Digital Placemaking

For the heritage, urban development and local government sectors, digital placemaking offers a range of powerful opportunities to add value to public spaces, in ways which can translate into economic growth, cultural prosperity and improved lives for local communities.

At its core, digital placemaking is focused on making places better, attracting communities of all types to deepen their connection with the public realm and, in turn, with each other.

Local governments, cities, developers, built environment professionals and heritage organisations in every region are today seeking – and often competing – to create successful, liveable neighbourhoods. Digital placemaking supports the development of these neighbourhoods in a sustainable, scalable and flexible manner.

To meet the social, cultural, environmental and economic aims of our public spaces, it’s vital that urban planning, design and development practices embrace the possibilities that digital placemaking affords.

This page offers our ultimate guide to digital placemaking for those new to the field, as well as experienced practitioners wanting to understand our approach.

Mother and three children wearing headphones, holding Lost Palace wooden devices, standing in front of an old granite wall.
Family enjoying The Lost Palace experience. Image by Historic Royal Palaces.

At Calvium, we’ve been ‘doing’ digital placemaking since the start of the 21st century – courtesy of our team’s early work at HP Labs and as founding collaborators at Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio. Today, we create groundbreaking digital experiences with organisations across the globe – bringing communities together and breathing life into under-explored corners of the public realm.

Starting with a definition of the term, we’ll explore the value of digital placemaking; outline its relevance to the heritage, development and local government sectors; examine the key ‘ingredients’ for successful digital placemaking experiences, and finally, provide a series of preparation questions to kickstart your next project.

Throughout, we’ll also offer links to articles that dive deeper into each of the areas covered.

Let’s get started.

Several people smiling and holding phones up to the Director's Door AR experience, against the Heritage Wall at Battersea Power Station's Circus West Village.
Users of the Battersea Power Station Heritage Trail app enjoy the Director’s Door AR experience, 2018. Image by Johnny Stephens Photography.

1. What is Digital Placemaking?

Digital Placemaking (Noun);
The augmentation of physical places with location-specific digital services, products or experiences to create more attractive destinations for all.

The premise that underpins digital placemaking is simple:

Digital placemaking boosts the social, cultural, environmental and economic value of places by using location-specific digital technology to foster deeper relationships between people and the places they inhabit.

Increasingly, we experience the world around us through digital technology. 80% of us use the internet every day. Smartphone ownership hit 85% in 2017, up from 52% in 2012. We use voice-activated speakers in our homes, sat-nav on the road and smartphones to compare prices when we shop.

Digital technology is the means by which many of us interact with, and understand, the places where we live, work and play.

In future, this technology will only advance and become more accessible. While smartphone penetration doesn’t have much further to go in the UK, citizens will be able to demand Superfast Broadband in any area by 2020. Supported by the roll-out of full-fibre technology and 4G coverage, these infrastructural changes will massively impact the way people, places and technologies interact in the UK.

Close-up of a woman's hand wearing a smart watch.
Image by Crew

At the same time, increased connectivity and bandwidth will accelerate technological innovation, and enable smart technologies like AI (Artificial Intelligence), machine learning and the IoT (Internet of Things) to deliver our future smart towns, cities and connected rural communities.

For those working in urban development, regeneration, heritage and local government, these new digital-first cultural norms and rapidly advancing technological possibilities offer important, unprecedented opportunities to enhance how communities experience the spaces around them.

Organisations across the globe are waking up to the possibilities of digital placemaking. Are you?

How Digital Placemaking Works

Digital placemaking creates meaningful experiences for people in public spaces. These inclusive and authentic experiences foster a sense of belonging and can be delivered through fixed means – like digital kiosks and other types of connected street furniture – or via mobile and personal devices, including smartphones and wearable products.

Three people looking at the "Digital Town Crier" demonstration, which is modelled like a bright yellow buoy, topped by a copper bell.
Visitors to Cardiff Bay interact with a prototype ‘Digital Town Crier’ that senses their presence and quietly announces special offers nearby. The idea was part of ‘Ideascape: Digital Placemaking for Porth Teigr, Cardiff Bay’. Image by Paul Blakemore.

Attention is the currency of digital placemaking. Through the creative use of digital technology, the practice focuses people’s attention on the particular place in which they’re located. In this way, digital placemaking can enhance or even radically transform an individual’s experience of their time there.

Digital placemaking should be viewed as a flexible and holistic practice with a set of creative tools, methods and approaches for those seeking to positively affect the public realm. Like placemaking, the practice is collaborative and context-dependent, requiring multi-stakeholder engagement for best success.

This is because effective engagement considers its intended audiences. While this sounds obvious, it’s surprising how often the quality of engagement can be overlooked. In the context of digital placemaking, this means creating location-specific services, bespoke products or rich experiences that are informed by, and meaningful for, the communities that engage with a place. These communities can include local or prospective residents and workers, commuters, visitors and employers, or any other group that uses a space.

View overlooking people walking across a town square - Rynok Square, L'viv, in Ukraine
Image by John-Mark Smith

Practitioners of digital placemaking therefore seek to understand the needs and the engagement patterns of the different communities within a space, to identify the best digitally-enabled placemaking opportunities there. Skilled practitioners, like Calvium, research, design and deliver these solutions.

Irrespective of technological approaches, digital placemaking is people and place-centred. Rather than being shaped by one particular digital technology – like mobile apps or interactive installations – successful digital placemaking solutions are determined by people and place.

Interpretations & Approaches

After nearly two decades spent researching, designing and deploying innovative location-specific services, products and rich experiences that connect people, place and technology, Calvium developed the digital placemaking definition offered at the top of this article. In particular, this definition is designed to resonate with those involved in urban development and regeneration projects, heritage organisations and local government.

As with terms like ‘smart cities’ and the ‘Internet of Things,’ there are a variety of interpretations of ‘digital placemaking’. Some marketers, for example, understand the term to mean the study of social media traffic around an event or location. Other researchers see it as the way people use social media in a defined public outdoor space. Further definitions may be shaped by the political, social or economic perspective of the practitioner as well as by the scope of the project in question. We’ve described the meaning of digital placemaking in the context of urban regeneration, here.

