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Prototyping the future of our city region

A run down of the Alternate Futures Lab, part of Distractions 2019

Imagine you’ve just arrived in 2050, a visitor from the not-too-distant past. You take a stroll (or maybe hop on a solar-powered hoverboard) around Greater Manchester from Bolton to Bury, Tameside to Trafford. Taking a look around, you’re pleased to discover the kind of inclusive, forward-thinking, well-designed place people talked about and hoped for in 2019… What does that look like?

This is the challenge we set a bunch of local artists, makers and technologists during Alternate Futures (our part of Distractions 2019). Based at The Shed for two days in July, this brilliant group of creative thinkers set to work honing in on a particular challenge for our city regions and communities, and then began to imagine a brighter future. At the end of the two days, the groups presented their prototypes at the Alternate Futures Symposium, alongside speakers and audience members working in tech, local policy and the creative industries.

Imagining the future of Greater Manchester

Whenever we talk about future cities, people often conjure sci-fi visions: complex networked urban landscapes, armoured robots and flying cars for all! In these visions, the shiny metallic slick of technology is always at the forefront, leading the way.

But technology is an enabler — it’s a means by which to realise our dreams for the future, not dictate them. What if we don’t want flying cars or facial-recognition in every doorway? What if we want fewer cars and more green space? Less surveillance and more empowered communities? As visions for ‘smart’ cities continue to press forward at a pace, it remains crucial to create space for ongoing conversation around what we as communities want from our regions. 

With Alternate Futures — part lab, part symposium — we wanted to bring people together to think about people and place: about the kinds of city regions we want to design when we consider things like real human need, citizen interaction and environmental factors. At the Lab, participants could then access and use technology like 3D printing and generative design only if it served their ideas. The result was a collection of four diverse prototypes tackling themes of ownership, accountability, personal data and decision-making in our regions.

But first, a quick lowdown of the day…

After a quick intro from the FutureEverything team, our brilliant group of Citizen Futurists introduce themselves. We were blown away by the diverse range of backgrounds, skills and interests in the room.

Jasmine Cox (Development Producer for BBC R&D FutureExperiences) presents ‘a new internet for the people’ to kick off a series of lightning talks to inspire the group.

Up next, Artist Brendan Dawes chatted through some of his creative projects that use technology in a playful way to tease out universal themes, stories and real human connection.

Finally, Phil Swan from GMCA rounded off the lightning talks with a brief look at the emerging themes in the GM Digital Strategy. Food for thought for the next two days.

From lightning talks to Industry 4.0 with Ed Keefe from PrintCity (at The Shed), who talked through how 3D printing and generative design is creating new possibilities in the world of industrial design.

Defining what matters – After a morning of inspiring talks and sessions, participants formed project groups and began mapping key themes and conversations kicked up from the talks and their own areas of interest or expertise. The idea was to think about some of the key challenges facing GM communities, and where the opportunities to think differently might lie.

Throughout the day we also had regular opportunities for groups to share their conversations and ideas with other groups, inviting feedback and thoughts from the room.

After lunch, groups were invited to start honing in on a particular challenge or area that resonated with them. The idea was to then turn this hope, fear or potential ‘problem’ highlighted in a challenge statement to use a springboard for ideas.

From challenge statement to initial concepts… in just a few hours, the group started discussing concepts and ideas they might want to turn into a prototype. The clock was ticking…

In the afternoon, participants could then take a more in depth tour of the technology at PrintCity, and opt to take a short training sessions in Generative Design if it would benefit their prototype.

The rest of the afternoon and the next morning were taken up with rapidly developing ideas and concepts into an early prototype to share with audiences at the alternate futures Symposium. The group didn’t have much time (this was rapid prototyping after all), which is why prototypes could take any form: from design fiction, to printed mock up.

On the afternoon of day two, the groups took to the stage at the symposium to showcase their ideas.

The Prototypes


With Liberative, the team wanted to tackle the challenges citizens face when it comes to local decision making. Challenges like inefficient communication, slow or unreliable responses and lack of agency. Where once people may have used a smartphone app to report info about their local area, Liberative uses AI to take the noise out of local decision making. The intention is to create more deliberate decision making, reduce the need for public effort (i.e. reporting) and generate more efficient reporting.

Team members: Keisha Thompson, Anna Horton-Cremin, Matthew Pilling, Franziska Pilling, David Jackson


The second team to present their idea was team Buddleia. Taking their inspiration from the buddleia plant which seems to grow in derelict, disused spaces in the city centre (take a look next time you’re out and about), the team proposed a system for creating more shared ownership for these types of spaces. By connecting to the Buddleia network, people can easily report or locate vacant spaces, and reclaim there for creative and artistic purposes — from makeshift galleries, to outdoor venues.

Team members: Jacob Bolton, Jasmine Cox, Bentley Crudgington, Andrea Pazos, Natalie Amber

PAGMA — People’s Accountable Greater Manchester Authority

In this design fiction approach, the team imagined how to build an empathetic utopian society for GM based on principles of cohesion, wellbeing and individual self-awareness. They explored a shared public forum idea, in which residents must share ideas, seek feedback from the wider community and reflect on potential impact before taking action. With PAGMA, all ‘assets’ are decentralised and community owned, from energy to governance. And value is driven by sustainability and ease of maintenance.

Team members: Ali Rome, Georgia Newmarch, Sophie Ashcroft, Joe Whitmore, Izzy Bolt, Claire McNulty


“Local government hold and utilise large amounts of our personal data. Who else has access to our data? What is it used for? Do we really know? Time for a data revolution!”

Team members: James Medd, David McFarlane, Alex Bower, Adam Pritchard

ALTERNATE FUTURES was part of Distractions – a long weekend of debates, talks, panels, and showcases with some of the world’s leading tech companies, artists and producers. Presented by Manchester International Festival, Sound City and FutureEverything, developed by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham and Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

Huge thanks to everyone who joined the Alternate Futures Lab, and our event partners GMCA.