An introduction to Citiblox

Christina Last
Jan 28, 2019 · 6 min read

My one passion is to shape better cities. To redefine the design, technology, and operation of cities — and the conclusions we draw from the data we collect — to drive a more inclusive, sustainable, and progressive urban world. For the last six months I have been creating a team focussed on revolutionising how we design our future streets. Together, we developed Citiblox, a start-up building smart, modular paving slabs that can change the function of a street throughout the day, presenting urban stakeholders with a powerful and cost-effective form of adaptable street infrastructure.

We’re currently up to around 30 engineers, researchers, designers and strategists based in the University of Bristol — and with a growing ‘family’ of like-minded compatriots across the university and the technology and design community in the Bristol region. Globally, our team draws on technical expertise working alongside state governments, corporate CEOs, large-scale developers and academics at Harvard University on smart technology infrastructure. Collectively, the team have consulted on some of the largest infrastructure projects in the USA, interned in the leading technology firms, and presented at an international conference on transportation planning. Currently, our team has footholds in New York, London, California and Delhi. And it’s a strong team! Current team-members include Angus Williams, Jay Piamjariyakul, Tushar Bahtnagar, Farrell Zulkarnaen and Felix Kong, with a wider internal network including the likes of Freya Hempleman, Anna Smolarz, Jack Kelly, Emily Clarke and Byrony Griffiths — complemented by partnerships with Bristol City Council, The Circle, and We the Curious Science Museum.

Citiblox Launch event, great to see so many engaged engineers

In terms of method, we take the sprint approach from software engineering and drop it into the world of built environment, infrastructure and smart urban technology, which has hitherto rarely engaged with those approaches. We combine that sprint with the development of our strategy and business development that I, and several others, have been helping develop over last few months.

Our project partners work at different scales, so I’ll unpick a few of those projects in more detail in subsequent posts, as informal case studies. Here are some examples of what we work on:

Human Scale
Our ability to work across all touch-points — whether structural or digital, human or electronic — has helped inform the design of new and existing spaces, and the way that they work. We do in-depth user research and prototyping in order to drive our product and service design work, such as collaborating with We the Curious on how to improve the educational experience for children through haptic light installations integrated into Citiblox. We have partnered with We the Curious to develop a kinetic pavement installation outside their main entrance, inviting guests to explore and play with the novel idea of dynamic, modular paving installations. By introducing a dynamic kinetic pavement, we are envisioning the interaction design for a new street of the future, and allowing the general public to ask questions, test out our technology and form an educated opinion on the transformation smart city technologies bring.

Citiblox team rapid prototyping as one of our ‘sprint’ sessions.

District Scale
By combining an agile design process with an open-source, modular technology stack, we are able to unlock a new type of place; a place that can flex and adapt to requirements and infrastructures as they emerge; is more affordable to manage yet with better experience; that creates creative, thriving, healthy communities. These values are reflected in our partnership with The Circle, an organisation bring the circular food economy and smart urban technology to a challenging city centre location in Bristol. St James Barton roundabout is on of Bristol’s busiest road junctions, and therefore it is crucial we use this space intelligently, to develop innovative solution to tackle this critical challenge. At Citiblox, we wanted want to increase public engagement throughout the development process. That is why Citiblox provides an interactive platform for community participation, and the capability to adapt to the changing demands and programs of the St James Barton Roundabout. Fitting with the Circle’s vision of the circular economy, our digital pavements form an integrated network of pavers that can communicate with each other to solve urban challenges.

Citiblox delivered key precedents to Bristol’s Executive Director of Growth and Regeneration Collin Molton

Urban Scale
Finally, we work with Bristol city to develop more holistic, integrated urban strategies by ensuring that concepts like ‘smart city’ are integrated into planning and development agendas — we use design to make this tangible, grounded in a broader context, understanding the limits of technology, the value of physical and digital solutions combined, of shifting social and cultural perceptions, and organisational or political demands. The reality is that Government decision makers need to work closely with the private sector — including startups like Citiblox — if they want to improve urban quality-of-life. A recent McKinsey study shows 60% percent of the initial investment in digital solutions to city challenges could come from private companies, saving millions of taxpayer’s pounds. We believe that our partnership with Bristol City Council allows city governments to access the unparalleled benefits of adopting smart technology infrastructure.

Initial rendering of the urban realm with Citiblox — day and night

So we organise our work in terms of scale — from an augmented reality app to building, street, neighbourhood, district, city, region and so on. These scales are connected, in that good design considers both the single feel of a step on a kinetic paving slab, all the way up to the integration of Citiblox in an urban plan, and most elements in-between, zooming back and forth between those things constantly. We also think carefully about timeframe, and pace of change, as we are working on projects that are very near-term, like an app accessible by mobile phone, through to major infrastructure projects and urban districts, and even further afield such as the integration of connected autonomous vehicles, which are multi-decade projects — if not ongoing, arguably.

Citiblox strive to combine the teams’ experience to present solutions that are innovative, drawing on entrepreneurial and academic foresight, but also pragmatic, from real-world experience of the barriers to change. To do so requires original research, leading to informative, imaginative concept designs for smart paving solutions, which can be rapidly prototyped to streamline our process of design, build, evaluate and iterate.This design-led approach ensures that visions and strategies for Citiblox are tangible and grounded, yet inventive and compelling, and engaged with our clients throughout. Equally, it ensures that concepts can be quickly turned into detailed designs that work, having flushed out key questions as early as possible. Again, this concept design approach is hardly unusual in other industries, but is rarely done coherently with buildings, streets, neighbourhoods, cities and so on.

And yes, it is hard work being a 22 yr old female entrepreneur in an industry dominated by older males. But it is also highly rewarding, for all concerned. Thanks to the hard work of our growing team we have run our initial prototyping sprint, and are ready to take our design solutions to the client, ask for feedback and iterate — demonstrating the value of strategic design. Personally, it’s a joy to work with, and learn from, the particular individuals in the team, and help them grow as the projects do. We believe our model is genuinely working, and we draw hugely from the collective value of the University of Bristol and the Bristol-wide community, with its perhaps unparalleled array of skills and perspectives.