Having summarised digital placemaking and how it works, we now need to discuss where it happens.

Spatially, the public realm is conceived as a mix of physical space and digital space; in other words, hybrid space. When a person is located in public space, their attention can therefore be focused on the point at which physical and digital space interconnect. This new hybrid space expands the range of ways a person can experience the physical space around them.

A two-panel illustration. Panel one: A person connected to two circles; one shows the label "Digital Space", one shows the label "Physical Space". Panel two: The two circles overlap in the centre like a Venn diagram, revealing the label "Hybrid Space". The person is smiling.

Hybrid space, then, is the location where digital placemaking happens: where people’s attention is on the fusion of the physical and digital worlds. In turn, hybrid space brings together the physical and digital worlds to enhance the experiential value of both.

Hybrid space is one of several conceptual instruments that can be used to explore the evolving relationships between the built environment and digital technologies in today’s hyperconnected era. Alternative concepts include ‘bits and atoms’ – where digital bits and material atoms are the construction materials of our spaces – and ‘digital layers,’ where the four concentric layers of the Earth are joined by a digital fifth.

Having a clear conceptual understanding and definition of digital placemaking is important. It allows for stronger communication when using the approach and, in turn, stimulates more interesting and innovative ideas from the stakeholder groups involved in placemaking projects.

Battersea Power Station is under construction in the background. A group of people gather around the Heritage Trail app team as they are speaking.
Participants at the practitioner’s tour of the Battersea Power Station Heritage Trail app launch, 2018. Image by Johnny Stephens Photography.

Opportunities & Value

Why do digital placemaking?

In short, because the practice represents a key strategic opportunity for those working in the heritage, regeneration and urban development sectors; including developers, planners, architects, designers, heritage trusts, and local governments.

As a practice, digital placemaking enhances large-scale urban development and regeneration projects by allowing stakeholders to take an holistic view of the place in question, and therefore to identify new ways to experience it.

These opportunities may offer value for communities in terms of social cohesion, economic prosperity, cultural richness and environmental sustainability. In turn, the practice attends to key policy drivers for those working in urban innovation and regeneration, including public health and wellbeing, economic sustainability and the green agenda.

The opportunities for digital placemaking and the strategic value it can offer can differ from project to project. Below, we’ve set out some examples to illustrate the potential for the practice in four key areas.

Social

By revealing the otherwise hidden qualities of a place, or opening up a location in new ways, digital placemaking makes public spaces more accessible and relevant to a wider number of people.

This ‘accessibility’ can be both literal and metaphorical. A digital service built with Calvium’s UCAN Go wayfinding system provides mapping and location-specific navigation for visually-impaired users – enabling them to access public buildings in new ways. Other projects build social capital around a place by encouraging communities to visit a space or to express and share what the area means to them. As part of Bristol’s European Green Capital programme, we developed Parkhive – an easy-use app that offers residents and visitors information about the city’s 200 green spaces, to encourage people to explore their local area more.

In these practical ways, digital placemaking attends to the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy for 2017, which introduced key policies to support positive social and economic outcomes in communities, including place. This document – and the Culture White Paper that preceded it – recognised the contribution that culture pays to the regeneration and health and wellbeing of communities, committing the Government to investing £2m to place-based cultural development. Digital placemaking can, by extension, play a social role in these communities.

Five screenshots of the UCAN Go app, which is mainly yellow and black, showing: the splash screen; a menu of personalisation options; the route selection screen; Wales Millennium Centre menu; and one of the steps in a route.
UCAN Go, the wayfinding app developed to make theatrical venues in Cardiff and London more accessible to visually impaired users.

Cultural

Digital placemaking directly boosts the cultural value of places by curating and presenting historical, environmental and artistic experiences for those in the location.

The ‘Culture is Digital’ Report by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sets the scene for this contribution. “Engagement in arts and culture can bring joy, improve quality of life, boost self-esteem, bring communities together, improve mental health, and help people to maintain levels of independence and curiosity. Our arts, heritage, libraries, museums and galleries and archives all have a vital role to play in enhancing people’s lives, regardless of their background or where they live. Technology provides an opportunity to turn up the dial on audience engagement.”

Many of the heritage apps we develop are built with this goal in mind, generating ‘live’ cultural experiences. Bridge Tales, our project for Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, was designed to offer a complete visitor centre programme for the site when the centre itself was closed.

Other digital projects have an artistic focus. Hidden Stages, our app experience for the National Theatre, used iBeacon technology to encourage visitors to express themselves dramatically, according to their location in the building. In this way, digital placemaking experiences can become artworks in themselves – offering all the attendant benefits of art for community engagement.

“This convergence between people, places and culture, driven and facilitated by technology, is the next horizon for all placemakers.”

‘Placemaking: Buzzword or Brand Builder?’, Infinite Global, 2018

Read the “Placemaking: Buzzword or Brand Builder” report.

Screenshots of the Hidden Stages app, which features vibrant green, orange and teal geometric designs with circles and bold patterns.
Hidden Stages, an app Calvium developed for the National Theatre to engage family visitors in theatrical play, using the architectural details of the building as inspiration.

Economic

Digital placemaking directly and indirectly boosts the economic potential of target spaces by encouraging communities to spend more time there.

The bespoke nature of digital placemaking means that projects can be designed to stimulate economic growth in very specific areas or sectors. For example, the ‘Digital Town Crier’ that we built as part of Cardiff’s Ideascape research project was designed to support local retailers in the Porth Teigr neighbourhood. In this way, the practice taps into the wider benefits of place-based policy and thinking.

Digital placemaking projects encourage communities to consider how to draw more value from a place. This could be in the form of information – as with heritage apps like Street Stories, which we built for The Guardian – or instruction – as with apps that offer users direction and content before, during and after they visit a site of interest.

Environmental

Digital placemaking adds a new dimension to urban and rural space – fundamentally changing the nature of the environment to make it more attractive, engaging or interesting for stakeholders.

By creating a hybrid space that is both physical and digital, digital placemaking makes it possible to radically alter a community’s view of a location without changing the physical environment itself. This is just one way in which digital placemaking can prove its merit regarding environmental sustainability.

