Live from project Future of the High Street. Data and co-design: time for some jargon-busting!

The fourth in our blog series about project ‘Future of the High Street’ — openly sharing the evolving project and process, our learnings and findings. This month — we do some jargon busting around co-design and data — and what it means for this project. Or scroll down for this month’s insights direct from the project team members.

Film by Future of the High Street film-maker Megan Miller

Co-design. Engagement. Design thinking. Data-driven. Urban data. Data and design. There’s a lot of jargon out there! And the Future of the High Street project combines aspects from all these things. So, this month, we wanted to focus on jargon busting!

The ‘Future of the High Street’ is a collaborative project led by the Edinburgh Futures Institute and New Practice. We are working with local independent businesses, residents and organisations on two Edinburgh region high streets, to rapidly design, pilot and test two small-scale ideas or ‘high street tweaks’ to address key challenges for the high street. These will go on-site in June for 2 weeks, in two project locations — Gorgie/Dalry Road and Dalkeith. The aim? To test out small, nimble ideas that we hope could deliver a big impact for local independent businesses and the high street as a destination and place (read more here).

Two terms that we often use as a short-hand for the way we are delivering this project are ‘co-design’ and ‘data-driven’. That’s because we are interweaving a co-design approach and data into our design process.

But what do we mean by ‘co-design’ and ‘data’? And how are we using co-design and data for this project? These terms can mean different things to different people, or manifest in different ways on different projects. So let’s use the Future of the High Street as an example of how we are using them.


What do you think of if we say ‘data’? What about ‘urban data’? Or ‘data-driven’? Maybe… numbers? Digital 0’s and 1’s? Perhaps sensors and smart technologies? All of those are right, and can be part of the way we gather or analyse data about a place. But data can be gathered in a lot of different ways.

Some methods use digital tools and technology, such as ‘smart’ sensors measuring everything from environmental conditions to tracking traffic movement, GPS phone data or analysing social media datasets. Others involve collecting data in-person by observing how people use or experience the places in our cities, by talking to people and listening to their experiences and perspectives, or finding new ways to use or synthesise existing reports or other information that already exist in the world. (In many ways you could argue this is also a ‘smart’ use of data).

To explain how we’re using data on this project, perhaps it’s simplest to think of data as ‘information’.

We would like to find, collect, analyse and integrate as much useful information into our decision-making processes throughout the project duration, so we can make more informed decisions that improve project outcomes. From better understanding the most pertinent challenges that the two pilots should respond to, to information about how footfall or people’s perception of the high street changes when the pilots are in place that help us evaluate their impact.

Where we are creating new datasets we are aligning these wherever possible with what information will be helpful to others too as a legacy from this project. From public life street research and interviews with residents about how they currently use the high street and future market demand that can feed into local authorities’ work and planning, to sharing our findings from pilots with other high streets thinking about doing similar.

We are particularly interested in using data to support 3 different parts of the Future of the High Street project:

  1. Data to understand the background context of these two high streets as a place. We are collecting information through facade, land use and character studies to better understand the current mix of businesses, hours of activity and qualities of the built environment. The project team have also synthesised previous consultation reports that used the Place Standard or other local insights into the challenges, opportunities and perceptions of these high streets more broadly as places. This is important — reducing consultation fatigue by listening to and valuing the input of local people who already generously shared their time previously. It also means that instead of repeating questions, we can then use current participants’ time more productively to fill in any gaps, and focus on the upcoming pilots specific to this project.
  2. Data to inform the design, development and selection of high street ‘tweaks’ or pilots that will deliver most positive impact by addressing key high street challenges. To do this we are listening to the lived experiences and perspectives of the people who know most about the high street’s challenges and opportunities — the local residents, independent businesses and organisations — through conversations, surveys and workshops. We will be working closely with them to shape and refine the 6 ideas we’ll be sharing via a toolkit in May based on their local expertise and knowledge, and which of the two of those ideas should be piloted in June.
  3. Data to evaluate the impact of the two pilots. These findings allow us to share an evidence-base of impact, learnings, and recommendations for any further development of pilots — whether within these two project locations or by other high streets nationwide. We will collect this information using an initial series of on-street research studies in May as a baseline (similar to a Public Life Street Assessment), and then compare our findings with a repeat study in June whilst the pilots are in place. Research activities will include a range of studies — from footfall counts to mapping of pedestrian behaviour and interviews with passers-by. Each carried out at different times of day, simultaneously by a team of 4 researchers in different locations along the high street.

In this way, the project is ‘data-driven’. In other words — there are a few key ways we are trying to find, collect or analyse ‘data’ on this project that will inform our ‘live’ decision-making, improve project outcomes, and help us share useful findings.

