Under the spotlight Scott Cunningham, Professor of Policy and Planning


Scott Cunningham joined us in 2019 as part of the School of Government & Public Policy. Scott is now the Professor of Policy and Planning within the School and is the course leader on the MSc's in Urban Policy and Technology Policy. As well as this, Scott is also the technology and innovation cluster champion for the HaSS Faculty and the pathway coordinator for Strathclyde in Human Geography, Environment and Urban Planning for the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science.

Tell us a little bit about your career so far...
I've had a vivid career which spans sectors and continents. After getting my PhD at the University of Sussex, I went to work for AT&T as a data scientist. I eventually ended up in Silicon Valley, where I helped found several data analytic start-up companies. I came back to Europe, and academia, when I was recruited as an assistant professor in policy analysis at the Delft University of Technology. I worked there for sixteen years, eventually becoming associate professor. For the Netherlands, and indeed for a lot of countries, having effective and sustainable infrastructure is a really big issue. I gained a lot of insight on this issue while working there.

What has been the most memorable moment of your career to date?
Maybe this is a little sentimental of me, but the most memorable moment for me has been signing my student's MSc diplomas. In the Netherlands, the graduation ceremony is traditionally conducted one-on-one between a full professor, the student, and their friends and families. It's really quite a ceremony. Later, I became qualified to sign these diplomas on behalf of the university.

What inspired you to enter into a career in Urban Studies?
Really a lot of things came together here. I'm totally fascinated by data, and I've loved maps of all kinds ever since I was a child. I'm curious about people, and also technology. I've learned a lot about infrastructure during my career. I've created algorithms for use in marketing, and I've also faced the brunt of such algorithms. I've also grown increasingly aware of the grand societal challenges facing the United Kingdom and also the world. All these topics come together in the field of urban policy, which for me makes it an ideal topic to teach and to research.

What is the significance of politics and governance within an engineering and technology university?
Politics and governance are immensely significant topics for an engineering university. Not to put too dramatic a face on things, but many technologies are largely ungoverned from cradle to grave. This occurs because of the many nations, institutions, and organisations that touch a technology along its supply chain. Markets span part of that space, but not the rest.

Politics and governance are also important contributors to creating well-rounded engineering professionals. The combination of social science and engineering education is really special. Students with this background are often big picture people, with skills at problem-formulation, communication and negotiation, teamwork and leadership. These are attributes really valued in the workforce. 

What is your role within the school?
I am the academic director for two of our new degree programmes. One is the MSc in Urban Policy Analysis offered by Humanities & Social Sciences. The other is a MSc in Technology Policy which is a joint programme as part of the Policy@Strathclyde programme. I'd like to grow these programmes, and ensure that students have a positive learning experience at Strathclyde.

I also intend to become deeply involved in gaining research grants. This has at least two aspects. Many research calls in the United Kingdom, and also in Europe, are looking for a cross-cutting perspective on solving problems. These grants want to see teams of people, both engineering and social science, working together to solve significant transdisciplinary problems. Another aspect of this mission is that this research requires strong engagement from citizens, and also from local and national government. I'd like to build a strong network of contacts, particularly here in Glasgow.

What current trends do you see influencing your field?
Urbanisation is itself a trend. All over the world nations are building urban territories at a pace never before seen. This is very concerning, but also shows a lot of promise and opportunity. The uptake of data, for and about cities, is very significant. This whole field of data analysis, as it concerns cities, is also known as urban analytics. Another issue concerns sustainability, recycling and climate adaptation. For all our sakes, cities need to be at the forefront of the sustainability movement. It's really nice to see such strong ambitions being set by the city of Glasgow.

Tell us about any research you are currently involved in.
I'm currently involved in a Horizon 2020 project. I'm proud to have brought the project to Strathclyde. We've got a great group of consortium partners including TU Delft, the University of Maastricht, VTT and the Fraunhofer Institutes. I'm going to a kick-off meeting next week in Brussels for this project!

On the more basic level, I am gearing up to start a new research programme in visual analytics. I am using image processing technologies to analyse both maps and satellite photos of cities. I'm certainly not the first to do this. But there are a whole host of questions concerning cities and their districts that we have yet to answer. My hope is that we can use technologies like these to take cities apart and put them together again in new and exciting ways.

What initially attracted you to the University of Strathclyde?
I know that this is a Strathclyde value - but I really like the boldness that is on offer here at the university. This university is not afraid to try new things, and to commit the resources necessary to make it happen. I also like the cooperation which is on display between Humanities & Social Sciences and the other faculties. There is always room for improvement, but at least in my experience, few universities succeed at this integration as well as Strathclyde. Ultimately what sealed the deal is life in Glasgow and in Scotland. We might not have moved if it were not for this. I like the combination of an urban lifestyle plus the ability to get out of the countryside very quickly. 

After studying Urban Policy Analysis, what opportunities are there for graduates?
While our graduates are being trained for work in national and local government, many will choose opportunities in consultancy and industry. The core skills of analysing and diagnosing institutions and infrastructures are widely applicable across sectors. As I mentioned earlier, the degree also comes with a lot of valuable soft skills as well. 

Are there any pieces of work you have been involved in writing that you are particularly proud of?
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10796-016-9686-2 - I'm proud of this particular piece of work which examines practices of big data usage in the public sector. The cases build upon practices in the Dutch government. It would be nice to replicate this study for Scotland!

Published date: January 15, 2020