Pixels, bricks and mortar: Can Digital Placemaking Save the High Street?


11 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

London high street of shops, with a red and blue single-deck bus in the foreground

Over the past few months we learnt that Jamie’s Italian was closing, Carluccio’s was massively restructuring, LK Bennett was bought out of administration and so on. These huge shifts on the UK’s high streets continue apace and there are a number of factors that have combined to create the conditions that retail now faces. The creative and judicious use of digital technologies to help revive the fortunes of high street has been identified by many respected experts, such as Bill Grimsey, as a way of attracting people back to our town centres. This article provides an overview of the role that digital placemaking can play in supporting the UK’s high streets to thrive once more.

Originally published January 2019.

Much has been made of the so-called ‘death of the high street’ and some of the blame often falls at the feet of digital technology. This is understandable as online and app-based retail has driven a change in consumer behaviour – shopping from the comfort of our own homes is a compelling experience. How can the high street compete?

“Our high streets continue to face enormous challenges and require seismic change to help them adjust to 21st century demands”

The Grimsey Review 2, 2018


According to retail analyst Nelson Blackley over 200 of Britain’s shopping centres are at serious risk of closure and the collapse of major anchor stores, such as Woolworths, BHS and Toys R Us, has hit towns across the UK hard. Recent research by retail industry body Revo and the Grimsey Review 2 report by Bill Grimsey highlight a number of the underlying problems facing our high streets – including the present business rates system – and suggest ways to help them to thrive again.

The government has also identified the need to revitalise our high streets and has funded a number of activities in recent years. For example, councils in England have been invited to bid for a share of a new £675m government fund to help reinvigorate their high streets. The successful applicants will have to show how they intend to encourage more people to the centres by turning them into, as chancellor Philip Hammond said, “vibrant community hubs”.

“The British high street has weathered sweeping changes in society, varied economic cycles, successive layers of property development and retail expansion, and the seismic impact of digital technology on communications, entertainment and commerce.”

Digital High Street 2020 Report, by The Digital High Street Advisory Board


Whilst identified as one of the key reasons for the decline in the popularity of the high street, digital technologies have also been identified as key to their revitalisation. Therefore, harnessing the power of digital placemaking is a sensible approach given that people increasingly understand and interact with the world around them through the use of digital technologies.

What is Digital Placemaking?

Digital placemaking refers to the digital augmentation of physical spaces with digital services, products and experiences that are specific to a given location and are used primarily to make a location more desirable, more liveable. Digital placemaking can feed into multiple marketing strategies; as utilities such as wayfinding and connectivity, or as part of the experience economy and activation of place. It has numerous potential applications for the high street, many of which we’ll be discussing in greater detail below.

Digital Placemaking on the High Street

To understand how digital placemaking can help to revitalise our crumbling high streets, you need to understand why people are turning their back on them in the first place. Undoubtedly digital has had a massive impact, with customers embracing the speed, efficiency and value of online shopping more than ever. Why head into town when you can find something on Amazon and get it delivered the next (if not the same) day?

But the problem goes deeper. The convenience of online shopping creates a disassociation with the town centre as a destination. If you’re lucky enough to live in a big city, you may not notice the change, but across the UK hundreds of smaller towns resemble disused fairgrounds, with boarded up windows dominating many a retail landscape.

In some ways, the death of the high street is a self fulfilling prophecy: the fewer people go into town, the less it seems worth investing in it. But the retail battlelines have been drawn by online giants and the high street needs to fight on its own grounds. Not by ignoring digital, but by utilising its creative power differently. There is no single magic bullet, but digital placemaking can undoubtedly go some way to draw crowds to the high street in new and interesting ways.

Take the Aardman Gromit Unleashed sculpture trails in Calvium’s hometown of Bristol. The trails – the first of which was in 2013, with a follow up in 2018 – peppered 80 huge artist-designed Gromit sculptures across the city. Visitors were then invited to go on a smartphone-guided sculpture hunt, allowing them to find and record the various Gromits dotted throughout Bristol.

The scheme harnessed Bristolian culture, much-loved characters in Wallace and Gromit and gamification to draw people not just to the centre, but to other areas of the city that were neglected. Real life statues coupled with app tech is the perfect use of physical and digital creativity to draw people in. And it worked. In 2013, almost 1.2 million people visited the trail, contributing an estimated £120 million to the Bristol economy in two months.

And app tech can work in other ways to connect people and place, too. For our Ideascape research project as part of the Porth Teigr redevelopment in Cardiff, we designed a ‘digital town crier’: a buoy which came to life when people walked near it, informing passers by of deals for local cafés and restaurants. Even simple steps like this can bring a sense of joy to an otherwise mundane shopping trip and, more importantly, entice people into those shops to spend their money.

Digital town crier at Porth Teigr

Beyond that comes the challenge of reconnecting people with the spaces that they have fallen out of love with, or perhaps had no love for in the first place. App tours of remarkable local landmarks and histories can help people see their high streets in a different light, allowing them to connect with the place in a way that they weren’t connected before. And while walking tours can work, there are plenty more creative possibilities to draw the crowds in.

