Bright Future

The Edinburgh Futures Institute is where the University’s world-class interdisciplinary expertise in social and data science, the arts, and humanities meets the external organisations that are tackling society’s most pressing need.

A woman looks out to sea as a rainbow beams from the sky

Professor Lesley McAra thinks about the Edinburgh Futures Institute – its potential, its challenges, its moral duty – all the time. Her role as its director, she says, is a vocation.

On holiday this summer, waist-deep in a Highland river, between casts of her fishing line in search of a salmon that never arrived, she found herself contemplating the humanity that lurks behind every slice of data.

“We think of data as just numbers,” she says, “but it is more than that. It is oral histories, it is visual data – there’s a multiplicity of what it could be. When we talk about the benefits around data, it’s not just number crunching. It’s about benefits for global health, planetary health, wellbeing, and human flourishing.

It’s not just 1s and 0s. It’s about people and what it means to be human. Every stat is a person – never forget that.

Professor Lesley McAra

Harnessing the data

Lesley is explaining her vision for the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI) – a project that has both the digital and the human at its core – a few weeks after her break, back on dry land, minus the waders.

Lesley McAra
Professor Lesley McAra

She took over leading the embryonic EFI earlier this year. This idea of finding practical applications within society for data – be it in social services, in banking, in schools or in the local theatre – is central to what she believes it should do.

“For me, EFI is about harnessing the data, digital and artificial intelligence revolution for social benefit,” she says. “It’s that social benefit part of it that I find really exciting.”

Fitting, then, that EFI sits at the heart of Edinburgh.

In 2015, the University purchased the city’s Old Royal Infirmary, a category A-listed building at the heart of the Quartermile development. Its refurbishment has been aided by a £10 million anonymous donation.

After serving the city since 1879, with generations of locals passing through its doors, the magnificent Scots Baronial building had lain empty since 2003.

Generations of locals will have passed below a Latin motto, hewn in stone above the main doorway: Patet Omnibus. Translated, it means ‘Open to all’. When EFI moves into its new home in 2021, it aims to revive this civic-minded spirit.

“We want to genuinely co-produce research and education with industry and communities,” says Lesley. “We are building in a democratic manner, in a collaborative way, so that it is a benefit to others. If done properly, it could be quite radical.”

Collide, collaborate and create

This is one of EFI’s big ideas. Community groups, local and national governments, industry and artists will be invited into the Institute to work with each other and the University’s academic community.

Experts from different parts of the University will collide, collaborate and create.

Together, Lesley says, they can better tackle some of society’s stickiest problems, both locally and globally.

“There is something very exciting about how a doctor, a social scientist, an artist and an ethnographer might look at the problem of children moving from primary to secondary education.

“Different subjects and different methodological approaches challenge each other. A lot has been written about wicked problems – stubborn, complex and messy issues that seem intractable – so perhaps what we need is messy methodology.

“In academia, theories get traction if they can be expressed simply on one A4 slide. But they don’t tell you much about the real world, which is complex. We need complex things to understand them. That complexity will be what EFI will do, and at scale.”

Rethink the problem

Another foundational principle is that data and new digital technologies will underpin everything that EFI does.

Wedding social science with data science is potentially transformational, says Lesley. She gives the example of the “sticky” issue of parts of Scotland that suffer from issues of multiple deprivation.

“It doesn’t matter how much investment there is, no matter how much community activism there is, things don’t change. But with EFI, we can see if we can rethink the problem and unstick it.

“Very often people who are living in those particular areas are known to a multitude of agencies for different reasons. They might not pay the electric bill, they didn’t pay council tax, they are in trouble with the police for shoplifting, they are in trouble with the school because their kids are truanting.

“There are lots of agencies that know they are a problem, but they don’t know the extent of the problem. Now, we can use data from these different agencies, do big data analytics and see if there are cohorts of people with similar kinds of issues.

“It means we can fully profile problems, rather than only treat one part in isolation. We can maybe rethink what we provide as public services and how we deliver it.

“There’s a real possibility here to support – and provoke – governments to start thinking that way.”

Safe haven

The University can already point to concrete examples of success in this area. Experts are already using data to enhance and develop healthcare in the DR Congo and India.

Luis Felipe Sopher de Popovics, Cray System Engineer

Of course, for this to work, EFI needs to win the trust of agencies, industries and governments to share its valuable data sets. Lesley believes the University of Edinburgh is uniquely well placed to provide such a safe haven for this information.

Firstly, it has the hardware for the number crunching. Edinburgh is home to one of the UK’s supercomputers, a key part of the institution’s world-class data infrastructure. Cyber security is also of the highest standard.

And in an age when data’s use is under intense scrutiny, EFI will do what the University has done over the past several centuries: create a space to interrogate the ethical underpinnings of how we apply this vital resource.

“Data ethics and integrity is really important,” says Lesley. “We will look at how governments and corporations use data. We will look at surveillance capitalism and ask how we might better regulate that. If we don’t get the ethics of data right, it won’t work.”

Add the “theoretical and intellectual imagination” that EFI will apply to data and, Lesley believes, “you can get more use of that data here than you would elsewhere”.

To that end, EFI is already in discussions with major financial, cultural and governmental institutions on how they can engage with its potential.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council has recently pledged millions of pounds to support EFI’s work in boosting and transforming the city’s creative industries through data-driven innovations.


EFI is equally ambitious when it comes to teaching. Programmes will be project based and focused on practically engaging with an issue. A suite of scholarships is planned to ensure it is as accessible as possible.

Students are already engaged. As a way of visually explaining its ethos, EFI sponsored Trading Zone, a recent exhibition at the University’s Talbot Rice Gallery. It challenged student collaborations between artists, geographers, dancers and architects, with dazzling results.

It should change the University.

Professor Lesley McAra

What, then, should success look like for EFI?

Lesley’s answer is in keeping with the radical sweep of the project.

“I think it will have failed if it hasn’t changed Edinburgh,” she says. “It should change the University.

“For me, judging the success of EFI over time is whether it has genuinely led to a transformation in terms of economic growth and social benefit. It needs to make a difference in the real world. It can’t be research for its own sake. It needs tobe applied and have a beneficial effect. That’s how I would judge it.”

Related links

Edinburgh Futures Institute website

Digital transformation

Dynamic creative thinking