Our Ideascape project for Cardiff’s Porth Teigr also explored this idea in depth – offering a number of temporary digital installations to help residents, workers and visitors understand the history of their neighbourhood, connect with other stakeholder communities, and offer their views on proposed developments to the site – with only minimal intervention to the physical space.

Alternatively, digital placemaking can attend to the particular qualities and features of a specific location, like its built environment, green spaces or even its air quality. In this way, our NetPark app for Southend-on-Sea showcased digital art installations in the city’s much-loved Chalkwell Park, as part of a collaboration with Metal and the University of Brighton.

Ideascape: Digital Placemaking in Action

A white sign reading "Ideascape" stands in-front of the Porth Teigr event. In the background, people are moving or gathering around the exhibits, in the dusk light.
Image by Paul Blakemore.

As digital placemaking specialists, Calvium were commissioned to identify how the practice could positively affect the success and sustainability of the regeneration of Porth Teigr in Cardiff Bay – once home to the world’s busiest seaport.

Named Ideascape, the research project saw Calvium collaborate with local built environment professionals from multiple disciplines, to create ten site-specific digital installations for the site, highlighting how large-scale urban development projects could benefit from digital placemaking.

Key insights from the project included the following:

  • Digital placemaking encourages and relies upon community participation, where openness and inclusivity act as essential digital placemaking design principles. In doing so, the practice encourages communities to positively influence the evolution of target areas, helping to make it a place where people want to work, live and visit.
  • Digital placemaking is beneficial to all stages of development and regeneration, and supports a smoother development process.
  • Digital placemaking allows a range of digitally enabled content to be available over time, so that individual experiences of a physical location can change as the digital services, products and experiences available there evolve.
  • Digital placemaking affords a broad range of physical-digital synthesis – including smartphone apps, sensor-enabled physical objects and augmented reality – to ensure that new types of rich experience can be created and expected over time.

Download the Ideascape Report

A person is looking through what looks like seaside coin-operated binoculars, towards the camera. The binoculars are a grey, upside down tear shape, with two large eye holes.
‘Past and Future Views’ installation demonstrates how familiar street furniture can be enhanced using digital technology. Visitors look through the seaside-style binoculars to see future architecture plans projected onto the location – or bring the past into view by seeing how the area used to look in decades past. The augmented reality binoculars were created by Zubr for ‘Ideascape’. Image by Paul Blakemore.

Characterising and measuring the value of digital placemaking through social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts is one attempt at classification. Others around the world have suggested different sets of indicators for placemaking, for instance: those that measure the effects of creative placemaking efforts on livability; others that measure an area’s vibrancy. The Project for Public Spaces, meanwhile, use four key qualities: accessibility, engagement, comfort and sociable.

Each digital placemaking project is created specifically for a particular environment, which means that the opportunities for placemaking in that environment, and the way that value and success are measured, will also be tailored to that individual environmental context.

2. The Past, Present and Future of Digital Placemaking

Today, digital placemaking has gained relevance and importance thanks to the pace of technological change, the expectations of people to access digital information and services when in the built environment, and the rise of the so-called ‘experience economy’.

The roots of the practice go back far, however. The Calvium team has been at the forefront of the digital placemaking world for two decades and is deeply embedded in the research, cultural and commercial communities that have shaped the practice to date.

To see where the field is going, let’s first explore where it has been.

A row of school children in blue uniforms stand with headphones on, and holding GPS devices, at the edge of a playing field.
Children playing the Savannah GPS game in 2002, on hand-held GPS devices.

Past

Offering a single history of digital placemaking is as unwise as offering a single definition of the term. The practice today has been shaped by diverse developments in cultural heritage, urban regeneration and local government. As such, we’ll provide a potted history of the field courtesy of our team’s work since 2001. You can find a more detailed version here.

The rapid development of mobile technology over the past two decades provides the landscape for this history – not least the spread of cellular networks and falling costs of smart devices, which have put digital placemaking experiences in the hands of (almost) everyone. It’s also important to note the importance of collaboration between experts to the advancement of the field – something that has pushed digital placemaking into new areas, and which continues to characterise most digital placemaking projects today.

Our work in digital placemaking kicked off at the turn of the Millenium, with our founders working at Hewlett Packard Labs (HP Labs) on a range of projects that explored the relationships between people, place and mobile technology.

Early collaborative projects with Futurelab, the University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Lab (MRL) and the BBC Natural History Unit included ‘Savannah’ in 2002 – a groundbreaking educational game where children ‘played’ at being lions in a savannah, navigating the augmented environments with a mobile handheld device. The Calvium founders then turned their attention to developing the world’s first location-specific gps-enabled drama, ‘1831 Riot!’, that recreated Bristol’s 1831 uprisings in Queen’s Square.

Meanwhile, the MRL were collaborating with artist collective, Blast Theory, to push the limits of mobile technology to deliver new types of digitally enabled locative experiences. They launched ‘Can You See Me Now?’, a game requiring players to find and interact with a hidden figure in cities across the globe followed by ‘Uncle Roy All Around You’ in 2003, which offered a similarly immersive experience, blending players on the street with their digital avatars. Indeed, Calvium’s own Richard Hull and Jo Morrison were two of those who participated in the ‘Uncle Roy’ digital street game during its launch at London’s ICA.

During this time, HP Labs went on to develop M-Scapes, a mobile media gaming platform that could be used to create location-based games and experiences. This platform formed the technical foundation for a further collaboration with Futurelab, this time in 2007 on a project called Create-a-Scape. Recognising the potential educational value of mobile technology for learning and in supporting people to create their own location-specific ‘mediascapes’, Create-a-Scape was a tool that enabled students and teachers to create their own outdoor geolocated experiences – winning numerous awards for innovation and education.

The rest, as they say, is history, with members from HP Labs founding Calvium in 2009 to deliver creative location-specific and digitally-enabled products, services and experiences.

Since then, our team has worked with organisations across the globe to design and build digital experiences in the fields of cultural heritage, urban regeneration, local government, academic research and the arts. To read about these projects in detail, click here.

