Designs on being Europe’s data capital

A decade in the making, the newly unveiled Bayes Centre is set to lead the way in creating digital solutions to societal challenges.

First breaking ground more than a decade ago, the opening of the new Bayes Centre this autumn completes the transformation of a forlorn car park near McEwan Hall into a modern mix of buildings bursting with creative minds. But, most importantly, it signals the University of Edinburgh’s determination to use world-leading data science in solving society’s greatest challenges.

Digital solutions

At first glance, it may seem odd to name a new innovation centre after an 18th-century Presbyterian minister. Yet that is exactly what the University has done with the Bayes Centre, a hub where Scientists and students from several data-focused disciplines will work together with external organisations to develop digital solutions that benefit the economy and society.

Almost 300 years ago in 1719, Reverend Thomas Bayes enrolled at the University. Though his main intention was to study divinity and prepare for the ministry, Bayes also immersed himself in mathematics and logic – a foundation that most likely led to the publication of his eponymous theorem after his death.

Dr Michael Rovatsos
Dr Michael Rovatsos

Bayes’ theorem, which is actually a generalisation of Bayes’ work by Pierre-Simon Laplace, essentially states the statistical probability of an event happening based on prior knowledge. “His revolutionary idea of refining the confidence you have in a judgment in the light of new observations in a precise, rational way serves as our inspiration for how we can solve challenging problems using data and computer systems,” explains Dr Michael Rovatsos, Director of the Bayes Centre.

Data capital

The Bayes Centre is the first of five data hubs the University and its partners are establishing to help realise the Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) agenda that aims to establish Edinburgh and the surrounding region as the data capital of Europe.

The £660 million DDI programme is an essential element of the wider Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal – a £1.3 billion investment from the UK and Scottish Governments, local authorities, universities and colleges, in activities designed to accelerate economic development and inclusive growth.


Building on the University’s unique strength in Informatics – the largest computing department in Europe – and top-ranked expertise in computer science, mathematics, design and engineering, the Bayes Centre will create technology to power the interaction of people, data science and systems.

Achieving this aim will require the fusion of two seemingly disparate scientific strands – design Informatics and artificial intelligence.

“It started over 10 years ago as a unique experiment, but we have surprised ourselves with how well it works,” explains Michael. “Designers are problem-solvers who approach gaps in experience from a strongly human-centric perspective and develop imaginative new solutions, while computer Scientists and AI experts have the skills to not only supply the technological components that can support these solutions, but also identify new challenges based on the futures that creative minds contrive.”

Crucial to grounding such future-focused research in reality are research partnerships with a range of experts, from startups to corporate Research & Development teams.

This support puts us in a unique position to develop a new, outward-looking University of the futurehubs like the Bayes Centre as a ‘Petri dish’ for new data-driven solutions, where external parties bring their challenges to us, and we mobilise the breadth of disciplines we have to offer to develop new propositions that put technology at the service of society.

Dr Michael Rovatsos

“Our new building will house up to 200 people from private and public external institutions – the first time the University will collaborate in situ with such a broad mix of practitioners.”

In addition, philanthropic support from the Bayes Global Scholar Fund – to which Mozilla has already donated £100,000 – will serve as a beacon for the best and brightest PhD students from around the world to come to Edinburgh. “I think this puts us in a unique position to produce real-world impact from academic and industrial research and to develop a new, outward-looking University of the future,” says Michael.

One giant step for mankind

Valkyrie robot
Valkyrie robot

One of nine organisations to be housed in the Bayes Centre, the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics (ECR) has its hands on a rare NASA Valkyrie robot – one of the most advanced humanoid robots in the world. Though ECR researchers are contributing to the overall long-term scientific mission of sending these types of robots to Mars, they are also using Valkyrie and other robots to explore how we control robots in nuclear decommissioning, emergency response and any other places dangerous for a human.

The main challenge in this endeavour is building algorithms that allow a robot to cope with an Environment it knows nothing about, and the only way to do this is laborious field testing. But with the bottom two floors of the Bayes Centre being dedicated ‘living labs’ – where data can be captured in a space where humans and robots can interact – ECR researchers will be able to deliver highly realistic simulations that remove a lot of physical trial and error, accelerating research and bringing safe inspection of hazardous environments – and perhaps humanoid robots on Mars – a step closer to reality.

Good deeds shape digital app

Another University organisation moving into the Bayes Centre is the Centre for Design Informatics (CDI).

With a playful and creative approach to designing experiences with new technologies, CDI aims to help people understand, and importantly harness, data-driven innovations like the internet of things, blockchains, robotics and social computing.

 “We build experimental experiences that allow people to engage with what is beginning to happen to their children now, and to them and their bank accounts in the next five years,” summarises CDI Director Professor Chris Speed.

A perfect example of the Centre’s work is Project Mercury, a year-long collaboration with Tesco Bank tohelp think through what the corporation’s products and services might be in the near future by approaching financial technology (fintech) from a design perspective. After a series of workshops, lectures and internships, the project culminated in three prototype experiences showcased at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

One of these, Deedit, was an app encouraging people to carry out good deeds.

“We were trying to take tiny deeds – like turning down a plastic straw today or helping a tourist find their way across Edinburgh – and transforming them into smart contracts,” says Chris. “We wanted to help the public think about how the digital economy could contribute at a social level rather than just at an economic level.

Find out more

Bayes Centre website

Design Informatics website

Digital transformation