Arup Digital Studio
Building a different kind of design team at Arup
For the last three years I’ve been creating a new team within Arup, the global engineering and design consultancy (Update: see postscript at the end of this piece). It’s called Arup Digital Studio, and it’s a strategic and service design team. Actually, following Ove Arup’s term, it’s a total design team, an attempt to build a multidisciplinary unit that can address the core questions latent within a project, or opportunity, from multiple perspectives, and invent or uncover new approaches to them. Our particular expertise is in the relationships and interactions between people, place and technology. We design spaces, services and strategies, taking a human-centred approach to all the scales, from the cellphone to the city.
We’re currently around ten people in London—a brew of architects, urban planners, UX designers, user researchers, service designers and strategists—and with a growing ‘family’ of like-minded compatriots across the Arup group globally, with footholds in our offices in Amsterdam, New York, Melbourne, Sydney and Copenhagen. It’s a strong team! Current team-members include Andres Mendoza, Agostino Nickl, Anastasia Vikhornova, Camilla Siggaard Andersen, Anne Frobeen, Chris Green (in NYC), Ellie Pollard, Joe McKenzie, Oli Whittington, Rebecca Chau, and Zung Nguyen Vu (+ one alumnus still in touch, Anna Pöyry!), with a wider internal network including the likes of Salomé Galjaard, Kristian Winther, Rachel Abrams, Francesca Birks, Nicola Hudson, Olga Dziemidowicz—and then the rest of Arup.
In terms of method, we take the playbook of digital design (the various techniques of user-centred design, user experience design, service design, interaction design, user research etc.) and drop it into the world of built environment, infrastructure and municipal governance, which has hitherto rarely engaged with those approaches. We combine that playbook with an evolution of the strategic design practice that a few of us have been helping develop over recent years.
And although we’re moored to the built environment and infrastructure industries, given Arup’s positioning and capabilities, we’ve done an incredibly diverse array of projects. The image at the top of this post is actually a composite of drawings from many of our projects this last year, deliberately mashing the scales together.
I’ll unpick a few of those projects in more detail in subsequent posts, as informal case studies. However, many of our projects are very early stages, or confidential, and so only a handful can be shared at this point—apologies. Here are some examples of what we work on, though:
We do in-depth user research and prototyping in order to drive our product and service design work, such as helping improve the user experience across the University of Melbourne campus via new types of building and wayfinding; devising the global wayfinding strategy for Google’s campuses (in collaboration with Applied Wayfinding); enabling the British Library to better understand their audience; describing future metro station interactions for JC Decaux and the aviation-related equivalents for Heathrow Airport; envisioning the interaction design for a new ‘not-smartphone’ for Punkt (working with Studio Folder); creating virtual reality-based prototyping rigs for HS2, the UK’s new high speed rail network; and conveying how autonomous vehicles could help unlock more human streetscapes, sketched, with implications, for numerous cities.
Our ability to work across all touch-points — whether architectural or digital, human or natural — has helped inform the design of new and existing buildings, and the way that they work. We work at the earliest of stages, such as concept designs and strategic cases for potential new city centre libraries in Sheffield, Leeds and Melbourne, through to the details of interactions, operations and user experience, such as the user experience strategy for Victoria & Albert Museum and Collingwood Arts Precinct, service design for Google’s new London HQ, our own new HQ, Derwent’s White Collar Factory and others; a new physical/digital approach to museum labels and signage for ACMI in Melbourne, and many more.
We have devised new approaches to working at the scale of major urban projects, innovation districts to university campuses. By combining an agile design process with lightweight, malleable technologies, 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. We’ve developed these ideas for Melbourne Innovation District, where did much of the early vision and strategy work, Stratford Waterfront and Old Oak Common in London; we helped shape much of the early vision and strategy work for Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs (working with Anthony Townsend and Bryan Boyer, amongst others); devising new station typologies for Network Rail; working with Terroir, ASPECT and others on the urban design for Sydney Bays West; and working with Gemeente Amsterdam to directly shape the development of Amsterdam’s Sloterdijk, Sluisbuurt and ArenAPoort districts, amongst others.