Digital placemaking could also work in places where traditional placemaking has failed. In the Midlands town of Kidderminster, for example, the council recently invested in a town centre ‘Music Trail’ regeneration project around the town’s musical heritage. The record-shaped seats they spent so much installing ended up being a point of contention amongst locals, who bemoaned them as an eye-sore and a hazard.

This is a not only a prime example of poor design and poor implementation, but a situation where a digital alternative would arguably have been more cost-effective, less intrusive and more emotionally engaging. Instead of physical record stacks, the council might have instead followed the example of Porth Teigr, turning a more subtle physical asset into something that came to life digitally and told an immersive story about the town’s musical heritage.

Successful modern placemaking requires a judicious use of tech, a compelling and legitimate reason, a connection and an overall quality in all aspects of the design and this concept would tick all of those boxes.

The high street is suffering for numerous reasons, of course, but revitalisation is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility and digital placemaking projects undertaken with a keen understanding of place and a fair amount of public discourse and input could act as a necessary first step in getting people interested in our high streets again.

However, retailers themselves have a part to play too. Shops can rarely compete on price with online retailers, so how can they use apps, app tech and digital placemaking to encourage shoppers to come to them?

Digital Placemaking In-Store

Amazon is the UK’s fifth largest retailer, only trailing to the big four supermarket chains Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons. Its dominance in e-commerce is often put down, in part, to the fact that it has relatively low overheads. Sure, there are huge warehouses stationed across the country, but they don’t need prime, pricey real estate on the high street. They can undercut brick and mortar retailers on almost everything.

So, why has one of Amazon’s biggest investments in the last 12 months been physical stores? Because they understand that people’s shopping habits have changed, and that true convenience means breaking down the barriers between physical and digital. So, their ‘4-star’ stores only sell items rated 4 stars or above on Amazon, their Amazon Go concept stores use cameras and sensors to track what you put in your basket then charge you through your Amazon account. Their pick-up sites are dotted around various retailers, grocers and even colleges in the US, while Amazon Lockers are peppered across the UK.

For retailers to succeed on the high street, they need to understand the physical and digital question is not either/or, it’s both. The physical store and digital experience should be considered holistically – enabling the user experience to be seamless and frictionless between the two.

But, again, technology can transcend simple utility, creating retail spaces that become immersive destinations in their own right. Unsurprisingly, tech brands are those making the biggest leaps in in-store digital placemaking. Samsung, for example, launched their experimental Samsung 837 store, which posits itself as a ‘digital playground’ for customers that favour “interaction over transactions”:

Google’s Curiosity Rooms offer something similar, with workshops, podcasts, talks and more, coupled with fun demonstrations of their latest tech products.

Fashion brands have followed suit. Ralph Lauren recently installed interactive touch-screen mirrors in their flagship New York store to drive a 90% increase in engagement. Mirrors in the store allow customers to browse inventory and get items ‘delivered’ to their changing rooms, tweak room lighting and even have complementary items recommended to them.

Online fashion retailer Missguided recently made its physical debut with a unique “on-air” retail concept, installing floor-to-ceiling digital screens playing a stream of customer-generated content.

While still in their infancy, these kinds of immersive shopping environments are already generating returns for brands, particularly when it comes to actionable insight and data.

Using the Right Tools

While the ideas above are perfect examples of digital placemaking in action, the majority are installed in major cities where footfall is already healthy. What we really need to see is brands willing to take these concepts and downscale them to make them work on a typical British high street. If it works in New York, why not in Kidderminster?

The fact is, digital placemaking needs to be applied sensitively, otherwise it runs the risk of underperforming. The ‘I am Norrebro’ app we built with the AAB Housing Association in Norrebro, Copenhagen showcases a decidedly sensitive approach. Designed to bring together an increasingly anti-social and segregated community, inhabitants worked together to create the stories that feature on the app, catalysing real social change and proving the power of digital placemaking to shift perceptions of a local area. And far more cost-effectively than any physical infrastructure might have done.

Closer to home in Yeovil, meanwhile, a ‘groundbreaking’ social media app has been launched that is “based on where you are, not who you are.” Mubble aims to connect users to people nearby by allowing them to make location-specific posts that are ‘pinned’ to their current location. The idea is that these posts will eventually lead to a user-generated digital placemaking experience by giving people “the ability to connect with everyone around them simultaneously.” The app also takes no personal information from users, making a stand against recent data misuse scandals. Mubble is an application governed by its own users that could potentially transform underused public areas into fountains of local knowledge and vibrant meeting places.

Saving Grace?

The commonality between all these examples is creating a destination. Whether that’s a high street, a city centre, a store or a neglected part of town, councils and retailers need to work hard to make these spaces desirable, fun, cool, exciting or different. The retail space is still important to brands – with 72% of online shoppers finding bricks-and-mortar experiences most important when making purchases. Consumers crave the community and the atmosphere of the high street, but they need a push to get them there.


Can digital placemaking provide this push? Not alone. But used in conjunction with other forward-thinking approaches, digital placemaking certainly has the power to help save struggling town centres.


CLICK HERE to learn more about Digital Placemaking and the markets in which it has been making a real difference from the authority on the subject.


Featured image credit:

Martin Addison / Shops and Bus on Barnet Hill, via Wikimedia Commons

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