Present

Today, digital placemaking has made the shift from innovative research to everyday reality thanks, in part, to the advent of the smartphone, which has put wireless, screen-based technology in all our pockets. These personal devices offer features like AR (Augmented Reality) and digital mapping that make digital placemaking experiences interesting, accessible and immersive.

Digital placemaking is enabled by the ubiquity of digital technology and connectivity in our modern lives. The emergence of the field also reflects – and has implications for – the development of the idea of ‘smart cities’. The relationship between these two areas is further explored in our posts on the ethics and governance and the role of app technology in urban landscapes of the future. That said, whilst digital placemaking complements the familiar notion of smart cities and smart environments, it’s not a part of the pervasive ‘smart’ narrative.

Tree-like architectural structures with pink centres run alongside a suspended walkway, which is seen from below, at dusk.
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. Image by Victor Garcia

Today, practitioners worldwide are working to expand the ways that people, places and technologies connect in diverse ways. The arts are one area of focus, including the responsive water fountains concept for our Ideascape research in Cardiff, Jason Bruges Studio’s ‘Back to Front’ LED sculptures in Toronto, Canada, and the Sydney Opera House ‘Living Mural’. The BBC produced an AR mobile app for orientation, navigation, information and entertainment for the Eisteddfod Festival 2018 in Cardiff, Wales.

New Zealand has embraced digital placemaking. One of the many vibrant projects to enrich Auckland’s city centre is the 2017 installation ‘Poi Magic’. The beautiful work is a set of two, large, illuminated mixed-material poi (ball attached to string) that were co-produced by indigenous and digital creators for Artweek Auckland 2017. Poi, traditionally made of New Zealand native flax and natural materials, are used as a part of  traditional Māori dance performance that involves hand and wrist movement to swing the poi through a variety of rhythmical and geometric patterns with vocal and musical accompaniment.

Tania Remana, a contemporary Maori practitioner, weaving the Taura (handle) on to the giant illuminated Poi.
Image by Kate Micaela Photography

Meanwhile, Bristol’s Layered Realities conference sought to explore the impact of 5G technology for arts performances – bringing together a range of artists, technologists and researchers to develop a range of stunning interventions. Blast Theory’s ‘Too Much Information’ presented an interactive theatrical audio trail, hosted in and around the streets of Manchester.

Witteveen + Bos have developed a variety of VR experiences to promote public engagement in a bid to gather feedback about urban planning proposals at events in the Netherlands. Smart detectors are being used in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to detect animal life, thanks to urban planning teams at University College London. Curzon Cinemas has opened up its rich cultural heritage with the Curzon Memories app.

Finally, Ambient Literature – a collaboration between UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University, University of Birmingham and Calvium  – was launched in 2016 to investigate the locational and technological future of the book. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the project is focused on the study of emergent forms of literature that make use of novel technologies and social practices, to create robust and evocative experiences for readers in outdoor public spaces.

Two women are looking at their phones. One has blue hair and glasses, one has brown hair. They are standing at the end of a white metal partition in a pop-up shop, with brightly coloured labels on the partition.
Mobile technology is ubiquitous today. Image by Charisse Kenion

The ubiquity of digital technology in all aspects of our lives – from sleeping to meeting, shopping and staying fit – means that people are not merely comfortable with using technology to engage with their environment; today, digital is the filter through which we experience our environment. Tourists understand new cities according to the way Google presents maps to them; children hunt for virtual Pokémon in their local park; commuters plan their journey according to real-time traffic updates. We increasingly spend our time moving between physical and digital worlds: digital placemaking blends these worlds.

The extent of the shift in expectations and accessibility around digital technology means that today, failing to offer location-specific digital experiences in new placemaking programmes could be considered a risk.

Future

The ongoing evolution of the digital built environment offers new opportunities to improve how we live, work and play. While we can’t predict the future, we do know that this will have a profound effect on the way our communities experience the world.

Already, our expectations are changing thanks to digital technology. Today, consumers are found to favour experiences over objects and memories over possessions – a psychographic trait that marketers have loosely labeled ‘millennial,’ as outlined in our guide to 21st-century placemaking.

An open space, with people moving across it. Above the space, white slatted bars rise up, with light pouring through into the floor below. Everything is bright, well-lit and clean.
The Occulus, New York. Image by Saketh Garuda

Digital placemaking satisfies this urge for experience, offering opportunities for those engaged in place-based tourism to creatively and meaningfully engage with new environments. The nature of ‘millennial’ tourism is also particularly suited to digital placemaking, being both hyper-local and flexible with regards the definition of ‘place’.

As Ivo Dawney, Creative Director for the National Trust, noted in our recent interview, millennial audiences are often drawn towards “anything that appears new and unusual.” In this way, digital placemaking is a simple, cost-effective way to transform previously overlooked environments into tourist traps.

As the demand for experience-led tourism like this grows, opportunities for digital placemaking will increase in number. Communities will, in turn, become more receptive to the practice. The rise and rise of digital placemaking will be further supported by new digital technologies including smart clothing, autonomous vehicle and city-wide sensor networks – signaling a bright future beyond the smartphone.

“Creating with new technology allows artists to push the boundaries of what’s possible and create transformative experiences for audiences, for technology to inspire cultural production, and for creative content to test the applications of technology.”

‘Culture is Digital’, UK Government report

Read the “Culture is Digital” report.

3. Digital Placemaking for Heritage, Development and Local Government

Digital placemaking seeks to engage the overlapping communities that live, work, commute, visit, maintain and otherwise use a physical space.
Capable of generating rich amounts of user data, digital placemaking projects can achieve multiple goals by multiple teams. As a result, the scope and scale of digital placemaking projects can vary massively – from standalone street furniture installations like those at Porth Teigr to complex city-wide heritage trails like the one we built to explore renaissance Florence.

Digital Placemaking in Action
Ideascape: Digital Placemaking for Porth Teigr, Cardiff Bay – Enhancing urban regeneration through the creative use of digital technologies.

Download the Ideascape Report

 

Practitioners

As a practice, digital placemaking is both strategic and operational – offering a powerful resource for heritage and built environment professionals, and those combining both fields.

Importantly, it’s a multidisciplinary practice, whose flexible and bespoke nature means that digital placemaking can respond to a broad range of issues, through familiar as well as inventive design methods.

