Digital Placemaking: 2019 at a glance

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Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Two people standing on a sunny street, holding phones up to a shop exterior with mustard walls.

Digital placemaking really came of age in 2019 and the next decade promises to take us to new levels of digitally-enabled experiences. The ways that people understand the public realm and – critically for businesses and for public services – expect to interact with these spaces, has been transformed by digital tech. In this article I’ve collated some great examples of projects that illustrate the breadth of work being undertaken at the intersection of people, place and technology, aka digital placemaking.

I define digital placemaking as “the augmentation of physical places with location-specific digital services, products or experiences to create more attractive destinations for all.” Fundamentally, 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.

As people’s experiences of physical spaces continues to expand through the opportunities that digital technologies afford e.g. shopping centres and high streets, parks, airports and train stations, the global reach of digital placemaking will also continue to grow.

At Calvium we strive to improve the relationship between people and places through the creative and judicious use of digital technology. An ambition we pursue with passion. So, let’s take a look at just some of the great digital placemaking projects that lit up our lives in 2019:

Culture

Digital placemaking is a powerful tool for connecting people with the richness of their local history and culture. In 2019 digital placemaking continued to make strides in this area opening up culture in new and exciting ways that fuse the physical and the digital. Below are three fine examples:

1. A Vixen’s Tale

Commissioned by the Welsh National Opera, A Vixen’s Tale is a beguiling physical and digital installation that aims to introduce people to Leoš Janáček’s opera called “The Cunning Little Vixen.” 

A Vixen’s Tale follows the emotional story of a vixen as she meets her friends and travels through the seasons. With the help of a beautiful AR app synced with music, both adults and kids can interact playfully with the installation, using their mobile devices to unlock a series of gameified vignettes. Our friends at Arcade did a great job.

Although the installation in Wales Millennium Centre’s foyer ended in November, there are plans for it to continue running nationally and internationally in 2020.

2. If These Walls Could Talk

Pete Woodbridge designed, developed and produced this ground-breaking participatory and immersive mixed reality experience in collaboration with with Culture Liverpool, Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, Draw & Code, Cinetecture and Dimension Studios.

The team created a pioneering hybrid spatial experience that considers how audiences can be a part of storytelling. The location-based prototype was produced for one of Liverpool’s most iconic heritage buildings – the 19th century St George’s Hall (Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, built 1841–1854), which is an intrinsic part of Liverpool’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The experience sees the famous court case of Florence Maybrick who was accused of poisoning her husband, and taken on a journey back in time to experience and feel what it was like to encounter Liverpool’s late Victorian prison and justice system. Set across the cells and the courtroom at St George’s hall, the experiences uses variety of technologies such as Virtual Reality, 3d Projection Mapping, Mixed Reality (Microsoft Hololens) and live performance to invite the audience into the last moments of the court case.

A great example of ambitious digital placemaking in spades!

3. Hidden Florence 3D

One of Calvium’s digital placemaking highlights of 2019 was the launch of our fabulous Hidden Florence 3D app at the National Gallery. The AR based app was part of a prestigious partnership between Calvium and the Universities of Cambridge and Exeter, the National Gallery and Zubr.

It was created to let visitors experience San Pier Maggiore —one of Florence’s most important and beautiful Renaissance churches that was sadly demolished in the 18th century. Although only three arches of the portico remain today, this AR app allows people to ‘see’ the interior of the church via an audio-guided tour, whether they are within the comforts of their homes or inside Room 60 at the National Gallery.

Conferences and Workshops

Many established corporate events are now recognising the huge contribution that digital placemaking is making to areas like urban regeneration, accessibility, transport and public education. As such their agendas are reflecting this. Many workshops are also springing up to reflect this growing knowledge base and need for better understanding.

Here are some excellent examples:

1. Place Tech Live 2019

Held in September, Place Tech Live 2019 focused on the latest trends in the property and technology sector. Julian Barker, head of smart places at British Land, presented a talk ‘Smart: Digital Placemaking’ about the ways in which British Land is deploying technology in buildings to help the developer to run their buildings more efficiently. He described the high-level benefits of digital placemaking to support the company’s customers, occupiers, British Land itself and society at large.  Julian stated that digital placemaking is “a capital activity and you don’t get day one income, but more people want the space and so the value goes up over time”.

