Sarah Barns


Navigating smart technology
opportunities for people and places. 

As an urban digital designer and creative producer, my work today addresses the public policy opportunities and challenges arising as our physical and digital worlds collide.

The work I do combines knowledge and expertise in data-driven innovation and smart city strategy, with deep practical experience in the design and delivery of creative place-making and interpretation platforms. 

I work in a strategic advisory capacity for a range of public and commercial organisations, including CSIRO/Data 61, Sydney Airport Corporation, Urban Growth NSW and local government organisations. 

I'm always passionate about connecting strategy with practice. Through Esem Projects I lead multi-disciplinary teams in the delivery of a range of creative placemaking projects and services for local councils, architects & strategic designers. 

Between 2014 and 2018 I held a smart cities research fellowship at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, funded through the UK Urban Studies Foundation.  

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More about me

As Director of creative place-making group Esem Projects, I lead the creation of experiential design and interpretation platforms for clients and partners who span the property development, arts and culture and local government sectors.

I link an interested in experiential media & design practice with strategic consultancies and research into data-driven approaches to city design and management. From 2014-2017 I held a UK Urban Studies Foundation Fellowship on smart cities and urban innovation, based at Western Sydney University's Institute for Culture and Society. As part of this research I led a range of projects dealing with the potentials of data-driven urban innovation platforms, including residencies with organisations such as the NYU CUSP and UCL City Leadership Institute, strategic advisory projects with CSIRO, Data61, Urban Growth NSW and Arup, and research into international best-practice smart city principles and practices.  Today I continue advisory & consultancy work with public and private organisations dealing with issues of data governance and the design of innovation precincts. 

Recent writing 

Digital Place-making & Interpretation Projects

I've been working at the forefront of digital heritage interpretation & placemaking practice for the past decade. Through the media arts practice Esem Projects I support the execution and delivery of urban media projects that use digital technologies spanning digital projection, sound and augmented media to interweave stories of people and place. 

Urban Digital Strategy

I regularly advise and consult to government agencies and property developers in the area of urban digital strategy - now increasingly, but not limited to, ideas about smart cities, innovation districts and data-driven urban strategy. A selection of projects can be found below. You can find more writing relating to this area on my 'Cities Plus Data' page. 

Career background

Over the course of a fifteen plus year career I've built up a strong track record in strategic advisory roles, project management and creative programming for organisations and agencies spanning media and technology, city planning and engineering, and the arts, museum and education sectors.

I was previously a senior producer & strategist for ABC Innovation, head of strategy for the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, a senior consultant at engineering firm Arup, a curator and a research manager for the Australia Council for the Arts. Across each of these contexts I maintain a passion for creating the strategic frameworks and contexts for public culture - supported by creative and reflective communities - to thrive.  

Research & Academic expertise: Smart cities and data-driven urbanisation, city policy, historical & cultural geography, media history, experiential learning, digital storytelling & digital humanities, Sydney history. My academic profile can be found here. 

My PhD was a practice-led dissertation called The Death and Life of the Real-Time City: Re-imagining the city of digital urbanism. Associated creative practice can be accessed at my project blog SitesandSounds.

Selected Research Publications

Jacobs, B. Schweitzer, J., Wallace, L. Barns, S. (2018, forthcoming) Climate adapted people shelters: A transdisciplinary reimagining of public infrastructure through open, design-led innovation. In Dena Fam, Linda Nuehauser, Paul Gibbs (eds) The art of Collaborative Research and Collective Learning: Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice & Education, Springer.

Barns, S 2017, 'Smart cities and urban data platforms: designing interfaces for smart governance' , City, Culture and Society, DOI: 10.1016/j.ccs.2017.09.006.  

Barns, S, Cosgrave, E, Acuto, M & McNeill, D 2017, 'Digital infrastructures and urban governance', ,Urban Policy and Research, Special issue on critical infrastructure, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 20-31, DOI:10.1080/08111146.2016.1235032.

Barns, S. (2017) Visions of Urban Informatics: From Proximate Futures to Data-Driven Urbanism, Fibreculture Journal, Issue 29, Computing the City. 

Barns, S 2016, 'Mine your data: open data, digital strategies and entrepreneurial governance by code' , Urban Geography, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 554-571.

Barns, S & Sumartojo, S 2015, 'When one idea led to another: re-inscribing and recombining thinking spaces using night-time projections at the Australian National University', Senses and Society, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 179-199.  

Barns, S 2014, 'Plus ça change? Remaking the city, 'one site, one app, one click at a time' , City, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 226-229. 

Barns, S 2014, 'Sounds different: listening to the proliferating spaces of technological modernity in the city'Space & Culture, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 4-15. 

Barns, S 2013, 'The concrete remains: the art of the modern in downtown Sydney', in P Hamilton & P Ashton (eds), Locating suburbia: memory, place, creativity, UTS Press, Sydney, pp. 188-203. 

Barns, S 2011, 'Street haunting: sounding the invisible city', M Foth & C Satchell (eds), From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen , MIT Press, Cambridge, pp. 203-17.

Barns, S 2012, 'Retrieving the spatial imaginary of real-time cities (pdf link - publisher version is here)', Design Philosophy Papers, 10:2, 147-156,

Barns, S 2009, 'Sydney sidetracks: listening in to history where it happened using the ABC's audio-visual archives', Australian and New Zealand Communications Association national conference proceedings, Brisbane, pp. 1140-57. 

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