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A smart and sustainable city

An interview with Prof. Mark Tewdwr-Jones, Newcastle City Futures

With the decline of the heavy industries of shipbuilding and coal mining, for which Newcastle was once known around the world, a new era has dawned for the city, built on its new global-leading excellence in sectors including digital, medicine and subsea.

Newcastle is now thriving once again, with people travelling from far and wide to visit, work and live in the city. Its ability to remain agile and to innovate is what is helping to build its reputation as a smart, sustainable and socially inclusive city.

Cities around the world are facing growing and complex social, economic and environmental challenges, with many experiencing rapid growth or decline in short periods of time and having to adjust to the consequences of that. The turbulent economic backdrop, an increasing and ageing population, problems with congestion and the changing climate are just some of the ongoing major issues affecting cities. How they address these challenges, harnessing the power of research and interdisciplinary expertise, backed by the latest technological and digital advances, to help improve communities and people’s lives is how experts believe cities can move towards being ‘smart and sustainable’.

Newcastle is a case in point. Underpinned by strong relationships between business, local government, Newcastle and Northumbria universities and community groups, the city has come together to work on projects which are again seeing it lead the world, producing initiatives and skills which can be exported internationally.

Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, a specialist in urban planning, place and policy, is Professor of Town Planning at Newcastle University and Chair of the Regional Studies Association. He is also Director of Newcastle City Futures (NCF), a body which has brought together over 200 partner agencies – including Newcastle University, Northumbria University, the likes of Google and Microsoft, and local community groups – to help shape the future for the city.

“Newcastle, from its background as a very successful trading port and its dominance in heavy industry, has had to pick itself up and dust itself down to show it can be successful again. That has not happened overnight, you can’t simply change the economic make-up of a city and its infrastructure, but the city has been very good at identifying opportunities and assets to see what might be possible,” he said.

“Newcastle is now a very successful city in many areas, wholly different areas to even 40 years ago. Many would never have imagined back in 1978 that the sorts of jobs we have here now would be possible. Newcastle is now in a new realm. I have heard it described as a ‘Goldilocks city’ in that it is not too big, not too small, it is just the right size. People know each other, there are excellent and strong interrelationships across the city, and that is hugely important. To have these relationships in place is the root of continued innovation and achieving major success.”

Indeed, a number of projects are underway in the city which look set to see it bringing new inventions and ideas to the world once again. Through NCF, a goal was set to devise initiatives which could help provide for the future of Newcastle. In only 18 months, 58 projects were put forward and are now at various stages of development, which have so far collectively generated over £5m to the city’s economy.

One key project is Future Homes, which is furthering Newcastle’s reputation as a leader in research in both ageing and digital technology by developing a world-first in housing to provide sustainable, digital-focused homes suitable for older people. Realising that no architects or housebuilders were addressing the issue of homes for an ageing population, NCF brokered a consortium from across the city to make the idea become reality. An initial four homes will be built on the globally significant Newcastle Science Central site, and interest has already been expressed from around the world.

“Through collective working, we now have a fantastic new design for houses for people over 60, which also takes into consideration factors such as dementia care, multigeneration families living together, and other ageing-related issues. This project showcases our innovation, our digital and design skills, and our products to the world,” said Professor Tewdwr-Jones.

“But importantly, this is a model that can be exported. We are getting enquiries from city leaders internationally asking whether this could work in major cities around the world in countries such as China, Japan and the United States. We are showing we are still able to achieve innovation and create innovation, while also creating business opportunities to export products and skills, and putting the city on the map globally in the process.

“It is an achievement that we can engage so many parties. When you encourage businesses or groups to work alongside other businesses or groups that would not usually work together, that is where you get sparks. The ‘Holy Grail’ as I see it is when you can develop a project which offers business growth opportunities, offers cost savings to the public purse, showcases research excellence and engages parties across public and private sectors. If you can achieve that mix then you are really flying.

“Furthermore, we realised that to genuinely engage with the community, we could not consult on single issues like transport, it had to be on places – what happens in the places where people live and directly affects their lives – is what is important to them. Much of the research that is happening at our universities is putting the city on a global platform, but we do not want people in Newcastle to see the researchers as people in ‘ivory towers’ doing research that is remote from everyday living. The aim is to show the correlation between the research and the excellence that happens here and how it can directly benefit people and communities in their own backyard. That is another model that can be replicated in cities around the world.”

In addition to the commitment to collective working, Professor Tewdwr-Jones also points to the well-documented love Newcastle natives have for their home city as being key in its continued development.

“The communities in Newcastle are very strong and passionate about their city, you don’t get that in all places. There is a very well-known Sunday market on the Newcastle Quayside which has a lot of things on sale relating to the city, historical and contemporary posters and photos and the like, and it is very often local people who are buying these as well as visitors and tourists. That says something about the pride and love there is in the city and it reflects a real interest in the place,” he said.

“Perhaps that is something that is in our DNA, the pride and passion. We have seen over the past 150 years with the innovation Newcastle has brought to the world that this is a place where people do things differently, they aren’t afraid to take risks, there is an appetite to be at the forefront of change. They are characteristics that are still very much here today.

“With the recent consultation into the new Tyne and Wear Metro trains (following the allocation of £337m of government funding to modernise the fleet) we had 24,000 people positively engaging with us on how they would like their new trains to look. Among that figure, we had 3,000 detailed responses, and schoolchildren – as the future of the region – also gave their ideas and designs via laptops, which helped to develop their digital skills and awareness. To have 24,000 people responding is another sign of the commitment we see to making things happen, which is a hugely important factor.

“Working in partnership is not straightforward, especially with a number of partners involved, but it is a question of how you bring the actors together. NCF acts as a facilitator and broker to help bring everyone together and bring their ideas to reality. My role as director is as ringmaster, choreographer, juggler if you like. But the shared desire and commitment to get around the table and stay around that table is something very powerful and is how you can genuinely get on with creating and achieving innovation.”


  • NewcastleGateshead, as a conurbation, is working to tackle the complex challenges of a future city, such as an ageing population, congestion, energy and extreme weather.
  • Newcastle City Futures brings together research and innovation from universities, businesses, local authorities and communities to generate new visible, exciting and meaningful projects across NewcastleGateshead.
  • A series of demonstrator projects is creating a ‘test-bed city’.


The content and photography in this editorial section were produced by North East Times.

"We have seen over the past 150 years with the innovation Newcastle has brought to the world that this is a place where people do things differently."
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