Finally, we work with a set of cities across the world to develop more holistic, integrated urban strategies by ensuring that concepts like ‘smart city’ or urban innovation are integrated into planning and development agendas — we use design to make this tangible, grounded 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. We’ve done this work with city governments in Amsterdam, London, Melbourne, Stockholm, Sheffield, amongst others, as well as having advisory positions with the EU’s DECODE project and the Participatory City Foundation in London, amongst numerous other engagements, particularly across European and Australian urban networks. This work devises new teams, new strategies and new tools, such as the augmented reality citizen participation toolkits developed with Ericsson R&D’s Strategic Design Lab (and subsequently taken forward by them with UN HABITAT and Minecraft.) Equally, we helped create new citizen participation approaches for Sheffield’s recent city centre masterplan, markedly increasing public engagement with the plan’s ideas when displayed in and around the city centre.
So we organise our work in terms of scale—from app or sign up to building, street, neighbourhood, district, city, region and so on. As I’ve noted many times, these scales are connected, in that good design considers both the door handle and the 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 a cellphone or an imminent building, through to major infrastructure projects which won’t open for until 2028, or on urban districts, like Old Oak Common in London or Sluisbuurt in Amsterdam, which are multi-decade projects—if not ongoing, arguably.
Although clients are often saying “tell us what the future holds”, we try to resist that the sense that this concept design is Foresight, futurism or future-gazing in any way. I’d argue that all design work is in the future, almost by definition; the question is whether it’s next week or next decade. (In reality, understanding that what we do next week is connected, albeit loosely, to what happens next decade, just as the concept of ‘path dependency’ tell us that it is in some way shaped by what’s happened previously—thus a deep understanding with context and history is also required in the design process.)
In terms of the Royal Institute of British Architect’s project phases, which has shaped a lot of the built environment industry’s practice, we’re often doing the missing concept design phase of ‘minus 1’ (particularly as for us, the best answer need not necessarily be a building, even), and at the other end, the ‘plus 8’ and beyond, focusing on the lived experience of a thing, and its ongoing design.
Aside: I recently unpacked my thinking on this a bit more recently, in an interview with Jarrett Fuller for his excellent podcast Scratching the Surface, noting how, for me, interaction design, service design and strategic design fit together, nested in terms of scale, almost, and speculative design is almost like a ratchet or time-slider you use to modify those things: Am I designing a ticket barrier for next week, or ten years time? Either way, interaction design has a handy set of tools. Is this city-making team we’re devising delivering projects this year, or do we move to this over several years? Either way, strategic design is what we’re doing there. Time and scale are variables, running across those individual disciplines. I subsequently wrote that up.
Our approach to the future is not to predict, either way. We can conceive of likely scenarios of course, and plot desirable trajectories within the arc of possibility they describe. Yet we must recognise that we will need to course-correct as we go, given the rate of cultural or technological change, or the emergence of unforeseen circumstances. For me, this means a renewed interest in adaptive design, and in creating adaptive design strategies that enable places, spaces and services to flex to changing needs and desires over time, and to pivot as required. Most built environment practice, from urban planning down, is not framed with this in mind, so we’re finding considerable interest in our approaches here.
In particular, we use a deep understanding of user experience to pull projects into a local context attuned to patterns of behaviour, as well as unlocking a richer sense of value. Focusing on people, within the wider context of the systems that surround them, helps inform both everyday design decisions and complex societal challenges such as climate change, public health, inequality, urbanisation and so on.
As to the word ‘digital’ in the title, I’m always a little ambivalent about that. It’s partly pragmatic, as Digital is the group we sit in at Arup, which is a good place to position the work. But obviously, this open approach means some of the ideas we generate are not digital at all, or at least barely. So while working with digital concepts and experiences is often particularly relevant for our clients, due to the potential for transformative approaches, our particular capability is in ensuring that these ideas are grounded in a broader context, understanding the limits of technology, the value of physical and digital solutions combined, addressing shifting social and cultural perceptions, as well as their organisational or political demands. In this, we also collaborate with academic partners like the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, Royal College of Art, and RMIT University in Melbourne—and in particular, the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, at UCL.
