Digital: The Elephant in The Room For UK Places

UK high streets failing to invest in digital innovation

Read our tips to rise above the obstacles

Mobile town apps bereft of inspiration

Discover how our new app will change everything


Digital is everywhere you look these days, from the smartphone in your hand to the wi-fi in the coffee shop.

Mention the word ‘digital’ to someone involved in UK placemaking, however, and the reactions are interesting.

It’s a little tricky. It’s on the agenda, but not yet. Isn’t that for bigger towns? We really want to concentrate on car parking and loyalty cards. We’ve already got a website, so we’re okay.

Some things don’t really change very quickly on the Great British High Street.

‘Digital’ remains the elephant in the placemaking room which no-one’s game to tackle head-on.

After all, it’s big. It moves around a lot. And you can’t be sure it’s friendly.

But digital is the future – an elephantine future, dwarfing everything that’s gone before in terms of the immense possibilities it creates for places of every size.

So why persevere with the old ways, those endless paper trails, disconnected businesses working in dreadful isolation and empty shops that no-one knows what to do with?

But we do embrace digital!

Of course you do. And that’s creditable. What we’re finding at Real Towns, however, is that placemakers who genuinely think they’re breaking new ground are often just converting historical processes into a digital format.

These commonly found features devalue a town’s brand:

  • Boring business web directories
  • Design and functionality fails
  • Marketing hype
  • Sloppy writing
  • Inactive social media channels
  • Outdated information
  • Websites not optimised for mobile devices
  • Poorly conceived mobile apps

Even some of the latest ‘town apps’ are little more than potted websites, neither user-friendly nor offering anything particularly new or engaging. Most feel like a 1980s ad mag on a mobile phone.

Which is hugely frustrating for those who’ve put in the hard yards – only to find that no-one really engages with the project or knows what to do next, so it just fizzles and dies.

The Cube, Brisbane

No, but we really do the digital thing!

And yes, it’s true. I mean, look at:

  • Swansea, where plans for the world’s largest interactive digital screens are set to enhance science and technology education.
  • Greenwich, where the Digital Greenwich initiative is taking a multidisciplinary approach to building a ‘smart city’.
  • Bristol, where Bristol University and Bristol City Council have set up ‘Bristol is Open’ to provide digital and research development centred on ‘open data’ and digital inclusion.
  • Birmingham, where an Urban Demonstrator Project is using innovative water technology to green the city, offer ‘smart water’ solutions and engage residents digitally.
  • Gloucester, where a Government project is piloting the city as a Digital Hub along with Cheltenham and Stroud, aiming to connect residents and businesses in a ‘digital conversation’.

Scotland is putting all-comers in the shade with a range of integrated projects designed to boost the country’s digital prospects:

Hats off to UK places everywhere, then, engaged in all manner of exciting digital initiatives.

Why we still bang the digital drum

Well, there seems to be a growing mismatch between words and deeds – between aspirations and actual achievements.

Let’s look at the High Street Digital Hub Report 2016, which heralded so much hope and activity in the form of digital initiatives.

This Innovate UK report, drawing feedback from a selection of UK town and city placemakers, noted that 96% of respondents endorsed the Government’s plans to roll out Digital Hubs across the nation – connected places where residents, businesses and local authorities interact online.

Clearly, there is motivation. So why are so few places turning this into action? Where is the disconnection?

The Real Towns experience has been an instructive one. It shows us that, while most placemakers say they would love to take a digital leap, they are hampered by:

  • Lack of vision or funding.
  • Fear of change or change fatigue.
  • No conviction that digital will work.
  • Unwillingness to take risks.
  • Seeing digital technology as a cost, rather than an investment.
  • Perceived logistical problems of ‘going digital’.
  • Lack of commitment to continual digital skills training.
  • A dearth of local champions with the expertise to manage digital projects.
  • Failure to see how technology can tell the story of their town.
  • Misplaced anxiety about loss of heritage, tradition and community cohesion.

It’s often easier to sigh, say ‘It was a nice idea!’ and go back to doing things the old way. Why invest in digital innovation when you can worship popup shops, put up more street signage and sweat about car parking?

Which is why and how ‘digital’ has become the elephant in the room for many places – a bit of a pink elephant, perhaps – elusive, impossible to pin down and occasionally swelling to monstrous proportions for those who don’t get it.

Should we give up and throw in the towel? We wouldn’t be the first. There are much easier ways to make a living.

But that’s the easy option – and we’re energised by the opportunity right here, right now, to change the way we live, work, shop and interact on a local level everywhere.

Finding the budget for digital

In case the question of finance becomes another pink elephant, let’s address it now.

Shunning digital investment is like ignoring climate change. In the long run, the cost of doing nothing will be much higher than if we act now in a planned, meaningful way.

It’s a question of having a vision, and working out the best way to achieve it; of taking real action rather than getting bogged down in committee meetings and debates about policy direction.

After all, the old ways are dying. Newspapers are closing everywhere. We’re heading towards paperless offices, mobile and remote transactions, as well as smart, green solutions to most challenges presented by the travails of modern living.

Saving huge amounts on printing, postage and distribution is only the start. Soon, digital automation will replace millions of jobs in admin and create more opportunities for human capital to be used in better, more productive ways.

Business is already able to communicate in real time with real people in ways that give customers what they want, when they want it and reward them for their loyalty while barely lifting a finger.

We can wax lyrical about the labyrinth of possibilities that await us and we’re excited by many of them.

Roman baths in Bath, UK.

What would the Romans have done?

We think the Romans would have loved the innovative potential of digital.

We also think they’d have gone right back to the drawing board, rather than get carried away.

However ground-breaking a digital initiative is, unless it’s anchored to a strong foundation and structure, it’s not likely to flourish. Digital uptake relies on the traditional pillars of planning, process and measurement to achieve optimum outcomes.