A building next to a canal at dusk, viewed from across the canal. The building has a sweeping silver roof, that arcs above a large set of windows.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, 2018.

As discussed in our interview with landscape architect Sarah Jones-Morris, digital placemaking can act as a cost-effective alternative to building physical infrastructure. Our City of London app, for example, offers an interactive trail for visitors between existing historical artifacts in the area, without disturbing the built environment in any way. In this way, established placemaking schemes can be expanded with digitally-enabled experiences to deliver fresh, more compelling content, thereby attracting new audiences and re-engaging existing ones.

Increasingly, practitioners are using digital technologies throughout the planning, design, build and management of places of all scales. To make our public spaces better, it’s vital that traditional planning, development and cultural heritage practices embrace the possibilities that digital placemaking affords.

“There is no silver 'design' bullet for successful placecuration or placemaking. It’s all context dependent and we should certainly be cautious about simply trying to ‘recreate’ successes from other locales - that don’t align with the community’s needs or the local environment.”

Hiro Aso, Head of Transport and Infrastructure at Gensler, 2018

Digital Placemaking for Heritage

Digital experiences have the power to bring the past back in a visceral, emotive way, activating what we call ‘Magic Moments’ for visitors to historical sites. They do this using new technology in creative ways to create novel types of content and cultural experiences for visitors – in doing so, engaging new generations of visitors on an emotional level to increase the value offered by heritage organisations. In turn, new narratives are created for spaces by making communities aware of their shared history.

Screenshots of the Soho Stories app, using pink and grey throughout. The screens show photos of a pavement at night, lit-up by neon signs. Screens contain maps of the area with audio controls overlaid.
The National Trust’s Soho Stories is a free-roaming tour of Soho in London where you encounter interviews from the people who lived, worked and played in the infamous area of London.

Inclusive and accessible, digital placemaking for heritage can range from gamified tours for children, like our Tower Bridge project, to geo-locational audio tours like our work for Carnaby Street Echoes, and new reading experiences like those being researched by the Ambient Literature team in Bristol and Bath. Projects like these lever creative storytelling to build emotional engagement across communities – one of our nine golden rules for effective digital placemaking.

In this way, The Lost Palace, our award-winning digital placemaking experience for Historic Royal Palaces, combined aural and haptic technology to raise Whitehall Palace from the ashes for visitors, presenting a revolving cast of historical politicians, playwrights and plotters at the site. The result? 92% of visitors felt that the experience had ‘brought the past to life’ for them, while 90% said it boosted their feeling of connection with the past.

To find out more about The Lost Palace experience, click here.

 

Digital Placemaking for Urban Development and Regeneration

Investments in enhancing the cultural capital of a city can generate outsize returns, regardless of its scale. The University of Hull, for example, found that the £15 million of Government funding provided via the region’s UK City of Culture programme in 2015 ‘unlocked £3.3 billion of investment in the city’, in part by changing perceptions of the city. This included the creation of 7,000 jobs.

A view over central London in the morning, taken from a tall building, the scene shows glass-windowed high-rise buildings and older architecture below, with construction sites dotted in the background.
Urban redevelopment can benefit from digital placemaking at every stage of a project; planning, design, construction and management.

Investing in the cultural, social, economic or environmental capital of an urban development through digital placemaking can also reap wide-ranging rewards.

Whatever the model and whatever the scale of redevelopment – from the comprehensive rebuilding of the likes of Battersea Power Station in London, to smaller tactical interventions that enhance what’s already there – stakeholders including developers, urban designers, and architects can use digital placemaking approaches and methods across the development lifecycle – from planning, design and construction, through to management and maintenance.

Spotlight: Digital Placemaking for Development

  • Planning
    Since 2012, UN-Habitat (the United Nations Human Settlements Programme) has worked with developers Mojang to use their Minecraft platform to engage communities in building sustainable cities, as part of the consultation process.
  • Design
    Digital placemaking can be used to support the design process by briefing communities around developments and canvassing their opinion on building schemes. UrbanPlanAR is one such example – providing AR models of future projects, for multi-stakeholder consultation by designers and policy planners.
  • Construction
    Large-scale development projects lasting several years offer engagement opportunities at multiple stages. Our Heritage Trail for Battersea Power Station, for example, offers information and interactive content for visitors and residents to phase 1 of the site. This could readily be expanded when phases 2 and 3 are open to the public.
  • Management
    Digital services provide an interface between developers and communities, keeping both parties up-to-date. Our ‘Book this Space’ intervention at Idescape, for example, made it easier for local residents to book local public spaces via their smartphone or browser.

For developers and professionals in the built environment, digital placemaking represents an opportunity to build value in two types of space: the physical and the hybrid. The practice can play a key role before, during and after the design and development of a site – grounded as the approach is in collaboration and inclusivity.

“Creating better buildings and places is good for business and provides a competitive advantage in terms of bottom line, quicker sales and brand recognition”

David Twohig, Living in Wonderland: Urban Development and Placemaking, 2014

A woman wearing headphones and holding a smartphone is looking up, Tower Bridge is seen in the background, with the yellow stone walls of the Tower of London.
The ‘Escape from the Tower’ app, developed by Calvium for the Tower of London in 2011, put players at the centre of famous escapes stories. Using GPS and sensors hidden around the Tower, players were encouraged to visit lesser-used spaces and the experience engaged young audiences with history.

Digital Placemaking for Local Government

“A placemaking approach to design can create value for all involved, including the occupants, the wider community and the developer, by delivering more diverse and inclusive neighbourhoods”.

Department for Communities and Local Government Report, 2016

Source: Estate Regeneration National Strategy The Role of Local Authorities

At its most fundamental, digital placemaking is concerned with making urban spaces more attractive destinations for people to spend time in –  in turn helping to make cities more livable and sustainable in response to the issues at play there.
For instance, cities all over the world have identified tourism as a key wealth creator for their region, and as such must compete with other areas to attract visitors. One way in which they do so is by identifying and promoting themselves as a cultural heritage destination. Location-specific apps like Hidden Florence, which we developed with the University of Exeter, are increasingly being created as unique ‘ways-in’ to a city’s cultural heritage. Digital placemaking can add cultural value in even the most well-trodden tourist hotspots, as we proved with our Tower Bridge app for families.

