The Calvium history of digital placemaking for urban development


10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital placemaking (noun);

The augmentation of physical places with location-specific digital services, products or experiences to create more attractive destinations for all.

Successful digital placemaking schemes are designed to reflect the environment and communities they serve – expressing and enhancing the social and cultural value of different places via bespoke digitally-enabled experiences.

The future of digital placemaking looks bright. But to understand the direction of travel for the practice, it helps to first reflect on its past and present. Doing so is not easy: after all, there is no single history of the practice, despite it being relatively new.

In this article, we’ve sought to inform present and future opportunities for digital placemaking for urban regeneration, local government and heritage professionals by providing a potted history of the practice, based on our experiences of connecting people, place and mobile technology since 2001.

Technology, first (but not technology-first)

The context for our history of digital placemaking – and part of what makes the field so interesting today and for the future – is the rapid development of mobile technology, connectivity and commerce over the last two decades.

First came the falling cost of smart devices like PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) and smartphones, which set the stage for the easy-to-use AR (Augmented Reality), geolocation and communication technologies that enable us to build digital placemaking experiences. Next, the emergence and growth of mobile networks, enabling users to get online at any time. Finally, the launch of Apple’s App Store in 2008 – which expanded the potential for organisations to offer their own software-driven experiences for smartphones.

This innovation will continue, enhancing the potential for even more immersive, effective digital placemaking experiences. VR (Virtual Reality), MR (Mixed Reality), AI (Artificial Intelligence), machine learning and the development of new smart materials and interfaces will all find their place in the field.

While mobile technologies provide the building blocks for digital placemaking experiences, it’s important to note that these are the means to these experiences, and not the experiences themselves. Successful digital placemaking programmes are people and place centred, with technology being an enabler, or a mediator, of an experience. While the Calvium team are technical specialists, we know that no technology drives a great location-specific digital service or experience, but the creative, meaningful and judicious application of it does.

BC: Before Calvium

Calvium’s engagement with digital placemaking began at the start of the 21st century. Our founding members were part of a research team at Hewlett-Packard Labs (HP Labs), working on several seminal projects that explored the relationship between people, place and mobile technology.

In 2001 – before 3G, Facebook, iPhone and Pokémon Go (the latter responsible for building worldwide awareness of location-based AR gaming) – few professionals or projects were actively exploring the uses and potential for mobile technology to enhance our experience of place. Mobile Bristol was one such project – a major UK research programme involving HP Labs (driven by the Calvium team) and the University of Bristol.

Collaboration and co-creation defined Mobile Bristol’s approach and has been at the heart of our work ever since – as it has the development of digital placemaking more widely. The practice has been shaped by collaborative research and innovative practice between creative designers and technologists, artists, computer scientists, geographers, educational researchers, and more.

This early partnership led to two groundbreaking projects. First, Savannah (with Futurelab, the BBC and the University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Lab in 2002-2004), which explored the power of computer games for education in the outdoors. Drawing on content from the BBC’s Natural History Unit, Savannah was a strategy-based adventure game where virtual space was mapped directly onto real space. Children ‘played’ at being lions in a savannah, navigating the augmented environments with a pre-smartphone PDA. Using aspects of gameplay, Savannah challenged children to explore and survive in the augmented space.

Children with HP iPaqs playing ‘Savannah’ in 2004

Next came 1831 Riot! in 2004, which recreated Bristol’s 1831 uprisings in Queen’s Square, via a geolocated audio trail using iPAQ smart devices. As visitors moved around the square with GPS-connected devices and a backpack full of tech, they accessed one of multiple scenes allocated to that location. In this way, users immersed themselves in the riots on the very spot that they took place more than 170 years before. 1831 Riot! was the world’s first location-specific GPS-enabled drama and was shortlisted for the prestigious New Statesman New Media Awards, 2005.

1831 Riot!
The ‘Riot’ team in Queen Square, Bristol

In the meantime, our collaborators on Savannah, the Mixed Reality Lab, were working with artistic collective Blast Theory to develop Can You See Me Now? – a geolocational game of chess and hide-and-seek played in the streets of cities across the globe and later nominated for a BAFTA in interactive arts. This was followed by the stellar Uncle Roy All Around You – one of the world’s first interactive digital street games, premiered at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art in June 2003. Both of these projects set the bar for excellence in exploring relationships between people, place and technology, as mediated by performance and play. Our own Richard Hull and Jo Morrison were two of those who participated in the premiere of ‘Uncle Roy’ at the ICA.

HP Labs went on to develop M-Scapes, a mobile media gaming platform that could be used to create location-based games and experiences. This platform formed the technical foundation for a further collaboration with Futurelab in 2007: Create-a-Scape. Recognising the potential educational value of mobile technology for learning and in supporting people to create their own location-specific ‘mediascapes,’ Create-a-Scape enabled students and teachers to create their own outdoor geolocational experiences, winning multiple awards for innovation and education.

