Meet the researcher: Oliver Nash

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

Our Meet the researcher series introduces the lab's doctoral candidates and research staff to give insight into our research and policy work - why we do it, what the challenges are, and why we're based at UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy.

Oliver is a Doctoral Candidate in Engineering, Technology and Public Policy at STEaPP. His research focuses on how governments can use digital technologies to address organisational and societal challenges, primarily through Collective Intelligence, data science and citizen collaboration.

What inspired you to do a Doctorate?

My interest emerged from my work as a policy advisor. I have worked for the UK government for the past few years, where my roles have focused around technology, social innovation and improving public services. I became increasingly interested in public sector innovation and data science. And more broadly, how governments acquire new knowledge and ideas.

As an undergraduate I studied Human Sciences, which is a course that enables you to cover topics in both the biological and social sciences, and so I’ve always been interested in interdisciplinary approaches to research. I realised that there are still a lot of unanswered questions around the impact of technology on policy - as well as vice versa. I thought this would be a good way to investigate some of them.

Why study at Urban Innovation and Policy Lab / STEaPP?

There continue to be big gaps in understanding between people developing systems to address urban challenges - and people who work for and live in cities. Technologies increasingly mediate peoples’ interactions with public services. They also also influence our movements and behaviours in cities more generally. But at the same time, there continues to be relatively little research that looks at either the ethical issues with current systems, or how technology could be used more systematically by governments to address social challenges. The research projects at STEaPP are a really important part of ensuring some of these questions are looked at from multiple angles.

Tell us about your PhD research project...

My research looks at the concept of collective intelligence design, and how this new approach could be applied to policy challenges. There are many different understandings of collective intelligence. Crowdsourcing platforms are now being used to solve problems ranging from R&D in businesses to galaxy discovery and even T-shirt design. In some ways, collective intelligence is a very old concept. It dates at least as far back as Francis Galton’s famous experiment in 1906, in which he demonstrated that a crowd at a village fair were able to accurately guess the weight of a cow.

More recently, collective intelligence has been used to describe how human and machine intelligence can be combined at scale.

My particular interest is in how collective intelligence approaches can be applied to democracy, with the aim of combining and enhancing knowledge contributed by citizens. There have been some interesting experiments in policy crowdsourcing and ‘CrowdLaw’, but it’s still very early stages. Finland and Taiwan are good examples of countries where it’s worked in practice and generated some tangible outcomes. More recently, President Macron has hosted a ‘Great Debate’ in France, in which over 1.4 million people contributed. I’m currently trying to establish the areas in which these approaches can be most usefully applied, and how a combination of machine learning and user-centred design could make them a lot more effective.

What has been the biggest challenge in doing urban research?

In the area of smart cities research, I find there is a lot of hyperbole and corporate terminology. And many different terms for essentially the same thing. I also find there are broadly two sets of discussions happening - one about intelligent technologies and sensors, and the other about institutions and how they can improve. For me, an important question is how whole systems could be more intelligent, and how public agencies can combine different types of knowledge, technology and data in order to solve problems. I think a big challenge in urban research is how to set up sufficiently ambitious experiments that involve these different elements and improve our understanding of what works.

What are your top (urban-related) books?

The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism - Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak

The Death and Life of Great American cities - Jane Jacobs

Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution - Janette Sadik-Khan

The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations - Lewis Mumford

Smart Cities: Big data, civic hackers and the quest for a new utopia- Anthony Townsend