Digital placemaking also offers clear value in policy areas focused on sustainability and the environment. Developed in collaboration with King’s College London, the Van Alen Institute and others, for example, the Urban Mind app collects user data around mental health in different urban environments, to research the importance of green space for our mental health.

Screenshots of the Heritage Eye app, showing photos and text about a heritage site, as well as a map of Bristol, covered in yellow, green and orange spots.
Heritage Eye, a pilot by Bristol City Council, which replaced lengthy paper-based forms with a streamlined app, available to everyone. Residents of Bristol could report possible risks to local heritage sites in minutes, cutting out levels of bureaucracy and democratising the process.

Community cohesion is a third key driver for those working in local government today. Perhaps more significant than the way digital placemaking attracts communities is the way it helps build them. Toronto’s Bentway project is a case-in-point: an ambitious project to reinvent a city underpass as a communal space for 70,000 residents, for which digital culture will play an important part.

When AAB Housing Association contacted us to help solve antisocial behaviour in Copenhagen neighbourhood Norrebro, we developed the Jeg ar Norrebro app to successfully bring local communities together using location-specific storytelling. In this way, digital projects are useful because they act as responsive interventions in public spaces – helping local government inexpensively and effectively deal with issues around people and place. By educating and consulting community groups, digital projects like this one can actively promote and cause behavioural change.

Four small tables of people are discussing ideas, with paper and craft materials on the tables.
Multi-disciplinary participants at the Ideascape research workshop, exploring how digital placemaking could improve the local area.

Digital placemaking also helps stakeholders meet the public consultation requirements for planning and development outlined in the UK Government’s National Planning Policy Framework, which states that ‘applicants will be expected to work closely with those directly affected by their proposals to evolve designs that take account of the views of the community’(see page 66).

Utilising a digital placemaking approach can improve local communities’ ability to interpret, critique and respond to planning and design proposals. This can make public consultation faster, simpler, and more cost-effective and secure – thereby meeting the framework’s later requirement that ‘early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses is essential. A wide section of the community should be proactively engaged, so that Local Plans, as far as possible, reflect a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area, including those contained in any neighbourhood plans that have been made,” (see page 155).

Enabling communities to readily access information about a proposed development means communities are more likely to engage meaningfully in these consultative exercises. Stakeholders seek out openness, inclusivity and transparency in this way, as demonstrated in our Ideascape research findings.

Two very different projects that show how the creative use of digital technologies can fruitfully enable local community engagement are based in Bristol and Mexico respectively. Our Heritage Eye app for Bristol City Council empowered residents to act as ‘instant surveyors’ for the city by making localised assessments of at-risk buildings. Meanwhile, since 2012, Block-by-Block – a collaboration between UN-HABITAT and Minecraft creators Mojang – has been using Minecraft to design public spaces with communities affected by human-made and natural disaster.

A city street is depicted in MineCraft, with cubic, blocky versions of a road, pavement, fountain, tree and yellow-stoned buildings in the background.
Block-by-Block uses Minecraft to enable local stakeholders to shape the redesign of public spaces. Image by vonguard via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

For local governments, digital placemaking projects have the power to build relationships with communities, generate cultural and economic capital, and improve the lives and work of a wide range of stakeholders.

Experimental Interventions in Digital Placemaking
Building communities through digital experimentation at Porth Teigr, Cardiff Bay

Download the Ideascape Report

4. Digital Placemaking in Context

Digital placemaking projects can be delivered via purpose-built physical interfaces – such as the interactive street furniture discussed below, personal devices belonging to individuals, projection mapping and so forth. There are ever increasing possibilities.

Here, we’ve highlighted four projects that show how the creative use of digital technologies can make people’s experiences of public spaces more interesting, inclusive and authentic.

Case Study 1:
Battersea Power Station, London

Battersea Power Station is shown from across the River Thames at dusk. The building's four white chimneys stand out against the pink sky, and the building is reflected dully in the river's surface.
Battersea Power Station, London. Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, 1953. Image by Dennis Gilbert, View Pictures.

One major redevelopment harnessing the opportunities offered by digital placemaking is London’s iconic Battersea Power Station. As part of a £9 billion redevelopment, Battersea Power Station will soon be home to 800 homes, offices and shops, offering luxury living at one of London’s most iconic addresses.

As part of the first stage reopening of the site, Calvium was brought on board to deliver a digital placemaking experience for the Power Station’s inaugural £6.8million Cultural Programme.

The result was the Battersea Power Station Heritage Trail mobile app: a three-part project that offers a cultural heritage tour for adults, games for children, and a standout AR experience for all ages, allowing visitors to peer into the power station’s art deco control room from behind closed doors – bringing the rich history of the area to life in ways that were previously impossible.

As well as familiarising Londoners with the new neighbourhood, the Heritage Trail has helped to add valuable cultural capital to the redevelopment project by building the project’s new brand and identity on the historical equity of the space. By offering AR content, users are also able to ‘see’ parts of the redevelopment – such as the Circus West Village – that are so far incomplete, thereby increasing anticipation (and commercial potential) for the project further.

Our app will be presented by Battersea Power Station as part of London Architecture Festival 2018. To find out more about the project, including the rationale, development process and results, click here.

 

Case Study 2:
Ideascape: Porth Teigr, Cardiff

A white sign reading "Ideascape" stands in-front of the Porth Teigr event. In the background, people are moving or gathering around the exhibits, in the dusk light.
Participants explore the exhibits at the Ideascape: Digital Placemaking for Porth Teigr event in 2017. Image by Paul Blakemore.

A key part of the redevelopment of Cardiff Bay, Porth Teigr is a 38-acre site brimming with mining and maritime history. The area is being redeveloped to include 1,000 new homes, 1.2 million square feet of commercial space and new community facilities.

We were commissioned by sustainable developers igloo and the Porth Teigr Community Fund to explore how digital placemaking could be used to boost the social, economic and cultural prosperity of communities living and working in the area. This culminated in a six-month study involving public consultations, co-creation workshops and an interactive public event  – Ideascape – that was intended to stimulate local communities to participate in influencing Porth Teigr’s ‘physical+digital’ future.

