05 May 2021

It’s good to talk...to your High Street

Guest blog: David Worsell, VP, Tarmac as part of our #DigitalPlace week

Imagine a playful, interactive high street where citizens, businesses and local decision makers engage in a digital community, that brings people and the physical world closer together.  

Traditionally, the high street has been synonymous with the retail experience. As a result of the recent cycle of lockdowns, high street footfall traffic has made for a startling reading - reported at a 77.8% year-on-year decline by the British Retail Consortium. Although these figures are shocking, it was clear that the high street was already facing significant challenges, prior to coronavirus. If anything, the pandemic has prompted us to make fundamental changes to our towns and cities, making them “a place people want to be”. Impending a digitally dominated world, high streets across the UK are currently going through a wave of change, towards a new kind of normal. By tactically urbanising spaces and bringing centres closer to home, towns and cities can once again become thriving metropolises.  

At Tarmac we’ve worked on many online shopping projects including developing mobile applications for retailers to take orders, process online payments and manage delivery of goods.  Ideal for pandemic shopping, but not great for the high street. To better support communities, save jobs and stimulate local economies, we need to re-image the high street experience and find solutions that combine the best of the physical and virtual world.      

We recently introduced the “/dev/null/” podcast to discuss the latest trends in science and technology, from the perspective of three seasoned software developers. Our discussions occasionally uncover genuinely novel and interesting technology applications and this was demonstrated when we invited the innovative AI company Hello Lamp Post to join us for a chat. It got us thinking about what local governments and businesses can do to digitise the high street and how platforms, like Hello Lamp Post, can help. 

Hello Lamp Post is a unique on-street engagement platform that facilitates active conversations between citizens and street objects. Whether it’s chatting to a bus stop to find out bus times, a parking meter for parking information, or talking to a statue to find out its history. It sounds as mad as a box of frogs but the technology has some really interesting applications: 

  • Make it easier for communities to access local information. 
  • Encourage citizens to give feedback about local areas. 
  • Better inform decision makers about the needs and interests of the community.  

So, how can this type of technology help to re-imagine the high street and address the initiatives highlighted in The Digital High Street 2020 Report

Economically Strong 

The public are invited to shape the future of their high street, by providing valuable insights into community life. For example, visitors could be encouraged to interact with vacant properties and make suggestions for future use. Or, prospective businesses can ask citizens for feedback and find out genuine community needs. This could include asking whether the area is a good location for a new restaurant or what a customer's favourite food is.  

Convenient 

Through AI powered FAQ’s, shop owners can communicate specific messaging to high street visitors. From sharing more information about extended opening hours, availability of products or parking restrictions, this technology will make it easier for citizens to access goods and services in local areas.  

Engaging 

Now more than ever, engaging with people on the high street has never been more important. Via playful chats, citizens can have meaningful interactions to find out more about local services, whilst being able to feedback about local area improvements.  

Relevant 

Real time insights and sentiment can be gathered to improve citizen welfare and satisfaction. Making changes to local areas based on consumer preferences will help to keep the high street relevant, destinations attractive and will increase revenue and drive footfall.  

Adaptive 

Consumer behaviours are constantly shifting. Today’s high streets are likely to be more successful if they prove to be resilient and adaptable. By staying up-to-date with community needs 24/7, local information can easily be shared, like promoting upcoming community activities and offers in the local area.  

Authentic and Diverse 

The high street should reflect the identity of the local community. By successfully reaching diverse, wide spread and underrepresented audiences, all voices in the community can be heard. This is the first time hard-to-reach communities have been heard at scale.  

Experiential 

Moving forward, visitors will most likely travel into town or city centres with a purpose - the high street therefore needs to stay exciting and engaging to keep footfall numbers up. When public spaces can be easily re-imagined and adapted, destinations will become more enticing and visitor satisfaction will be improved.  

Conclusion 

We loved Hello Lamp Post, it’s playful interaction, the easy interface and measurable outcomes. The fact it uses physical objects and brings them to life makes it super engaging. The technology is sophisticated, but the simple interaction empowers citizens, makes them feel more connected and allows them to influence the high street experience.    

Georgina Maratheftis

Georgina Maratheftis

Programme Head, Local Public Services, techUK

Charlie Wyatt

Programme Assistant, techUK