Articles, research and publications produced by Plan Projects.

Article by Ivan Tennant for the Regeneration & Renewal online magazine.

Ofcom reported in December that the British are Europe’s ‘most digitally aware nation’ with ‘digital penetration’ reaching 97% of the population. While digital infrastructure does not does not create jobs or build businesses, it has precipitated a shift in the social and economic landscape that high streets can capitalise on. It offers the chance for repositioning where the high street, while it is no longer the primary retail destination, nevertheless finds a natural place in the value chain, one moulded by the changes in human behaviour brought about by the digital revolution.

As Portas notes, successful retailing requires skill and experience, rather than the operation of a simple ‘cost plus’ business model. As a funnel for ideas and information, the digital world favours those who come to it with knowledge. It offers a means by which not only individual retailers, but the Business Improvement Districts and Councils that serve them, can knit the high street back into contemporary life, producing new business models in tune with current social trends. Fiona Hamilton, director of retail at Jones Lang Lasallle, cites ‘re-commerce’ as a good example, where the high street can act as an entrepot for recycled goods; multi-channel retailing is another. 

The need to ‘shrink’ high streets that have become too ‘elongated’ is perhaps inevitable for many. It should not however be about a crude transition to residential, but a carefully managed process that ensures the viability of the core area is reinforced through the strategic introduction of uses that are complementary with retail and hospitality activity. Successful creative enclaves like the Northern Quarter in Manchester and London’s Shoreditch show the complementary relationship between creative SMEs and an active frontage on the ground floor. For Jim Coleman, Head of Economics at Happold Consulting, the growth of highly digitised creative economy reflects the ‘dual role’ of digital infrastructure not only as an ‘enabler’ of economic activity in deprived areas, but also as a vital industry sector that has played a key role in urban success stories of recent years. Where ‘convergence’ has taken place between the two, dramatic improvements to place can follow swiftly.

As digital technology has progressed, there has emerged a complementary relationship between ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ public space. Many predicted the demise of cities with the emergence of digital forms of communication; in fact, their relationship has become symbiotic. Where the one offers a communication tool and source of knowledge, the other provides the stage on which the human drama is played out. Indeed, the public realm itself is becoming digitally enabled, abolishing the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ space. The presence of Apple stores on the high street seems to capture the paradox; Steve Jobs meets Camillo Sitte allowing people to work, communicate and socialise anywhere, enjoying the best of both the real and virtual worlds.

Ikea became great because it offers good design at an affordable price; it relies on a hybrid business model. Digital technology gives dynamic high street retailers the capacity to do the same through pricing transparency. Price competiveness has been a key strand of the most successful high street retailers, be it M&S or John Lewis. Price comparison technology through mobile devices allows all retailers to turn the digital revolution to their advantage by being never knowingly undersold; this, combined with the beauty and pleasure of a properly managed high street, makes an extremely compelling offer to the consumer.

We are living in a world of consultation 2.0; here, like the latest versions of the web, it is less about providing information and more about ‘collaboration.’ Projects such as Betaville demonstrate the power of digital platforms in orchestrating change in cities; Portas herself calls for ‘virtual high streets’ as a collaborative tool. Here, we may see high streets in decline being met by community activists moving in the other direction, enabling the high streets to stabilise in a new role as a civic hub. Just as with the Arab Spring, the digital revolution is at the heart of these changes, creating online communities that gather collective resources to deliver change. While violence, as we saw last August, can erupt, this may be expressed in neighbourhood planning initiatives or joyous ‘flash mobs’ and ‘happy riots.’

Civic leaders are rightly captivated by the notion of the ‘smart city.’ This is a place where flows of data are shared between different agencies such that the city works better. In the future it will inform motorists about the best time to visit the town centre by giving information about parking. It may communicate with cars to reduce carbon emissions at traffic lights. In Edinburgh, the Council has developed an iPhone app that tells people when the next bus will arrive. All these improvements have the potential to make high streets a joy rather than a chore and thus allow them to re-integrate themselves into the natural pattern of our increasingly digital lives.



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