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Dr Liz O'Driscoll
Dr Liz O'Driscoll
Head of Innovation at Exeter City Futures


Exeter is the fastest growing city in the UK but also the slowest moving. Dr Liz O’Driscoll, Head of Innovation at Exeter City Futures, outlines their goal to make Exeter congestion free and energy independent by 2025


Cities, and the unprecedented growth of urban environments, present both the greatest challenge and opportunity of our lifetime. As drivers of economic growth, cities are essential to modern life, but unsustainable trends in energy use, congestion and associated negative consequences threaten the health of cities and their citizens. Rapid urbanisation presents acute challenges for all local and national governments with constrained capacity and finance for infrastructure delivery. Current restraints on the public purse are likely to compound matters unless tackled with solutions drawn from both public and private arenas. Exeter’s private and public sectors are already working in partnership to tackle these challenges head-on.

Exeter City Futures is the only privately funded whole city transformation programme in the UK, investing to stimulate innovative solutions to the challenges Greater Exeter faces. We have set the bold goal to make Exeter congestion free and energy independent by 2025.

Fastest growing but slowest moving

I joined Exeter City Futures a little over a year ago and in this short space of time I have had the opportunity to work alongside city leadership, stakeholders and residents to understand the vision for the city and to begin to explore the challenges it faces.

In January 2017 Exeter was named the fastest growing city in the UK. There is no doubt that within the City leadership this economic success has been welcome, but maintaining and expanding on the region’s successes in the future comes with its own set of challenges – challenges that align well with what’s happening at a national level as political parties focus on industrial strategy. The Greater Exeter population is expected to increase by 40,000 within the next ten years and, unless solutions are found, will bring increased pressure on housing, employment, the environment and our transport network. Indeed the City is already beginning to feel the effect of congested roads, being named the slowest moving by INRIX. Both headlines are evidence of the need to make change.

The good news is our economic region is prospering; offering fertile ground for attracting innovators, startups, and SMEs with solutions to help us thrive. Exeter is also home to the largest cluster of digital businesses south west of Bristol, with a population that is among the best trained in the UK. A world-leading university and several globally renowned organisations are testament to Exeter’s potential to make change.

Exeter City Futures

Founded in 2016, Exeter City Futures is as a Community Interest Company delivering transformational change within the City. Our vision is for a healthy and prosperous city with optimised and efficient energy and transport networks, a dynamic eco-system of commercial innovation and a high-skills economy that underpins growth and inward investment.

At its core, the Exeter City Futures approach is a process for defining problems, building partnerships to find solutions, and managing and measuring progress. Over the past year we have launched – alone or in partnership – a number projects that are beginning to address some of the challenges that face our city.

Fundamental to our approach is discovering what our City needs in this period of global change; what do we want our city to be and what opportunities do we want to make available to the citizens. We are building capacity within the city to unleash bold Ideas with big impact on our goals. Through creating an environment where the City innovates together, supported at the highest level with political and corporate partnership, we can focus our collaborative energy to deliver shared goals and inspire action that contributes towards sustainable change.

At a local level Exeter City Futures has developed a strategy that can be made to work to deal with global investment imperatives, local economic need and create places with drastically improved health and quality of life; all without long-term reliance on government subsidy.

We have an ambitious but achievable opportunity to thrive as a vibrant, sustainable City and an exemplar for place-based social and technological change. It is all too easy to focus on the big picture and we often ignore the small things which satisfy the needs of people on a very local scale. But through focussing on place and bringing together citizens, entrepreneurs, public and private sectors around a shared understanding of the real challenges, I believe that we can stimulate innovation that develops the types of solutions we need to find and ensure Exeter secures its status as a sustainable city fit for future generations.

Dr Liz O’Driscoll is Head of Innovation at Exeter City Futures

University of Bath
University of Bristol
Cardiff University
University of Exeter