People, places and technology: 3 recent events that show the opportunities in digital placemaking


8 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Relationships between people, places and technology can be explored in a huge number of ways, serving a breadth of sectors.

Last month, our Digital Innovation Programme Director Jo Morrison attended three very different events over the course of three days: all of which resonate with the wide-ranging nature and relevance of digital placemaking.

Monday: Ambient Literature Festival, London

The week began with the Ambient Literature Festival at the British Library in London. This showcase event celebrated the end of the AHRC-funded Ambient Literature Project: a two-year programme that looked to redefine literature with literary works delivered by smartphone and reacting to the ‘reader’s’ presence in the world.

Our role as a research partner in the project saw us teaming up with two authors to provide the creative technology behind The Cartographer’s Confession by James Attlee, and It Must Have Been Dark By Then by Duncan Speakman. Featuring 3D soundscapes, the former was the recent winner of The New Media Writing Prize 2017, and combines fiction and non-fiction, imagined and real locations, to create a story of migration, loss, betrayal and retribution.

Both of these works, and the third piece by Kate Pullinger, involved multi-disciplinary collaboration, experimentation, an iterative creative development process, rigour and enthusiasm.

At the Festival, the Ambient Literature team revealed plans to develop an Ambient Literature toolkit, which will give practitioners everything they need to write for ‘situated storytelling’.

The toolkit will add to the existing canon of books, papers and frameworks that exist on the subject of situated media – including our white paper, which presents an approach for multi-disciplinary collaboration in research projects, based on our learning from The Lost Palace project.

Ambient Literature Festival

Connecting people, place and technologies through creative and immersive storytelling and locative pervasive media has been central to the Calvium team’s activities for more than 15 years. Alongside our work for Ambient Literature, we have recently used our ‘situated storytelling’ expertise to design and deliver the Battersea Power Station Heritage Trail as the digital placemaking experience for visitors to the development.

Locative storytelling provides new ways for people to experience and understand a place, and is one of the creative tools in the digital placemaking toolbox.

Tuesday: Smart Wales, Connected Cymru – Cardiff

Hosted and run by Microsoft and UKAuthority, Smart Wales, Connected Cymru was a very different event altogether. While Monday’s focus was on the arts and emergent forms of literature that make use of novel technologies and social practices, Tuesday saw council staff, emergency services workers, healthcare, tech professionals and more come together to explore how technology-based innovation can transform the local public services sector.

The day highlighted how data and digital skills can fuel public services, smart cities, towns and villages, touching on cloud computing, big data and analytics, digital identity, mobile and connected tech, the IoT, AI and cognitive sciences, mixed reality and more. All technologies, of course, powered by app technology.

This was an event not just about smart towns and cities, but about smart and connected communities: delving into how various technologies can both improve the efficiency of a city’s services and improve the quality of life for its residents. Helena Zaum, Microsoft’s CityNext Lead, suggested that people need to ‘start now and design for change’ in relation to digital technologies and places, and offered the 5 pillars of smart places and connected communities that her programme has developed.

Technology is one thing, but it’s vision and implementation that are key to Cardiff’s future smart city success. As the new Chief Digital Officer at Cardiff Council said on the day, “smart technologies can help Cardiff grow sustainably – new solutions are needed.”

And there are plenty of solutions out there that show how great digitally-enabled interventions can bring tangible benefits to local public services. Two projects really stood out as demonstrating just how valuable digital innovation can be in driving positive change.

In the morning, Andrea Baker, the Health and Care STP Lead of the East Midlands Falls Programme, introduced a digital solution that identifies, monitors and manages individuals who are at risk of falling – and aids the delivery of better care to those who have fallen in the past. Data collected by the technology can be analysed to assess who is most at risk of a fall to prevent it from happening, while also helping those who have previously fallen to enjoy healthy and independent lives at home.