Which is reassuring really. You build brand new on the very best of the old, discarding only the wasteful bits which are getting in the way.

This is exactly what the Romans did. They appropriated existing methods and inventions, adding extensive innovations of their own – emerging with extraordinary feats of building and engineering which still stand today, 2,000 years on – bridges, aqueducts, tunnels, ancient roads, pavements and spa baths.

How did the Romans do it? They perfected the use of three prime architectural elements – arches, vaults and concrete.

Together, these features provided rock-solid foundations, amazing load-bearing capacity and structurally sound buildings and utilities which truly stood the test of time.

Aware of these fundamentals, Real Towns has developed a holistic, load-bearing approach to the creation of digital places in the UK.

Designing a lasting digital structure involves far more than introducing a series of apps or projects which don’t know how to talk to each other and don’t fit into a broader town plan.

It involves a comprehensive digital strategy based on where you’ve been, where you are now, where you want to and can go next.

Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall

Digital Health Check = Digital Health Strategy

The Real Towns Digital Health Check is the start of a digital journey. Look at it as the MOT you need before taking your vehicle on the digital highway.

You can fill out the initial survey free of charge to receive your town’s preliminary assessment score, along with a bronze, silver, gold or Digital Hub place on our Digital League Table.

By proceeding to the full survey, you get a chance to move up the rankings. Most importantly, you receive a comprehensive report detailing your town’s digital readiness and outlining a step-by-step strategy to help you achieve your short, medium and long-term goals.

Without strategy, we believe many digital initiatives are destined to fail. Because strategy is:

  • The arch which bears the weight of wider, taller and stronger creations.
  • The vault which opens opprtunities for growth.
  • The concrete which forms a rock-solid base and container to hold and house ongoing development.

Concrete is regarded as perhaps the Romans’ greatest gift to architecture. Replacing traditional stone and timber building materials, it proved to be cheaper, more flexible, stronger, able to span far greater distances, and fireproof.

But not all change involves tipping out the old in its entirety.

We recognise the importance of retaining the essential structure and features of every town we work with, so digital never replaces or overrides your character and heritage – it simply facilitates it, enhancing and highlighting what is already there.

Real Towns partners with you to provide a strategy which directs, contains and fuels the energy of everyone in your town.

This way, each resident, business, BID member and Councillor knows exactly where their place is heading, and what they need to contribute to get the best result.

Working as one

We believe that towns function at peak capacity when every element pulls together.

Because each facet of your place is closely interconnected, everything that happens affects something or someone else. It all matters.

Positive, forward-looking actions exert positive, forward-looking reactions in multiple places – enhancing the experience of living, working, volunteering, playing and planning on so many levels in your town.

In the same way, negative, backward-looking actions exert a drag on the entire ‘machine’ – pegging back any previous efforts to move ahead and embrace beneficial change.

A spoke in the works, if you like. Which is precisely why many worthy digital initiatives across the UK are brought down by lack of cohesion, or a bunch of residents, businesses and authorities all pulling in different directions.

This is the reason we value whole-town marketing so highly, positioning it at the heart of our placemaking packages.

Ensuring your businesses, tourism outlets, local authorities, heritage, conservation, schools, charities and local community groups work together towards a common goal is the best way for your place to succeed.

Over time, this approach will:

  • Rejuvenate the high street.
  • Improve the way your town functions.
  • Integrate disparate, stray elements on one digital platform.

So ‘digital’ is no longer the elephant in the room but a living, breathing expression of your town’s character, story and purpose.

And people – which digital is ultimately all about – are connecting, working, shopping, playing, travelling, commuting and doing business seamlessly and much more efficiently.

Game changing mobile app

We’re building the ultimate whole-town app

Imagine an app that channels most of these functions into one system - an interactive platform where local authorities, businesses, tourist outlets, community groups, schools, residents and visitors can connect, engage and transact in real time every day?

Well, we’re working on one with a technology partner, and we’re very excited about its possibilities.

Why is this special? This app will enable towns to streamline essential civic, business and community functions on a single system which encourages everybody to participate.

It will speed up communication, increase sales opportunities for business, improve cashflow and save money for councils, as well as boosting tourism and encouraging like-minded residents to share their passions with each other.

It’s the ultimate Digital Place Management Software, which actively collects and distributes a wealth of information from genuinely engaged residents and feeds it back to the people who need it to make better decisions.

Features planned for inclusion will:

  • Save money for local government.
  • Allow real-time, two-way communication between residents and local authorities – the ultimate user-reporting tool.
  • Offer built-in GPS, travel maps and interactive guides.
  • Combine social media, SMS, footfall tracking, payment gateways, transport ticketing solutions, business and event promotion, contextualised content, big data collection, reporting and analytics and more in a single app.
  • Encourage business to interact with residents and visitors remotely in real time.
  • Use smart demographics and analytics to monitor visitor activity.

It can grow as the confidence of its users grows, exploring new ways to expand its flexibility, functions and reach.

No more wandering elephants.

Pilot Town

Real Towns is launching the first UK pilot for this exciting new software soon.

We’ll provide updates on our plans as we get closer to the launch date. Keep watching our website and social media channels for an announcement of a full demonstration of its capabilities.

In the meantime, we’re seeking expressions of interest from BIDs, local government authorities, business groups and town teams who want to find out more. Please email shaun.fagan@realtowns.co.uk to arrange a time for a chat or an online demonstration.

Wendy Riley
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Wendy Riley

Editorial Director at Real Towns Limited
I love working with words. As a journalist, blogger, editor and award winning creative writer, I have extensive experience in British and Australian print media and now specialise in digital content. I'm excited to be part of the Real Towns team and proud of our innovative approach.
Wendy Riley
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