Ideascape exemplified the opportunity digital placemaking offers to enhance the outcomes of large-scale urban regeneration. With a goal to build digitally-enabled interventions that engaged communities in Porth Teigr, we first had to work with stakeholders to understand the issues that affected them and their environment to ground the research project and make it relevant in the local context.

The result was the Ideascape interactive public event. Here, we showcased various digital placemaking concepts and bespoke interactive prototypes that suggested the types of new products, services and experiences that digital placemaking might bring to the area. The event was designed to offer an engaging and inclusive environment where everyone could comfortably participate, whether a resident, worker, visitor, developer, architect or town planner. Exhibits included a web app for residents to book public spaces, AR binoculars, a mobile heritage trail, interactive street furniture and interactive digital fountains. All were designed to encourage play, discussion and reflection – stimulating the local community to consider what type of place Porth Teigr could become.

To find out more about Ideascape, including our rationale and key findings, click to download our report.

 

Case Study 3:
UCAN Go, London & Cardiff

A woman's hands holding a smartphone, with the UCAN Go app open on it. The background shows people within the Wales Millennium Centre.
User interacting with the UCAN Go app at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff.

UCAN Productions is a UK-based creative art co-operative for blind and partially-sighted performers.

With funding from Arts Council England, we helped the UCAN team to design a wayfinding app that makes visiting the theatre safer and simpler for visually-impaired users, by helping them map and plan their route through public spaces. The wayfinding tool has since been rolled-out to the Hackney Empire and will soon be available in Cardiff Central Library.

In this way, UCAN Go – the resulting software – showcases how digital placemaking projects promote accessibility in a literal and metaphorical sense, by changing stakeholders’ relationships with the built environment.

Moreover, the app was developed and tested hand-in-hand with partially-sighted users to ensure that the placemaking experience offered is as inclusive and effective as possible.

To find out more about the UCAN Go wayfinding tool and development process, read our case study here.

 

Case Study 4:
The Lost Palace, London

Two women look upwards whilst smiling, wearing headphones and holding the Lost Palaces wooden devices in their hands. A red London double-decker bus is passing in the background, along a tree-lined street.
Image by Historic Royal Palaces.

Once the largest royal residence in Europe, Whitehall Palace burned to the ground more than three centuries ago.

Working with Historic Royal Palaces, Chomko & Rosier and Uninvited Guests, we raised the building from the ashes with The Lost Palace – an AR (Augmented Reality) app experience for visitors to one of London’s most important lost landmarks.

Delivered via headphones and a bespoke wooden handset – thereby removing the distraction posed by smartphone screens – The Lost Palace used binaural 3D sound, haptic technology, GPS and NFC (near field communication) to take participants on a mile-long journey around Whitehall, enabling them to experience history in the very spot in which it happened.

Standing at different locations, visitors heard artistic narratives and dialogues from the likes of Shakespeare, Elizabeth I and a motley crew of London locals that showcased life in the palace. At specific points, their handheld devices were transformed into a wand, the beating heart of Charles II, the torch that sets the palace ablaze, and more.

In turn, The Lost Palace delivered breakthrough levels of engagement for Historic Royal Palaces, and won Museum + Heritage’s 2017 Award for Innovation, before being relaunched for a second season.

To find out more about the project, click to read the case study.

5. Digital Placemaking: Key Ingredients

Quality is key to designing digital placemaking experiences that enhance the environment around us.

To boost engagement, improve the lives of, and elicit valuable responses from residents, workers, businesses and other groups, digital placemaking projects therefore require several key ingredients, some of which are outlined in our Golden Rules article.

These ingredients are leadership, strategy, creativity, technology, collaboration, community, context and approach – all of which combine to build an idea of the meaning of a space, and a sense of belonging for the communities who use it.

Each is underpinned by the practitioner’s detailed understanding of the specific environment they’re working in, which must be the guiding consideration at all stages of the project life-cycle.

Leadership

Without vision and direction, effective digital placemaking projects will not happen.

Leaders in heritage, development and local government must understand how digital technology is changing our built environment and the way people experience it, in order to inform their thinking about the future. In this way, leaders can then develop ambitious digital placemaking strategies and visions to take advantage of these ongoing changes.

At Calvium, much of our time is spent helping organisations to understand the opportunities for social, cultural, environmental and economic prosperity that digital placemaking, and our evolving digital culture, affords – to create programmes that are striking, inclusive and memorable for a variety of communities.

Strategy

Digital placemaking practitioners must be prepared to work flexibly, but with an understanding of the goals for their project.

For example, our Jeg ar Norrebro app was designed to encourage constructive and meaningful engagement for a community experiencing a range of social problems. The form that the project deliverable took, however – a mobile app – was determined by our initial consultative work with local stakeholders.

Meanwhile, our Ambient Literature partnership with Bath Spa University and the University of the West of England is intended to explore different formats for reading in the future. Our goal is clear, but the means of getting there is – necessarily – being worked out as the project progresses.

Screenshots for Jeg er Norrebro, showing photos of red-painted walls and streets, with black graffiti-style text over it. A grey map shows red spots.
Jeg er Nørrebro brought together members of a community to tell stories about themselves and their neighbourhood in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Context

Environmental conditions must shape digital placemaking projects. It’s essential for practitioners to understand the context within which they operate. What are all the factors – past, present and future – that can be gathered in order to set the scene for placemaking work? These can be as much about the social fabric of the place, as its economic ambition and existing technical infrastructure.

This understanding is key to building digital placemaking experiences that are accessible, relevant and understood by the communities there. Failure to appreciate the context for placemaking projects can result in interventions that make spaces feel more, not less, difficult to engage with.

Placemaking experiences targeted at commuters, for example, should not require them to stop and fumble with their phones on busy thoroughfares. Content aimed at younger stakeholders should be easy to read. Contentious areas of local history should be treated with sensitivity.

Community

Building connections between people and place is the primary goal for most digital placemaking projects, as explored in our 21st Century guide to the practice.