Smart Wales, Connected Cymru 2

In the afternoon, Stuart Chalmers, the ICT Business Manager for the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service, spoke of how they are saving lives through digital innovation. Their award-winning mobile app gives emergency services personnel access to up-to-date and accurate location mapping, hazard information and very detailed building layouts to keep them safe when preparing for and attending a call-out.

Both of these ‘smart’ projects demonstrated the value of positive collaborative working across a project’s multi-faceted stakeholder community, as well as how a bespoke digital intervention can enable a much safer and more efficient environment for workers and users alike.

As places change and grow organically, so digital placemaking efforts can be malleable, evolving with the communities that use it. Technology, of course, is a fantastic tool, but for smart cities and digital placemaking projects, it’s the symbiotic relationship between tech and citizens that holds the most opportunity.

Wednesday: Placemaking: The Route Ahead – Breakfast Roundtable, London

‘Placemaking – buzzword or brand builder?’ asked the title of a recent paper by leading communications firm Infinite Global. It was this report that formed the basis of Wednesday’s roundtable, which brought together a number of the report’s contributors including our own, Jo Morrison. The rest of the panel included:

  • Victoria Hills, CEO of Royal Town Planning Institute
  • Harry Swales, Homes England
  • Lucy Greenwood, Savills
  • Hannah Smart, West Waddy ADP
  • Michael Winter-Taylor, Gensler
  • Matt Ogg, Revo

With such a wide spectrum of placemaking stakeholders, it was fascinating to hear and participate in the insightful conversation around placemaking, its contribution to the communities it serves and the importance of long-term strategies and investment.

Placemaking - The Route Ahead

One participant observed that we are coming into a golden age for placemaking, with the importance of place being a core foundation of the government’s Industrial Strategy. All were in agreement that there is a wealth of work that needs to be undertaken to help us all to create the kind of authentic and inclusive places where diverse communities can live, work and play. Some of the themes touched upon included:

  • Responsibility, stewardship, and decision making
  • Investment and patient capital to ‘front load’ the infrastructure required for place
  • Planning for place, and the role and remit of the planning profession and local authorities
  • Curating spaces, and balancing housing priorities with a community’s social, cultural and economic needs
  • Connecting people and communities – physically and digitally.

With the government’s plans to build 300,000 new homes per year, it was deemed of vital importance that where homes are built, there must also be investment in infrastructure and local economic growth for the place to succeed.

As Jo explained at the roundtable, digital placemaking should be understood and adopted as a key strategic approach for successful placemaking. The ways in which people experience the urban public realm have changed radically over the past 10 years because of the scope, depth and pace of digital innovation; and all indications are that this situation will continue. In our hyperconnected world, smartphones are ubiquitous, ‘smart’ technologies are being deployed into the fabric of the city, and we experience the world around us as a ‘hybrid space’. This offers a valuable opportunity for built environment professionals to embrace a digital placemaking approach to anticipate and deliver quality public spaces that are relevant for today’s rapidly evolving world in ways that anticipate, and exceed, people’s expectations.

Key takeaways

These three events illustrated the relationships between people, places and technology in very different ways: using locational technologies for the arts, smart technologies for better public services, and how the creative use of digital technologies can enhance placemaking. While all different, there were, however, some key considerations that applied across the projects discussed on all three days, all of which resonate with the practice of digital placemaking:

    • Identifying the right opportunities for service or experience enhancement and/or transformation: think about the creative and judicious use of digital technologies, not just tech for tech’s sake
    • Co-creation and collaboration across stakeholder groups: have an aligned and ethical vision
    • Experimentation, and an iterative design and development process: aim to be surprised, welcome serendipity and remain open in your approach
    • Quality is key in all areas of a project, including ideation, project management and development.

On Tuesday, Helena Zaum said, “Start now and design for change”. There’s no denying that the relationships between people, place and technology are evolving, and are likely to be even more advanced in the coming years. It’s time to plan: to envision new and better horizons for our future urban public spaces – and in a world where hyperconnectivity is key, as we explore we must also reimagine the familiar concepts and reference frameworks we use to understand and design for the world around us.


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