Finally, we place great emphasis on making the thinking tangible, following my colleague Bryan Boyer’s phrase, making strategy you can see. This might well be sketch videos, which we’ve used with great success, or a real emphasis on drawing in order to flush out damaging ambiguity and crisply illustrate genuine possibility. And, if we’re talking documents as a deliverable, we ensure that it’s strategy that you might actually want to read, in a format you might actually want to read it in. (Each of our main client reports this year has been produced as a richly illustrated newspaper, via Newspaper Club.)
Essentially then, we help clients and collaborators figure out what to do. We conduct original research, leading to informative, imaginative concept designs, which can be prototyped in order to ensure subsequent development is thorough, streamlined and effective. This design-led approach ensures that visions and strategies are tangible and grounded, yet inventive and compelling. 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.
This is my second stint at Arup, following on from the Sydney years of 2007–2011 as Head of Foresight and Innovation for our Australasian region business, where I worked across many building, district and infrastructure projects, building a small team there too, such as Michelle Tabet, Jason McDermott, Safiah Moore, and others (all of whom have gone on to do further great things, in and out of Arup.) The key difference between then and now is that a decade ago, many clients were simply uninterested, or uninformed, about the impact of tech on cities, buildings and everyday life, and often equally uninterested in the way that people might generally experience and value those things anyway.
Now, it is almost impossible to not face the technological, social, or environmental agenda directly. Many have woken up to the importance of human-centred design, or of user experience, again partly due to tech’s influence, as well as a broader understanding of the value of design, and genuine research. Some are beginning to understand the challenge of designing for machine-to-machine interactions too, as they also join the fold. Others approach this more systemic, holistic point-of-view from an environmental perspective.
Yet thanks to the built environment industry’s well-known intransigence, multiplied by the contemporary understanding of government practice, many still try to ignore these aspects. It is still hard work. Despite the fundamental impact of the built environment, infrastructure and municipal governance on the way we live, on who we are, on what we can do, on our values, too few procure this kind of work. We generally have to convince our clients and collaborators to do so (we are broadly successful at this!). Yet each project has proved its worth, I feel, in terms of sketching out more considered questions and richer answers, inventing and validating new approaches, and helping forge the organisations and methods that can deliver them.
That these new approaches can now clearly manifest themselves in built, or experiential, outcomes is hugely satisfying. The ‘Home.Two’ structures that Breathe Architecture delivered for University of Melbourne, drawn from our detailed Research–Concept–Prototype phase, are a great example of this. Work for Sheffield, Punkt, and Google could likewise be pointed at.
Although my first stint at Arup also produced tangible outcomes — particularly for the State Library of Queensland, Helsinki, Knox— it was often about influencing strategy; influential and affecting, but often remaining in-house. Now, it is both, strategy through to particular people, place, product, platform.
(Ed. This means working at all scales of design I later sketched out in my ‘The city is my homescreen’ essay, from interaction design to service design, speculative design to strategic design, architecture to planning.)
So yes, it is hard work. But it is also highly rewarding, for all concerned. The hard work of this small team over the last few years—over 100 projects and counting—is further demonstrating the value of strategic design, as well as mapping out new territories for existing fields. 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. It’s further reinforced for me the potential of teams of this scale (learning from Team of Teams and as usual, football.)
The point of the team is that it is a small, sharpened nib on the front of Arup. As projects and opportunities develop, we can draw from the deep expertise that the wider firm has, with 90+ disciplines spread across ~15,000 employees in 34 countries, aligned to our independence. That process is never quite as straightforward as it sounds, because large organisations, and the sometimes precarious balancing act between deep expertise and broad perspective. However, the model is genuinely working, and we draw hugely from the collective value of Arup’s community, with its perhaps unparalleled array of skills and perspectives.
I’ll share more of the work in future, as it develops, and as we can talk about it. Do get in touch if you want to know more.
Postscript: I wrote this piece partly as a summary of the start-up phase for the Studio, detailing the ideas, approaches and some of the projects. Having set it up, established the team and done a ton of practice-defining projects, including many more than are mentioned here, I left Arup at the end of 2018 – not before finding a successor who could take things forward with the team, and the firm (it’s important to tidy up after oneself.) And I’ve moved onto new things in Sweden, as Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency. The team still exists and is thriving, happily, as is Arup of course. Get in touch with them if you’re interested in work like this. And more on my next venture later.