Fostering connections between people is also important. In the act of engaging with placemaking projects, communities inevitably connect with each other on a personal level.

As a result of our Ideascape research at Porth Teigr, respondents said that they had become aware of previously-unknown issues affecting their neighbours. Overall, visitors reported feeling more invested in, and responsible to, their community having learned about its history and been offered opportunities to engage with it via our digital project.

Collaboration

Collaboration is fundamental to the success of all placemaking projects – and to our work at Calvium more widely. Places are about people, and placemaking is about people: people from all walks of life working together to imagine and build better places for diverse communities.

Our work for the Ideascape research project embraced participation and involved discussions and action with businesses, council planners, harbour authorities, universities, cultural institutions, architects, artists, residents, visitors and commuters. As a result of an open and collaborative approach, we were able to define the boundaries for the research up-front, work with key stakeholders to inform the design of a series of people and place-focused digital interventions, and create an interactive public showcase that was attended by over 130 people.

For our insights from the Ideascape research, click here.

Cardiff Bay is shown across the water on a sunny day, whilst a viewing window made of lollipop sticks and masking tape is being held up to frame several buildings in the distance.
Participants at the Ideascape workshop at Cardiff Bay made lo-fi physical representations of their concepts to explain their ideas.

Creativity

Digital placemaking projects have the power to inspire, inform and surprise – building an emotive connection between individuals and their environment. Sometimes, delivering a placemaking experience in a way that a community does not expect is more powerful than using ones with which they are familiar.

We’ve explored this phenomenon more deeply in our article on the ‘digital bridge,’our essay on digital placemaking for the arts, and our list of five favourite creative placemaking projects.

Delivering a digital placemaking experience that satisfies, amazes or delights takes creative insight and skill. Partly, this requires practitioners to work with talented, experienced creative partners. Equally important is the practitioner’s outlook, which must set the direction for the project with clarity and optimism, and allow for creative experimentation and evolution along the way.

Technology

To be effective, digital placemaking projects must be led by people and place. Despite the oft-heard narratives about technology transforming the nature of the built environment in the future, it’s vital to remember that technology is an enabler of success and not the driver of a digital placemaking project of any scale.

For digital placemaking, creative and judicious use of technology in our shared public spaces is key.

Today, it’s possible to develop a myriad of useful or entertaining digital services, products or experiences that pertain to specific locations. The upcoming arrival of 5G cellular technology will make almost unimaginable capabilities available in the public realm and in our pockets. Immersive VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality) and connected street furniture with 3D volumetric displays will become standard – alongside technologies we haven’t imagined yet.

What matters is that we harness the powers of this technology to make our environments more liveable. The digital media we use to do this is a secondary concern.

A man with a screwdriver is working on the AR Binoculars demo. The binocular casing is open, to reveal a wooden shell housing red AR devices inside.
Installation of prototype augmented reality binoculars which gives visitors a digital experience without a screen. This shows how the creative and judicious use of digital technologies can provide a sense of magic to physical objects and a location. The prototype was created by Zubr, for Calvium’s Ideascape research.

One more (very important) thing

Building bridges between people and technology inevitably raises questions about data and consent. Digital placemaking projects must adhere to clear, consistent guidelines around project ethics and principles.

Some individuals resist the use of digital technology when they haven’t been briefed to engage with it, as became clear during our Porth Teigr project. Others are concerned about data collection which – used indiscriminately – can make digital placemaking experiences feel more like exposure to unwanted advertising. We examined this issue further in our article on smart cities.

Practitioners should therefore promote the goals and philosophy behind their individual digital placemaking projects, and remember and respect that some stakeholders will have more experience of digital placemaking than others.

6. Digital Placemaking: Key Questions

Digital placemaking experiences are designed for the different communities that encounter a space.

Creating the right conditions for an engaging and meaningful experience requires careful preparation on the part of the practitioner; it cannot happen by accident.

An A-board outside, with a chalkboard panel - containing the question "What do you think?" written on it. Someone else has written, "I like the future a lot" alongside a smiley face.
Feedback board at the Ideascape interactive showcase, Cardiff Bay.

To build successful services and experiences that are strategic, contextually relevant, creative, technologically sound, collaborative and community-focused, Calvium kicks-off most digital placemaking projects with a ‘discovery workshop’.

This event brings together key stakeholders to establish the goals for the project, and begin uncovering the key considerations about environment and community that will shape the project and development process.

Each workshop covers questions in four key areas. These help stakeholders to kickstart their creativity and support their strategic and pragmatic thinking about the experience they want to build, and why they want to build it.

Three people stand talking in front of a geometric wooden structure on a sunny day.
Ideascape discovery workshop participants discuss their concepts on location; to help us better understand the context and environment.

It’s important to note that these questions – and therefore the nature of each workshop – will be determined by the context of the project itself.

Our key workshop themes are as follows, although others may be added (or removed) where necessary.

Context and environment

  • Why has the project been proposed?
  • What is the ambition of the project?
  • What specific changes should the project help make for target communities, whether social, political, economic or cultural?
  • What is the exact location, or area, to be served by the project?
  • What is the meaning of the place that must be expressed to the target communities?
  • What are the underpinning values of the project?
  • Is the project aligned to specific local policy or strategic objectives?

Project considerations

  • Whose input should the project involve, from a strategic, creative, technological and financial perspective?
  • Which physical assets could your placemaking project use, in terms of buildings, rooms, or interior objects?
  • For how long should the placemaking experience exist?

Target communities

  • Which communities should the digital placemaking project seek to engage?
  • How will these communities engage with the project?
  • Which stakeholders should benefit from the project?
  • What should the placemaking experience achieve for the different stakeholders above?
  • How will success be measured?

Strengths and challenges

  • What placemaking resources already exist in the target space?
  • What historic, cultural or social assets in the target space could the placemaking project use?
  • When is the best time to engage the target communities?
  • When are the target communities most open to digital engagement?
  • What political, social, economic or environmental obstacles are likely to affect the project?

With answers to these questions, our creative designers and technologists are ready to research, plan and implement digital experiences that build social, cultural, environmental and economic value – in turn unifying people, place and technology for the benefit of all types of community.