Is it time for town centres and high streets to reconsider their digital future?

Long before the profound consequences of COVID-19, we were starting to see the ongoing digitisation of society. Now, with the pandemic accelerating a shift to home working and shining a spotlight on virtual health and education provision, it has become more apparent than ever that local authorities must develop a clear understanding of and plan for their future in the digital age. But for places that have historically relied on having a physical presence, what does a socially distanced, and certainly more virtual world mean for our high streets?

Wifi hotspots, sensors and apps 

The ‘digitisation’ of the high street is not new. It has long been an emerging trend and responses were already being deployed, often with mixed success. Offering free wifi to people who generally have reliable mobile internet connections rarely worked. Using the Internet of Things to embed places with sensors and create ‘smart’ towns or cities has the benefit of creating potentially valuable data for businesses, asset managers and local authorities. Yet these interventions are increasingly being met with scepticism at best, or rejection at worst, by the very communities they are supposed to benefit. Google’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto is the highest profile example, having attracted significant scrutiny regarding data and privacy issues in particular.   

Over the years we have seen the launch of numerous digital pilots, all funded in a blaze of publicity by technology providers. Yet almost all have demonstrated that largescale roll-out would be more costly and challenging that expected, and in most cases have failed to make a viable return-on-investment. Fragmented digital offers often depend on existing brand engagement, but when digital solutions apply to whole areas, like a shopping centre for example, it can be hard to sufficiently  engage with either consumers or brands, who are reluctant to interact with yet another app or website.  

The digital town centre 

The stuttering digital journey of town centres so far can perhaps be summed up as ‘solutions in search of a problem to solve’. But as the recovery of our high streets hopefully gathers pace, will we finally establish what a digital town centre really is? 

The best emerging solutions are those that local communities engage with and support. There are some place focused platforms, such as ShopAppy in the UK, which are starting to have success. This works by enabling local independent shops and businesses to show information, products and services for a town in one place. There are also ‘whole place’ solutions, like the integrated approach taken in Angers, France, where local businesses join together to develop their own online presence, which seem to be gaining traction. It is these types of digital solutions, which demonstrably engage with the local community, support a long-term vision, are business agnostic, and integrate the physical and digital, that will surely thrive.  

But what about serving the community? 

The success of any digital transformation lies in its adoption and use. Places are reliant on the behaviour and use of local people. Footfall and spend are the ultimate metrics of use on our high streets and in our town centres, so the real question is: how does digital intervention sustain and grow these? 

The answer, as ever, is by addressing the needs and wants of the local community. It is perhaps here that the public sector can play a key role. Bringing digitally enabled public services onto the high street to increase use and bridge the access gap is the obvious place to start. In some of the most deprived areas of the country up to a third of people are not digitally connected in any meaningful sense from home. These are the very communities most in need of access to public services that are increasingly offered online. 

So what is the role of the public sector? 

There are therefore three key things that local authorities and their public sector partners can do to help drive digital transformation on high streets and in town centres:  

  • Have a clear vision – with clarity about the role of technology in a place, or at least clarity around the problems that technology may help to solve, rather than seeing digital solutions as an arms race with neighbours or promotional tools to generate press coverage;  
  • Make sure there is robust and resilient digital infrastructure – by using open access models, like those in the West Midlands, to support the delivery of fibre broadband and excellent mobile coverage as foundational digital requirements to make your place the obvious choice for new ideas to roll out quickly;  
  • Use the high street and town centres to provide access to services – such as ‘digital drop in’ centres where the community can access digital public services, learn new skills or use telehealth devices as an alternative to a hospital or surgery visit, all of which would increase footfall and local spend. 

The digital future for high streets and town centres is far from clear. We don’t know if it will end up being about apps for this, and sensors for that, with a VR experience here, and an AR experience there as we have been promised. But by taking these steps Local Authorities can make sure that, whatever it is, the infrastructure is in place to support it, address the needs and wants of local communities, and help to provide the critical footfall that places designed for people desperately need.  

David Jobling

UK Town Centre Lead Ask me a question
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