[Kainos + Telensa] x Aston University Design Week

Date posted
25 October 2019
Reading time
19 Minutes
Nick Harewood

[Kainos + Telensa] x Aston University Design Week

As we have been growing our Birmingham office over the last 18 months, one of the key pillars has been to also build good relationships with local universities.  Kainos has always had strong ties with academic institutions from our roots in Belfast and we know how important it is to support and develop future talent while providing links between technology research and its commercial applications.  This applies as equally to our design disciplines as to our engineering capabilities, so we have sought out university programmes to partner with that have similar approaches to design practice as we do. 

Aston University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is home to not only the Computer Science department we have recruited graduates from previously, but also the Product Design BSc courses which have at their core the User-Centred Design approach we advocate and apply at Kainos Design.   

Each year, the Product Design courses kick off with a week-long design competition for the 2nd and final year students. The brief is set by an industry partner and supported by insight sessions and activities related to the brief.  This year, we were delighted to have the opportunity to provide the brief, and in looking to incorporate more than just digital design aspects, it was a great chance to frame the challenge around our exciting partnership with customer Telensa.   


Urban Data Project and the City Data Guardian is necessarily focused around the layers of trust and management of the wealth of data produced by the multi-sensor pods at an organisational and administrative level; we wanted the students to explore the human aspect of what it might mean to live in a connected, intelligent urban environment.  After an introduction to Kainos and our Birmingham office I spoke a bit about my own journey from a Product Design degree course to a career in Digital Product Design.  Then we explored what the concept of smart cities meant to the students where I was pleased and impressed by their answers; a lot of insightful and on-the-money descriptions of what Smart Cities could be and their likely impact. After an intro to Telensa and our partnership on the Urban Data project, I was able to introduce the briefs.   

The brief

Under the title of 'augmenting the human experience in the smart city of the future', we set the students three separate briefs to design a connected product to help citizens benefit from living in an intelligent urban environment. 

  1. Enable increased use of sustainable transport:
    Design a product that will help people to find the best route to travel by bike.
  2. Reduce the impact of living in an urban environment on health
    Design a product that will help people with asthma living in the city to minimise the risk to their health
  3. Enable citizens to take greater control of their data and privacy
    Design a product that helps citizens living in a connected city to indicate how much of their data they are willing to share. 

The intention of the briefs was to offer enough direction that the students didn't spend the short time they had available entirely in research, but also to leave some scope for exploration as to the different ways the outcomes could be achieved.  Our hope was that in the process of exploring digital and physical product solutions to these challenges, they might tease out some ideas, questions and different perspectives we may not have considered.   

Before they got started, the participants had a session with Marc Nevin and Marc Templeton from Kainos' Applied Innovation team who had made the trip over from Belfast.  They were able to impart a ton of insights around the practical applications of IoT sensor technology combined with Machine Learning that was in equal measures inspiring and daunting! A very positive aspect of the session was the amount of discussion generated about privacy, ethics and trust; exactly what we hoped would happen! At the heart of all our work with Telensa on building the City Data Guardian is a focus on security and empowering smart cities' Chief Data Officers to build public trust and engagement. Having the students examine what that trust meant to them in their own experience of data sharing through platforms like social media and how that might evolve in the future was invaluable to try and ensure they kept those considerations to the front of their mind when designing solutions to the challenges we'd set. 


After the great conversation and initial glimpses of different approaches to the problems being explored that I'd seen on Monday, I was excited to see the presentations on Friday. We had gathered a selection of prizes for the top three teams, including a few Amazon vouchers, copies of The Design Thinking Playbook and some mobile UI design notebooks to help in their future digital design endeavours. 

A 'passive climate indicator' in the form of an artificial plant which responded to the data about the levels of pollution and weather conditions outside by growing or shrinking its leaves as an indicator to the user, tailored to the individuals' triggers. 

The third placed team were one of a few teams who explored the idea of a connected asthma inhaler paired with an app.  Their concept was well realised in physical design and how it made use of data but their presentation also explored ideas around social change -  critical to the design process as the world around us continues to develop at astounding pace. 

The time we spent with the students during the week was great fun and an excellent opportunity for us to reflect on our own work, considering design as a wider discipline than the largely digital world we work in.  The return on that small investment on our part was really impressive to see; how the design week participants had taken those briefs, explored the context and applied different ways of thinking with their own fresh, youthful perspective on the world.   

Huge thanks to Dr Becky Mallaband and colleagues at Aston University for inviting us to sponsor Design Week, and their hospitality in looking after my colleagues and I; it was a real pleasure and something we would love to do more of.  It was a great job by all the teams, and we were really impressed with how they had engaged with the brief. We are sharing their insights back with the project team and our friends at Telensa.  We'll also be keeping an eye on the exciting projects coming from the Aston Design students over their next couple of years! 

We were thrilled to be joined by the team from Kainos for our annual design week.  
Our students really enjoyed getting stuck into the live design briefs, and in particular to think about how their products can be part of a smart city of the future, along with the ethical issues that might come along with the use of more intelligent technology.

Dr Becky Mallaband, Senior Lecturer in User-Centered Design at Aston University 

And finally, a quote from our partners for the week, Telensa.

At its heart, smart city technology is about using data to make better places for people to live, and we've been working closely with Kainos to make it happen in the Urban Data Project. Aston University is developing the design leaders of the future, and it has been exciting to see them bring fresh thinking to smart city data, designing new human-centred applications for urban environments.

Keith Day, Chief Marketing Officer, Telensa.

About the author

Nick Harewood