Revolutionary new scientific research space ‘Open City Lab’ to open in Bristol’s We The Curious

Thursday 10 September | Jen Forster

Educational charity We The Curious will be reopening in November with a bold new exhibition Project What If, which will feature ‘Open City Lab’ – a unique research space dedicated to ‘open source science’ and democratising science.

The Open City Lab will be one of the physical spaces in the new exhibition Project What If – a working laboratory which marks a revolution in public engagement with scientific research. Funded by The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, Open City Lab aims to truly open up the scientific process for everyone.

The aim of Open City Lab is to enable public audiences to influence science research, visitors to We The Curious will be able to actively participate in current scientific research at varying stages of the research process: question asking, ethical considerations, experiment design and more.

Visitors to the science centre will be able to meet and participate in research with visiting academics from universities of Bristol, West of England, Bath and beyond, as well as industry and community researchers, who will working alongside staff from We The Curious on a range of activities across all fields of scientific research.

(Image credit: Julian Welsh)

The construction of Open City Lab has been generously funded by The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 – a grant-making educational trust which provides funding for individuals, companies and organisations, particularly in scientific and technological disciplines. Their support has also funded a two-year collaboration between We The Curious, the Institute of Research in Schools (IRIS), which supports secondary school students to create and showcase their research projects as scientists in the Lab with support from university researchers, helping to diversify research voices in science.

The 140m2 Open City Lab can host workshops of up to 30 people, and has been designed to encourage conversation. People can flow through its flexible open front, drawn in by the living wall and images from cutting-edge research and become involved in the research taking place.

Open City Lab is the physical manifestation of one of the guiding charitable aims of We The Curious, around ‘open source science’ which aims to create a place where everyone can take part in the scientific process as it happens. The space brings together two of the other key pledges of ‘diverse participation and cultivating curiosity’. The opening of the space marks the realisation of three years of open source science pilots in the venue which connects researchers, audiences and We The Curious together.

Helen Della Nave, Open Source Science Manager for We The Curious said:

“We set out on a journey three years ago, to challenge the way that science centres present the scientific process to visitors, with the aim of giving visitors agency in science research. Open City Lab is the manifestation of where we have got to so far in that journey; visitors will have a voice in this space which they haven’t experienced before. Open City Lab has evolved from three years of input from visitors and collaboration with our research partners, and brings together our commitments to the people of Bristol, our ‘open source science’ and ‘diverse participation’ pledge, to ‘create a culture of curiosity’.

This is our opportunity to celebrate the value of our public visitors’ contributions to science research; it’s not just about capturing data but about creating valuable experience for visitors and researchers that recognise people’s input, opinion and diverse experiences – and showing that it can have a direct influence on research.  

At this time particularly, we’re all looking to science research for answers, and to help solve challenges including the COVID pandemic and climate crisis. We need the science to work for us, and within that, we need richer, deeper, more diverse contributions. There’s never been a more important time to facilitate a greater connection with science.”

Key partnerships have included work with Psychology and Physics Departments at the University of Bath, Children of the 90’s, Department of Population Health Sciences, Jean Golding Institute and Digital Health Research group at University of Bristol, Bristol Robotics Lab and Secrecy, Power and Ignorance research network.

The opening of the space  marks a shift in the way that science centres have worked previously, with models of public participation moving away from a one-way download of information from researcher to visitor, and into a more collaborative process where all visitors, of all ages and experience, can question researchers and play an active part in their research projects, all with their opinions valued. Open City Lab will also raise awareness of young people to the opportunities presented by science and engineering.

Open City Lab will cover a broad balance of STEM subjects, and will open with activities framed around the question “Is a better world possible?” which may include:

  • Robot Revolution - a football game that young people play with robots, it has been designed to give insights to the way young people perceive and interact with robots
  • Can Machines Understand Emotion? - Visitors help to better understand the complexity of human emotions and feed into the ethical considerations of using computers to learn about human emotion
  • A-Z of Secrecy - Public audiences work in partnership with academic researchers to curate a collection of objects which help us to explore the field of Secrecy research

Nigel Williams from The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 added:

“The 1851 Royal Commission is delighted to be supporting We the Curious with their Open City Lab project in partnership with the Institute for Research in Schools.  Participating in real life research is a great way to introduce people to the excitement and challenge of cutting- edge science and generate the spark that ultimately leads to a career in STEM.  Open City Lab offers that opportunity in an innovative setting and we wish it every success.”