Put another way, data helps drive and inform the design and decision-making process, and helps us share useful evidence-based outputs with others.

This data complements and adds extra information to help shape our decisions — alongside insights from the project team’s design expertise, the local expertise of high street stakeholders and input from our advisory board, as well as practical considerations of time, budget and meeting project deliverables.

Beyond our own internal project decision-making, we are also sharing data in the form of our learnings about the co-design process in practice, challenges and future opportunities identified for the high street, and findings from our two co-created pilots. Through blogs such as this, we hope to share useful information with others to increase this project’s impact.

So that’s data… but what about co-design?


At its heart, co-design is about designing with people, not for them. It’s about not just listening to and respecting the views, knowledge and contributions of those who have lived experience of a particular place or issue, but ensuring that they can be actively involved in the design process as early as possible. It gives stakeholders a genuine seat at the table alongside those with design expertise to shape and decide together the output of a design process.

Co-design is about the process. It’s about finding ways to work together in an open dialogue and crucially ‘co-decide’ wherever possible too.

Co-design therefore goes beyond just ‘consultation’ — which is typically one-way feedback, often late in the process — and even ‘engagement’ — which involves a more active two-way conversation, to create more of a partnership approach.

When power is shared in this way, and there is mutual trust and respect between the professional design team and local people — each recognising each others’ experience and skills and working together in an open and collaborative way — this diversity of voices, experience and training can lead to more robust, innovative and appropriate design outcomes.

As Kelly Ann McKercher says in their (excellent) book ‘Beyond Sticky Notes: Co-design for Real’,

“There is no co-designing without co-deciding. […] We need to shift our focus to how we design together (the process), not just what we make (the output).”

But adopting a co-design approach can be hard in practice, for a number of different reasons. Not only does it take considerable time and resources to do well, but it also can provide logistical challenges as the exact end result or outcome should not be pre-defined from the start, but shaped by the local people and design experts working together throughout the process.

The High Street Tweak website is our ‘shop front’ for our engagement and co-design activities.

So what does ‘co-design’ look like for the Future of the High Street project?

We are using stakeholder engagement and a co-design approach as much as possible within the project timeframe and budget. This includes a mix of initial conversations with key local organisations and high street businesses, online public surveys to better understand high street challenges and opportunities, and a series of community digital co-creation workshops to help shape, develop and refine pilots. Given the recent lockdown, we have been using digital tools from Miro, Whereby and Google Earth walk-throughs, as well as in-person activities with youth clubs as Covid restrictions start to ease. (You can read more about our engagement and co-design activities in last month’s blog: Digital Engagement During a Pandemic.)

Throughout all these activities, our principles and aims are based on a co-design approach. They include:

  • Not pre-defining what the two ‘high street tweak’ pilots will look like ahead of time, but designing, developing and deciding on these with local stakeholders at digital workshops to understand what will work best, is most feasible and will deliver most impact for the high street and its businesses in June.
  • Aiming for genuine collaboration from as early in the project as possible. For example, through conversations and co-creation workshops with local people to together develop, design and decide pilots.
  • Respecting the experiences, time and input of local stakeholders. For example, by providing local businesses taking part in workshops with incentives recognising their time (including photography, illustration or digital marketing packages), and by summarising and synthesising previous local consultation reports so we avoid perpetuating consultation fatigue and respect the time and input already provided by the community, and can better use the time they have for project-specific discussions that help shape and develop the pilots.
  • An open inclusive approach that allows diverse voices as part of these conversations. For example, by asking via initial surveys which time slots would suit different people best, and any digital support required to attend online workshops. We are also deliberately targeting project resources toward engaging with young people who often do not have a voice in shaping their local places.

We hope that by sharing the ways that we are using data and co-design in the Future of the High Street project we can help clarify both what these terms mean, and what they might look like in practice.

By using this data-driven and co-design approach, we aim to combine the strengths and knowledge of design experts, local experts and place data to deliver a project with improved outcomes, that fosters collaboration, and that respects the many different types of information and insights that enrich and can add value to any project.

Join us for next month’s blog which will share insights from initial project findings around the challenges and opportunities for the high street. Or keep reading for the inside track on our work over the last few weeks, direct from the project team.

Direct from the project team: our thoughts and diaries from inside the project process — April 2021.

Each month we share insights direct from the project team. This month focuses on what the project team has been working on as the stakeholder engagement activities and co-design process gets underway and we refine our evaluation approach.

