to me is that despite there being this overall theme of digital within all the projects, we’re going to have a very diverse set of solutions coming from this cohort.