In June 2020, I had the pleasure of presenting the final session of The Digital Leaders Virtual Summit—a two-week programme that covered 100 sessions from digital leaders across a wide range of sectors.
My talk focussed on Inclusive design for the public realm and how digital placemaking can support people with different access needs to be more independent and feel more confident when navigating our shared public spaces.
In this article, I draw on the key messages of my talk – which were aimed primarily at those with responsibility for devising public realm strategies, commissioning programmes and implementing projects.
Digital Placemaking: Connecting People with Place
Digital placemaking is the augmentation of physical places with location-specific digital services, products, or experiences to create more meaningful destinations for all. It operates in the ‘hybrid space’, where digital and physical spaces intersect (Fig. 2). When done well, digital placemaking can be used to support citizens to shape public spaces, develop urban spaces, and even help to revitalise high streets.
Before focusing on inclusive design, I started by sharing a range of digital placemaking projects that harness a multitude technologies. I wanted to shake off the collective shackles of ‘smartphone thinking’ in order to expand our collective horizons.
- Ideascape — Calvium collaborated with sustainable property developer Igloo on a 6-month research project called Ideascape, where we held a series of ideation workshops and an interactive public showcase event, exploring how innovative public engagement can lead to better smart urban developments.
- The Lost Palace — An award-winning immersive AR app, The Lost Palace lets users explore the Palace of Whitehall before it burned down 300 years ago; with the help of located audio, haptic technology, and bespoke handheld devices.
- Hidden Florence 3D — Using both AR and GPS, Hidden Florence 3D reconstructs the church San Pier Maggiore during its Renaissance heyday, allowing users to ‘walk inside’ the church whether they are inside the National Gallery, on site in Florence or sitting at home.
How Digital Placemaking Can Enable More Accessible Urban Environments
Members of the Calvium team have a strong history of designing inclusively and adopting a human-centred approach. We want all people to participate in the richness of society, and to do so means we have to design for people who have different access needs, especially since 1 in 5 people in the UK are living with some form of disability.
With this in mind, I introduced the four key elements of any digital placemaking project (Fig. 3) which people need to consider from the get-go, whenever they are developing location-based and digitally-enabled projects:
- People — These are the users of a digital product. It could refer to the customer using the front end via a smartphone app or it could be the user responsible for inputting data into its content management system.
- Place — To better understand the place, designers need to know not just the physical environment but also its social and cultural environment.
- Technology — Pay attention to the infrastructure technology, such as wifi availability and whether it’s patchy or fully and freely available across the environment. You also need to get to grips with any hardware or software.
- Data — Decide whether you are creating your own data, relying on third parties, or a bit of both.
NavSta: The Intersection of People, Place, Technology, and Data
For a project to succeed, the four elements of people, place, technology and data must be considered throughout the project and aligned. This approach underpinned NavSta (Navigating Stations)—a mobile wayfinding system that helps people with invisible impairments (e.g. memory loss, autism and anxiety) navigate a chaotic railway station independently and with confidence.
Together with our partners,Transport for London (TfL), Open Inclusion and Connected Places Catapult, we designed and developed a mobile system that took us from a position where people’s relationships with railway stations were dreadful to one where they were reimagined, re-experienced and hopeful.
To get to that point, we had to make sure that the four key elements were aligned. During my talk, I looked at each element through the lens of NavSta.
User research played a huge role in understanding the needs of our target audience. With the help of Open Inclusion, we surveyed 50 people with neurodiverse conditions so we could better understand their attitudes towards travelling, their needs and their experiences.
Our first on-site testing was in Canada Water Station, where five participants with cognitive and mental health needs used the app to find their way around the station. This research session allowed us to observe the users’ responses and informed the next steps of improvement.
“Most definitely it helps alleviate my anxiety, it contextualises everything and gives you the exact information – it’s very holistic.” – User, final user testing at Canada Water Station
In addition to helping passengers to reduce their levels of anxiety when travelling through stations, NavSta will also help train stations to remove barriers to travel, increase customer satisfaction, and achieve more inclusive and accessible journeys.
With TfL’s help, I visited several underground stations to better look at the physical, social and cultural aspects of the places. During this process, some assumptions were challenged and existing functions were better understood, e.g:
- The TfL team would not be directly involved with the project (which we initially assumed they would be)
- A better and deeper understanding of the stations’ existing Help Points and how station staff currently supported passengers needing assistance.
We found out that access to the internet in TfL stations was really patchy and there was relatively little connectivity across the network. For NavSta to be scalable and usable, the app has to work offline – so we opted to take an ‘offline-first’ design approach.
Our developers also investigated both the Android system and iOS, ensuring that we would always design functions that were implementable in both systems – providing a uniform experience.
Initially I expected that we would be able to use TfL’s unified API to pull in some station specific information. While investigating the datasets I discovered that some of the data within the accessibility section were incorrect. Data that is not up to date (e.g. limited capacity lifts, toilets, entrance instructions, etc) and we know to be wrong, cannot go into the app.
Through all these research activities, the team learned that it’s vital to build a flexible, adaptable, and personalised mobile wayfinding tool that responds to the immediate needs of a customer. And we achieved that with NavSta. This project bore fruit to the following:
- Demonstrated the value of employing an inclusive research and design approach with a neurodiverse user group
- Demonstrated the potential to support the access needs of a much greater number of customers
- Showed how digital placemaking can make our cities more inclusive and accessible
Inclusive Approach Engenders a Greater Sense of Belonging
Through this approach, we were able to create an environment with less physical and social barriers for our user base—so much so, in fact, that they moved from fear and anxiety to hope when describing their journeys in railway stations.
To conclude my Digital Leaders presentation I repeated my message that adopting an inclusive approach to designing digital placemaking projects will enable citizens with different access needs to become more active participants in the dynamic life of a city. This is something that the Calvium team and others are turning into a reality today and are committed to making happen tomorrow. My challenge to the audience, and to you magnificent reader, is to join us and become agents of inclusive change.
“And I end my talk by saying that I look forward to hearing how this session has enabled you to commit to embarking on your own digital placemaking journey!”