Jenny Elliott (Project Lead, EFI):

“It’s been really exciting to see the project really taking shape the last few weeks, and I feel lucky to be working with such a fantastic project team. It’s been particularly exciting seeing conversations getting underway following the High Street Tweak website launch. Alongside the engagement work led by New Practice, I’ve been working with Project Officer Shawn Bodden on the evaluation and research aspects of this project. In particular, we have been refining the project’s ‘indicators of success’ — for both the pilots and the project as a whole — and if there are ways we can usefully feed our real-time learnings, reflections and findings back into the live project process, rather than the evaluation/research focussing retrospectively on the impact of the pilots at the end as is typically the case. I’ve found it really interesting thinking about ‘what does success look like?’ for this project — beyond the core project deliverables — and the ways we can extend our co-design approach to the evaluation too, by synthesising a shared vision of success from the perspectives of all those involved in the project, and where particular groups have overlapping interests. From the project team and Advisory Board, to the local stakeholders involved.”

Abi (New Practice — Community Engagement):

“Keeping eyes on youth engagement, I have found that over this time of transition, engaging young people has been particularly tricky. Having previously worked with young people digitally over the height of lockdown and with a blended approach using physical toolkits aided by digital instruction, we were confident that this project would be easily accommodated, however, we have found that building trust in times of transitions has been the element that has been time consuming. Understandably the priority of schools at this time are not the priority of education spaces therefore we have had to take a more sensitive approach to contacting and following up with schools, proving youth engagement to be a tricky element of the project to navigate. Currently, I have been looking at alternative routes through which we can allow young people to participate to ensure that the voice of local young people are heard and influence the project’s outcomes.”

Juliet (New Practice — Junior Designer):

“Over the past month, I have worked predominantly on the public engagement aspect of the project. It has been really exciting to see High Street Tweak launched into the world! In February, I helped to build the online survey for residents of Dalkeith and Gorgie-Dalry. It was a challenge to create a survey long enough to produce meaningful data, but not so long that participants wouldn’t have time to complete it. After a few drafts I feel we have found this balance. In February I also helped to develop a Miro board to be used in the online interactive sessions. The aim for the Miro board was to create a sense that participants are moving through real physical spaces, to try to emulate the feeling of an ‘in-person’ workshop online. More recently, I have been trying to contact as many businesses in Dalkeith and Gorgie-Dalry as possible, via phone, email and social media, to spread the word about High Street Tweak! Though at times it has been challenging to explain the project briefly to those who are very busy, the conversations over the phone have been informative and positive. Business owners in both locations seem to be eager to have their voices heard, and I am excited to hear people’s thoughts and ideas over the coming weeks.”

Shawn Bodden (Project Officer, EFI):

“I’ve been making lots of lists lately. It’s been a busy few weeks for the project, and it can be tough to keep up: the launch of the survey, a trial-run of online workshop resources, new ideas and feedback from Advisory Board members — and in between, the planning, conversation, double-checking, revising and adjusting that makes it all happen. Everyone’s working on different pieces of the project, and our meetings, emails and chats are opportunities — well, and challenges — to work out how it’ll all fit together. That New Practice have dubbed their prototypes-to-be ‘tweaks’ makes a lot of sense to me, since we’re continuously tweaking our plans as we encounter new ideas, concerns, obstacles and opportunities. School holidays, community-engagement reports, new gadgets. All sorts of things come up as we try to work out what we want the outcome of the project to look like — and what we should do (now, next, ASAP!) to get there.

A couple weeks back, I led a small workshop for the project team to think about the sorts of things we think would make the project successful: if community members feel a sense of authorship; if participants get excited about the project; if we learn more about what residents and visitors want from their High Street as a place. I’m finishing up a report just now following off the workshop and our other conversations as a Team to describe what our Team’s vision of success looks like together. Community input, making connections, best practice, feeling less alone. It’s another list of sorts — and like most lists, it has a purpose. By bringing as many of the Team’s priorities and ideas as possible onto the same page, we don’t just get a description of the project’s successful conclusion, but also insight into the ways we work out — here and now, as we go — how to work on the project well. It’s an inventory of concepts to work with and questions to keep in mind as we try to find a successful project together. The list will keep growing, and soon we’ll be able to add in opinions and suggestions from local stakeholders — creating new opportunities and new challenges. The task ahead, then, will be working out how to keep all these perspectives, ideas and concerns working together on a shared and shareable project.”

The Future of the High Street project is part of The University of Edinburgh’s ‘Data and Design Lab’ — funded by the Scottish Funding Council. It will act as a demonstrator project for how a data-and-design approach can be used to address key contemporary challenges and deliver positive impact. The project follows on from the Edinburgh Futures Institute Smart Places series in collaboration with the Edinburgh Living Lab and Data Driven Innovation programme. Find out more here.

Blog written by Jenny Elliott, Project Lead for Future of the High Street, and Smart Places Lead at Edinburgh Futures Institute.

We bring people together to solve problems using data and design.