New Centre for Digital Citizens to address challenges of digital citizenship

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

A new £9M research centre that will allow citizens across the country to grasp the possibilities of the digital revolution has been announced.

The Centre for Digital Citizens (CDC), led by Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, will explore how digital technologies can support areas such as public health and wellbeing, community engagement, citizen safety and technology-enhanced lifelong learning.

The project has been funded with £3.7m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), with matched funding from the universities and industry partners.

Led by Professor David Kirk, Director of Newcastle University’s Open Lab, the new centre will bring together 28 academics and 18 post-doctoral researchers across the two universities.

The CDC will work with citizens to co-design technologies to support and evaluate ‘smart’ and ‘data-rich’ living in urban, rural and coastal areas across the North East of England and beyond.

The technological innovations will be co-created between a network of academic, industrial, public and third sector partners, with citizens supporting the co-creation and delivery of research.

The project will be working in partnership with local and global organisations including Newcastle City Council, NHS Digital, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and BBC R&D.

What are digital citizens?

The Centre for Digital Citizens will focus on four critical Citizen Challenge areas:

  • The Well Citizen: Looking at how we can use shared and publicly available data to inform our personal health and wellbeing.
  • The Safe Citizen: Examining the role of algorithms and other data technology to support fair and secure societies.
  • The Connected Citizen: Designing ideas for next-generation of citizen-led digital public services.
  • The Ageless Citizen: Looking at the life-long role technology can play supporting learning opportunities for people young to old.

“As the world becomes more digital, it is vital that people feel supported by the technology around them,” explained Professor Kirk. “The Centre for Digital Citizens will allow us to explore how citizens and communities can be a part of the design of innovative technologies that work better for them, from finding ways to use shared personal data to creating citizen-led digital public services.

“Both Newcastle and Northumbria have expertise in participatory design and co-creative research, allowing us to work with people to deliver these technologies and create new innovations for the Digital Economy that empower citizens.”

Inclusive digital public services

Professor Pam Briggs of Northumbria University added: “This new Centre illustrates both institutions’ commitments to being Civic Universities, where our projects will take a place-based approach and be responsive to the needs of communities across the North East.

“The North East is a region where people experience wide-ranging disparities in terms of socio-economic status, geographical and social connectivity, health outcomes and care needs, and evidence suggests reliance on digital services can amplify such divides further. Our Centre aims to build technologies that carefully considers these issues and create digital services that enfranchise communities instead.”

Cllr Joyce McCarty, Deputy Leader, Newcastle City Council said: "It's great to see two universities in Newcastle collaborating on this programme around how emerging technologies can support citizens. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in the North East, and we need to make sure that digital public services are inclusive and designed with the people using them in mind.

"As one of the partners to the Centre for Digital Citizens, we're looking forward to exploring some new and innovative approaches to digital citizenship with the research team, the other organisations involved, and with communities."

EPSRC Executive Chair, Dame Professor Lynn Gladden, said: “New and emerging digital technologies will have a profound impact on many aspects of our lives, from our health and wellbeing to our work and leisure time.

“The investment announced today will not only support new ways of capitalizing on this opportunity but will also help to ensure that those using these new technologies are safe while doing so.”

The project aims to act as a catalyst for future innovation-focused Digital Economy activity, as there are plans to develop the pilot projects into further collaborative bids, venture capital pitches, spin-outs and social enterprises.

New investment

The Centre for Digital Citizens is one of six centres announced today as part of a £29m investment from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the body which incorporates the EPSRC.

Minister for Digital and Culture Caroline Dinenage said: “The UK’s world-renowned universities and fast-growing safety tech sector are coming up with answers to the important questions of the digital age - around privacy, security and online wellbeing.

“With this investment we are supporting organisations to build trust in the technology of tomorrow so people and businesses can use it to improve their lives and boost the economy.

“Add to that our forthcoming pro-innovation online harms legislation and we will give tech companies the clarity and responsibility to create safer online spaces for future generations to enjoy.”

Minister for Science, Research and Innovation Amanda Solloway said: “We rely on technology for so many things in our lives - from paying our bills and buying our weekly food shop to tackling climate change and finding new treatments for diseases. We must continue investing so we can keep pushing the boundaries of technological developments that improve our daily lives and transform industries.

“The six new research centres announced today will support our ambitious scientists and researchers to develop incredible innovations such as strengthening our online safety and delivering virtual education and healthcare, helping to cement the UK as a science superpower.”

The Centre for Digital Citizens will start on 1 November, and will build on a substantial joint legacy and critical mass of Digital Economy funded research between Newcastle and Northumbria universities, developing the work demonstrated in the highly successful Social Inclusion for the Digital Economy (SIDE) hub, Open Lab’s Digital Civics Centre for Doctoral Training and the former Digital Economy Research Centre (DERC).