2. Let’s Get Real Conference 2019

Early last year, a range of inspiring speakers from the arts and cultural heritage sector discussed the convergence of digital practice and social purpose during the Let’s Get Real 2019 Conference.

I had the pleasure of presenting my insights on the role of digital placemaking in community building, with a particular focus on citizen voice, citizen agency, supporting critique, and connecting citizens as demonstrated in our process of developing the pioneering Ideascape project in Cardiff Bay, alongside sustainable developers igloo.

3. Digital placemaking workshops 

2019 was a great year for increasing discussion and debate around digital placemaking. I’ve listed three noteworthy examples of this below.

  • Design @ Day: Digital Bridges — Design @ Day is a talk from lecturer in Interaction Design at the University of Sydney, Dr Luke Hespanhol, on urban media art. The talk covers his work in creating collaborative cities that encourage the public to share physical spaces through the creative extension of public infrastructure like walls, benches, trees and streetlights.
  • Tools for digital placemaking: Avoiding Digital Disasters! — A workshop looking at how to avoid possible digital placemaking pitfalls. The panel explored the interaction of digital placemaking in three areas: screens and interaction, data collection, and interfaces with the smart city.
  • Green Horizons | Digital Technology for Participatory Place Design —As part of a Landscape Institute workshop focused on community engagement in placemaking, I gave a talk at the Architecture Centre that explored how digital media and technology can be used to involve people that may be traditionally excluded or less motivated to participate in the placemaking process. 
Yellow sticky notes covered in text posted on a white board.
Ideas generated in one of the NavSta project focus group workshops. Photo by Jo Morrison.

Education and Research

There is a growing body of research in digital placemaking, as shown by the following events, grants, and initiatives:

  • Bristol and Bath Creative R&D — Bristol & Bath Creative R&D has been awarded £6.8 million in R&D by the AHRC to develop a more robust creative industry in the region, which includes a dynamic and exciting digital placemaking programme. I am thoroughly enjoying my association with the programme as their specialist consultant.
  •  AHRC-EPSRC Immersive Experiences: The immersive industry is built around the use of a range of technologies including virtual and augmented reality, 3D audio effects, haptic technologies, machine olfaction, gesture and speech recognition, and bespoke software. 
  • Memoryscapes is a project funded by the AHRC-EPSRC that ‘seeks to develop a new framework to support the creation and application of immersive memoryscapes: multi-sensory and participatory experiences within public spaces that re-contextualise heritage assets, and reimagine and reinvigorate public spaces as destinations. These will provide connections with the past along with the capacity for users to contribute feedback and their own memories.
  • Northumbria University in collaboration with Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and FaulknerBrowns architectural practice are undertaking this project – which looks fascinating and I look forward to learning of their activities.
  • Digital placemaking is also appearing as a theme in academic journals, including those in Sage Publications and ECREA
  • Funded PhDs — Across the globe there are examples of funded doctoral research in digital placemaking such as at KU Leuven in Belgium with Prof. Andrew Vande Moere and in Liverpool to research Creative Technology and Placemaking. Helping town centres to thrive with Immersive and Interactive Media Technology 

Digital Tools for Community Engagement in Digital Placemaking 

Digital placemaking is an enormously powerful tool for consultation, collaboration and discussion between planners, developers and community stakeholders. Here are a few examples of great practice:

  • Ideate by Code Design Studio — An ideation tool that helps communities generate project ideas specifically catering to their needs
  • Participatr — A digital engagement platform that captures a community’s sentiment allowing town planners to get better feedback and improving the reach of affected communities. This is especially useful for groups that are harder to reach and are traditionally unengaged in the consultation process.
  • Participate Melbourne — A thriving online community platform that allows Melbourne residents to have a hand in influencing their Council’s decisions and keep track of upcoming and ongoing projects. 

People smile holding smart phones up at the Battersea Power Station heritage wall, with a poster of the Heritage Trail app

2020-30: the new decade of Digital Placemaking

I’ve selected just a few categories, there are so many more sectors embracing digital placemaking, e.g. retail, tourism and transport. With all the advancements we’ve seen in this field just in the last 12 months—as evidenced by both Calvium’s contributions and the work of other people and organisations—there is no doubt that digital placemaking is on an exciting upward trajectory and will continue to gain recognition and investment in the coming years.