Digital placemaking for health and wellbeing


7 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Person lying under a tree with smart phone, headphones and bike

Innovation and technology are radically reshaping the UK’s National Health Service. In six years time, the NHS aims to offer ‘digital first’ service options for most citizens, giving people more control over their health and providing better care. At the same time, North East London is undergoing massive change; its population is projected to soar over the coming years, the amount of construction taking place is huge and the use of digital technologies in all areas of life is deepening. This is why we are in the midst of researching how place-based digital technologies can improve local people’s relationships with places and, in turn, improve their health and wellbeing.

Three mature people walking down a street

Calvium is currently undertaking an awesome innovation project on behalf of NHS North East London Integrated Care System (NHS NEL ICS).  We are exploring ways in which digital placemaking can support public health and wellbeing and how it can be incorporated into the strategic planning of future healthcare facilities as well as the neighbouring public realm.

“This is an amazing project with amazing potential.”

Tower Hamlets participant, stakeholder community co-design workshop.

As we move into the final stage of the Digital Placemaking Scoping Project, I wish to share the progress so far and explore some of the key elements that will inform the design of the ‘Digital Placemaking Experience Design Framework for Health and Wellbeing’, a key output of the project.

Project context

North East London currently has a population of 2 million and this is projected to grow significantly (+120,000) over the next five yearsThe majority of these citizens will choose to use digital products, services and experiences to connect with the world around them and each other. From our research, we have many examples of how residents are currently using personal digital technologies to support their physical, mental and emotional health when in the home and outside. Therefore, it stands to reason that they will increasingly expect access to community-based NHS services through a range of innovative, location-specific, digitally-enabled solutions.

What makes this project particularly challenging (and compelling) is its context. It covers eight boroughs of the NHS NEL – Barking & Dagenham, City of London, Hackney, Havering, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest – which all vary in geography, demographics, culture and accessibility. For example, 30% of the population in Newham are Asian compared to 6% in City and Hackney, resulting in different health needs; five boroughs are in the bottom 20% for the Index of Multiple Deprivation, meaning they are disproportionately affected by diabetes, dementia and obesity; 40% of children in the area who are about to leave primary school are obese, with rates for all boroughs higher than the national average.

The physicality of each borough varies considerably too. In the City of London, for example, the built environment is much denser and higher than in the surrounding boroughs, which take on more of a ‘village’ feel the further out you go.

Left photo: tower blocks. Right photo: suburban leafy street

Residences in Goodman’s Fields in Tower Hamlets and Hornchurch in Havering.

This complexity also means there is great scope for learning and innovation that can hopefully be applied across the wider healthcare setting in future. The potential for this project to have a truly meaningful real-world impact makes it an especially exciting one to be involved with.

What is clear from the research thus far, is that digital placemaking for inclusive health and wellbeing acts as a critical hub and a convenor for vital place-based collaboration. 

Where we are and where we’re headed

We launched the Digital Placemaking Scoping Project in April 2022 with three distinct stages set to run for five months.

Stage One

In order to understand the current context related to geolocated digital health and wellbeing experiences in the area and beyond, we kick-started the project with an investigation of North East London through the lenses of people, place, technology and data – constituent parts of digital placemaking.

This involved a number of wide-ranging research methods including literature surveys of how digital placemaking is being employed in healthcare facilities as well as the neighbouring environments – locally, nationally and internationally. We also looked at research in the field, to give an insight into potential directions of travel.

We conducted interviews with key stakeholder communities – including healthcare staff, patients, carers and local residents – and carried out an online survey with over 1,000 residents. This highlighted some of the ways people use technology to interact with space within the healthcare setting and public realm, ideas for the future and some concerns and potential barriers for smooth deployment and adoption.

The third and final strand of this initial stage relied on site observations across three boroughs. Observations help to gain a socio-spatial sense of a location and, in this case, to investigate the availability of internet connectivity to members of the public. We then analysed all the data collected to give us a sense of the potential of geo-located digital services and products within these different areas.

All of this was then used to inform stage two…

Stage Two

The second stage focused on stakeholder community engagement in order to imagine digital placemaking futures and inform the design of a bespoke experience design framework.

In order to ensure the project is as inclusive as possible, I designed seven activities that enabled people to participate in whichever way they felt most comfortable – whether in-person or online, formally or more informally.

Two people looking at cards and objects on table and comments on a pin board
150 locals visited our marquee at Barking’s Bike Fest to participate in the research using playful engagement tools with Play:Disrupt. ©2022 Andrew Baker. Barking Bike Fest Community Day.
People discussing and writing notes in a meeting room
30+ NHS staff including clinicians, medical researchers, estate managers and IT directors took part in physical and online workshops.

We also hosted a virtual engagement session for young people, individual interviews, a Tweet Up and an online co-creation lab. Whatever the activity and in whichever form, everything was designed to be creative, fun and provoke curiosity.

Online sessions explored five digital placemaking scenarios, created to stimulate thinking and discussion around the many, many ways in which digital technologies might enhance people’s experiences of the boroughs. Each scenario acts as a springboard for ideas – read more.

Illustrative map depicting activites that could be undertaken using digital technologies in City of London and Hackney boroughs

Stage Three

The third and final stage, which I am currently focusing on, will report on the findings from the first two stages, bringing together all of the information and analysis.

Inclusive health and wellbeing for all

Adding digital technologies to the ways places are experienced and understood provides opportunities for exclusion unless they are designed holistically, thoughtfully and with the communities they are meant to serve.

As described above, stakeholder community engagement has been a fundamental part of the project from the outset. In order to ensure the needs of our key stakeholders are met and woven throughout, we have moved beyond desk-based research and gone out into these communities so we can actively listen to people on the ground. The development and direction of the project has very much been led by and for healthcare staff, patients, carers and local residents.

Workshop cards with commentsWhile this project has not reached its conclusion, it seems abundantly clear to me that digital placemaking has the potential to become a critical aspect of the future of healthcare.

There are many areas that impact upon health and wellbeing where digital placemaking can have a positive impact: e.g. transport and mobility, net zero, social interaction, and physical activity.

For society to benefit from these opportunities, ethics, stewardship, inclusion, care, diversity and community engagement should underpin any digital placemaking strategy that is created for an environment as diverse and complex as North East London. It is our responsibility to design and develop future technologies that support people to participate fully in society.

The Calvium Team is excited for this research to reveal what the future of inclusive, place-based and digitally-enabled healthcare might be and how we can play a meaningful role in helping the NHS North East London ICS to identify and meet its digital ambitions.

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