For our founding members, these collaborations and projects prompted a deeper understanding of the innovation and richness that can come from shared exploration between technical and creative communities. This understanding and our desire to be part of these kinds of collaborations led to the creation of the Pervasive Media Studio, which recently celebrated its tenth birthday and which we called home for many of Calvium’s early years. The Pervasive Media Studio is an open, shared and curated collaborative space where practitioners from across technology, the arts and academia rub shoulders while exploring questions and ideas relating to content, technology, creativity and space.

From 2001, the massive increase in the availability of digital connectivity, personal mobile devices, online platforms and mobile digital services kickstarted a revolution in how we navigate, communicate and access services – and understand public space. For urban development and regeneration professionals, this new mobile culture represented a valuable opportunity to harness the power of digital placemaking.

For Calvium’s founders, the decade after 2001 provided rich insights on collaboration, creativity, engagement, technological innovation and multi-disciplinary thought from leading-edge innovators across the globe. Time to sharpen our focus yet further.

The Second Chapter

Calvium was founded in 2009, one year after the launch of Apple’s app store. Since then, we’ve applied our expertise as creative mobile technologists to experiment with, and deepen, our understanding of digital placemaking for urban development in five key areas.

  • Cultural Heritage

Digital placemaking experiences can bring the history of an environment back to life, adding cultural value to spaces which – particularly in urban regeneration projects – can directly translate into economic value.

Our digital placemaking projects that celebrate cultural heritage have included Soho Stories for the National Trust (a bespoke location-based audio tour showcasing the fascinating history of the district) and The Lost Palace. This groundbreaking placemaking project raised Whitehall Palace from the ashes and won the ‘Innovation’ prize at the Museum + Heritage Awards 2017.

Most recently, as part of Battersea Power Station’s inaugural Cultural Programme we were commissioned to develop an immersive Heritage Trail app. As well as providing services and information for the local community and visitors, the mobile app showcases the rich history of the site – even allowing users to peek into the power station control room via AR (Augmented Reality).

  • City Trails

Digital placemaking experiences can work across extended areas too. Since 2009, we’ve proven the value of placemaking trails on a city-wide basis – including our geolocational projects for the City of London and Historic Bristol.

Planners, developers and local governments have long recognised the importance of fostering engagement between urban spaces and the communities that use them. Digital placemaking experiences are increasingly valued as cost-effective, highly targeted and multi-purpose means of building or extending meaningful relationships between people and places.

  • The Environment

Importantly, digital placemaking programmes can be multi-directional, offering users both content and an interface for them to input information – thereby deepening engagement between communities, their spaces and the stakeholders that manage them.

We’ve explored this aspect of digital placemaking in several mobile projects. These include Bristol’s Parkhive, which allowed any member of the Bristol Parks Forum to inform others about local green spaces, and Metal’s NetPark in Southend – the world’s first digital art park, with content generated in collaboration with local creatives and schoolchildren.

  • The Arts

In many cases, research-focused digital placemaking projects have included a distinctive arts component. Such is the case with our Alight app for King’s College London and the National Gallery, which offers users a geolocational, devotional arts trail across major cities worldwide, including London, Washington and New York.

Our Ideascape project for Porth Teigr, Cardiff, included a series of artistic interventions designed to help residents explore, understand and drive value from their neighbourhood, including situated fiction, VR binoculars and digital photographic archive. Meanwhile, our UCAN GO platform – developed in collaboration with UCAN Productions – makes arts venues accessible to visually-impaired users via easy-use smartphone software. The programme has been updated recently, and includes guides for the Millennium Centre in Cardiff and Hackney Empire in London.

  • Research

Research has been, and continues to be, integral to the development of digital placemaking. This is reflected in our history as a business, which is grounded in research expertise and shaped by collaboration with leading researchers in people, place and technology across the globe. In the UK, this list includes the Universities of Cambridge, Exeter and West of England, and The National Gallery.

Digital programmes are invaluable for collecting study data for how communities use and experience spaces. Similarly, the Ambient Literature Project – our collaboration with UWE, Bath Spa University and the University of Birmingham – is designed to explore the relationship between readers, their environment and mobile technology. Works created as part of this project were recently showcased at The British Library.

Digital placemaking experiences have also served to make research more accessible and relevant to stakeholder communities. We developed the Hidden Florence app with the University of Exeter to showcase their studies into the city’s medieval population – turning academic information into a tourist attraction. This award-winning project has since received a second round of AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funding.


We’ve explored the early days and illustrated how digital placemaking can enable people to engage with places afresh – from green spaces to cities – through cultural heritage and the arts, education, environmental activity, community engagement and so forth. This demonstrates the breadth of opportunities that digital placemaking affords and its flexibility as a practice.

So, to the future…

Digital placemaking is being recognised as a valuable practice and approach by all sorts of people and professions who are concerned with building better environments for citizens to live, work and visit, e.g. large architecture and engineering firms, developers and local authorities.

As innovation marches onwards, exciting new opportunities will be opened for digital placemaking to help our urban developments prosper, socially, economically, culturally and environmentally. We’ve come a long way since 2001. Where next?

Find out more about digital placemaking. Read our comprehensive introductory guide, here.

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