The power of place-based digital storytelling


8 minute read
Jo Reid

Jo Reid

Chief Executive Officer

Digital Placemaking

Mobile Technology

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Digital storytelling is the fundamental underpinning of the social web. Whether through lengthy musings in a regular blog or a quick social media update, we are all storytellers when we post personal details about our everyday events and stories.

We are also drawn to other human stories. It’s why digital marketing is so effective; it can imbue the product or service with the essence of a related story to connect at an emotional rather than a logical level.

Places can also evoke strong emotional feelings. The chill of a shaded graveyard, the vibrancy of an outdoor market, the ghostly presence of bygone inhabitants in older buildings: the physicality of places plays to all of the senses so that you can literally react to the ambience.

The ability to use digital storytelling to elevate the natural curiosity we have in such places is what provides the magic, and therefore the power to influence. This is something myself and fellow researchers Richard Hull, Kirsten Cater and Constance Fleuriot were exploring almost two decades ago in our ‘Magic moments in situated mediascapes’ paper, which looked at how the distinctive feature of mediascapes is their link to the physical environments. 

The findings are still very relevant today, although opportunities to harness the power of place-based digital storytelling are significantly greater now due to advancements in technology. This was one of the driving forces behind Calvium’s Place Experience Platform (PEP), which we launched to support placemaking professionals to enhance people’s experiences of the places they manage.

PEP makes it easy for our clients to create stories themselves or look to Calvium to curate content for them. This article will provide insight on how place-based digital storytelling has the power to entertain, inform and inspire positive change in today’s digital-first world. 

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Classic audio tours have been a popular staple in a visit to a cultural site ever since the original Alcatraz audio tour established the genre in the 1980s. Revealing the lived reality from different perspectives – prisoner or jailer, master or servant, victor or vanquished – is an incredibly effective way for people to connect with a place’s culture and history on a human level. Not only does it bring theatre to a place, it helps to create empathy and intrigue while doing so.

Back in 2004, I was involved in the world’s first geolocated drama, Riot! 1831, which used Bristol’s Queen Square as a storyboard through which events and stories could react to movement to unfold the dramatic historic events at the place they happened.

This is a very early example of storytelling through digital placemaking, although the term hadn’t actually been coined at that point – nor the iPhone launched. It was Riot!, however, that prompted us to publish experience design guidelines and workshops that would support the understanding and evolution of digital placemaking over the years. In fact, it was one of those workshops that influenced the University of Exeter’s Professor Fabrizio Nevola to develop a successful blueprint for creating immersive time travel experiences, and which led to a long-lasting, and ongoing, partnership between Calvium and the University of Exeter.

Supported by our PEP, History Cities is the fruit of that blueprint. The suite of apps take users on guided tours of seven different European cities, with fictional characters creating an immersive experience that allows visitors to view each place through the lens of the past. By linking the places visited to stories from the character’s own life and times, people’s relationships with each European city are enhanced.

Elements of gamification can also extend to classic trails to provide a different incentive to visit places, which is something we have recently incorporated into PEP.
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Place Experience Platform allows placemakers to:

  • Add challenges to trails where an answer can be found on location.
  • Create hunts, whereby experiences can be constructed to draw people’s attention to seek out an oddity somewhere they might otherwise miss.

Pokemon Go and its nine million daily active users are testament to the power of place-based incentivisation. Whether for a challenge, scavenger hunt or catching a Pikachu, ensuring the story location is meaningful so the effort to get there is worth the payback is key to achieving maximum impact.

If you’re interested in exploring in greater depth what placemakers can learn from Pokemon Go, download our free whitepaper here.


Place-based storytelling has a unique role to play in providing information about a place. Not in the way that the likes of Google do by giving a catalogue of information, but by telling the story of a place, its origin and history. Just as blue plaques highlight a notable fact, digital storytelling can provide context and depth to bring it to life, helping to establish cultural norms and values from the past and present. 

The Carnaby Echoes app we created for Shaftesbury Plc shows this in action. As visitors walk around London’s Carnaby Street, a host of commemorative plaques at key historic locations reveal the hidden stories behind 10 decades of local music history. The app enables people to be immersed in the sounds, stories and characters that relate to each plaque, providing visitors with a greater connection to the area as they are guided around the area.

In addition to the gamification elements, we have extended the informative capabilities of the PEP as well.

Place Experience Platform allows placemakers to:

  • Incorporate local events into digital placemaking experiences, for example flagging a nearby antique fair or bake sale at a community hall, or a sale at the local shop. 
  • Include accessibility guides, such as the nearest disabled toilets or wheelchair and buggy-friendly routes – an area Calvium is working on to make even better in future.

Another important feature of PEP is that it can enable both armchair and onsite mode, which means people can access trails and experiences whether they are at a place in-person or at home. This can help to reduce anxiety as trails give assurance and help with planning – whether on the day when at the destination or when thinking about visiting somewhere in advance.

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Positive change for people, place and planet

Having been at the heart of place-based digital storytelling from its very early days to the present day, I see its immense potential to inspire positive change for people, place and planet – especially with the way technology is heading.

For people

As I mentioned at the start of this article, we are drawn to other human stories. Having a greater understanding of the culture and history of different neighbourhoods and cultural mixes can help to enable more empathy for people and places, and so we must be thinking about how digital technologies can be used to achieve this.

The iDetroit app we created for Marcus Lion’s Human Atlas of an American City project highlights one of the ways in which digital can enrich place-based storytelling experiences. The app brought the stories of 100 underrepresented or misrepresented Detroit citizens to life through an immersive digital experience, enabling the user to hear the voices and stories of each individual and therefore connect with them on a much deeper level.

Image shows the i.Detroit app as it scans a portrait in the book, showing how the audio is played once image is scanned

For places

Just like film tourism, which can significantly improve a destination’s visibility and attract potential tourists to places, place-based storytelling has a central role to play in boosting local tourism and economic recovery. In addition to supporting the economies of less visited areas by encouraging visitors to move around the location in a guided way, place-based storytelling creates memorable experiences that make people want to go back to a place, and also tell their friends about it. A win-win for people and places.

For planet

Calvium is increasingly thinking about how PEP can connect to the environment more tangibly, to raise awareness of environmental issues and climate change.

World Without Oil is an early example of this. The alternate reality game, created in 2007, encouraged players to plan for, and engineer solutions to, a possible near future global oil shortage. The most compelling player stories and ideas were incorporated into the official narrative, posted daily.

Some places will naturally lend themselves to gentle activism enabled by place-based storytelling more than others. For example, walking through a nature reserve and being made aware of aspects that could affect it, or walking coastal paths and being informed that the path you’re treading on won’t exist in a year’s time because of rising sea levels.

It’s about finding ways to use those places in a compelling way to drive different thinking and more awareness.

As the Place Experience Platform continues to evolve, we look forward to seeing how it can play a more meaningful role in enabling positive change for people, place and planet.

Contact Calvium to discuss how we can help to create digital experiences that enhance people’s relationships with the places you manage.

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