Project What If

Open City Lab forms part of Project What If, inspired by 10,000 questions collected from every postcode in the city, Project What If will be the first major science centre exhibition in the UK inspired entirely by the curiosity of a city’s residents.

The project aims to reimagine the science centre experience and will see the foyer and ground floor exhibition spaces completely transformed. The core of the exhibition will be built around seven questions, selected from the thousands of questions submitted by visitors and Bristol residents over the past three years. It will be multidisciplinary, which means ideas will be explained in different and often surprising ways, embracing art as well as science, while   celebrating and cultivating curiosity.

Alongside the support from The Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851 for Open City Lab, Project What If was supported by a £3m grant awarded by the Inspiring Science Fund – a partnership between UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Wellcome – a fund created to enable science centres across the UK to develop new STEM-based exhibitions and learning centres, alongside inclusive and creative community programmes, building a sustainable programme for the future. The support for the charity and new exhibition has been hugely successful in addition to this, with over £900,000 donated by other generous funders.

We The Curious is an educational charity and interactive science centre in Bristol which brings together science, art, technology, culture and innovation to create positive change for its community and environment and “create a culture of curiosity”. This year We The Curious is celebrating 20 years in Bristol.



For more information, images, interviews or to arrange a press trip, please contact: Jen Forster or 07967 334 152. You can follow We The Curious on Twitter (@wethecurious_) Facebook (wethecurious) or Instagram (@wethecurious_). For more information, please visit


Editor’s Notes :

About We The Curious:
We The Curious was previously known as At-Bristol Science Centre; an educational charity with an aim to “make science accessible to all”, it opened in 2000, and welcomed over 5 million visitors in the past 20 years. At-Bristol relaunched as We The Curious in September 2017, with a new vision that is committed to creating a culture of curiosity.

We The Curious is an idea and a place for everyone. Our venue on Bristol’s harbourside is a bit like an indoor festival, with all sorts of different experiences, where you can interact with exhibits, test stuff out and participate rather than just visit.  We’re all about empowering everyone to ask questions and get creative - with boundaries removed between science, art, people and ideas - a culture of curiosity. This year We The Curious is celebrating 20 years in Bristol.


Key partners on the project include:

About the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851:

The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 provides fellowships and grants for top level science and industrial research and industrial design students.  Some 36 awards are made each year which, together with a number of special grants, of which the support to Open City Lab is a good example, exceed £4m in value.

Originally set up to stage the Great Exhibition, the Royal Commission was kept in being to invest the Exhibition's substantial profit.  It first acquired the site in South Kensington on which the three great museums, the Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College and the Royal Colleges of Art and Music now stand, and it continues to own and manage the freehold of much of this estate.  When the development of the estate was largely complete, in 1891, the Commission then began an education and research awards programme which it continues to grow to this day

Details of the 1851 Royal Commission’s awards are on its website:


About the Institute for Research in Schools:
The Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) is a UK charity which supports students and schools to participate in authentic scientific research. Through its strong partnerships with world renowned institutions and research organisations, IRIS provides students from all backgrounds with the opportunity to collaborate with leading experts on cutting-edge research.

IRIS was founded on the belief that education should extend beyond the curriculum and beyond schooling. By engaging school students in real research, teachers can unlock students’ passion for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) and unleash their desire to discover the unknown without boundaries.



Inspiring Science Fund:
The Inspiring Science Fund, a partnership between UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Wellcome, has invested £30 million in science centres across the UK, enabling them to revitalise their public offer and to develop more sustainable working practices for the future. New exhibitions and learning centres, alongside inclusive and creative community programmes, will inspire visitors to engage with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in fun and exciting new ways.


Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers, we take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research. We are a politically and financially independent foundation.


UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), brings together the 7 UK research councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation, Research England, working closely with its partner organisations in the devolved administrations of the UK Government. The scheme is co-funded by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Wellcome.

About the funding campaign:
In addition to the support from the Inspiring Science Fund, Project What If has so far received generous support from: John James Bristol Foundation; The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851; Garfield Weston Foundation; National Lottery Heritage Fund; Stavros Niarchos Foundation; Innovation 4 Growth; Nisbet Trust; Charles Hayward Foundation; Britford Bridge Trust; Kirby Laing Trust; Medlock Charitable Trust; National Lottery Awards For All, an anonymous funder and local individual donors.