The Future of the High Street: insights and aspirations from our project team and advisory board

Film by Megan Miller — a film-maker documenting the project and process through short film vignettes accompanying our monthly project blog.

The second in our blog series about project ‘Future of the High Street’ — openly sharing the evolving project and process, our learnings and findings. This month — meet the project team and advisory board, as they reveal their insights and aspirations for the ‘Future of the High Street’ as both a key contemporary topic and live project.

The last month has seen the kick-off of ‘The Future of the High Street’ — a 6-month project using digital engagement, co-design with local businesses and stakeholders, rapid small-scale prototyping and robust evaluation research.

The aim?

To understand the key challenges local high street businesses and communities are facing just now, and explore opportunities for small-scale pilots or ‘tweaks’ that might help. Two of these will be tested during June 2021 — one on Gorgie/Dalry Road high street in Edinburgh and one on Dalkeith town centre, and evaluated to see what impact they have in addressing one or more of these challenges.

In the words of the Scottish Government’s ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres’ report, town centres offer a social, cultural and economic heart to a community. It is this heart to our local neighbourhoods — vital for community connection, the viability of local businesses and as a built environment and place that this project hopes to help support.

Through this project process, we aim to have an immediate positive impact on the resilience of two specific local high streets, whilst sharing ideas, opportunities and findings that could be further developed or relevant to other high streets nationwide longer term. You can read more about the project here.

Meet the project team

Each month to July 2021 — the project team — led by the University of Edinburgh’s Futures Institute alongside delivery partner New Practice architects — will be sharing the project process via a monthly blog. We hope you’ll join us on this project journey, and that by sharing our project process and findings along the way, we help inform others’ work and the wider discussion around themes of high streets, resilience, digital engagement, and placemaking during a pandemic and beyond.

This month, we wanted to introduce you to the project team, and our fantastic advisory board members. Here they share some of their aspirations for the project and why they feel this is an important topic just now.

The Project Team:

Edinburgh Futures Institute: “The Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI) is leading the Future of the High Street project as part of their ‘Smart Places’ workstream. The project is one of a suite of projects under the current Scottish Funding Council supported ‘Design Lab’ at the University of Edinburgh. EFI aims to pursue knowledge and understanding that supports the navigation of complex futures. Working with industry, government and communities EFI is building a challenge-led and data-rich portfolio of activity that demonstrates ethical, social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts. The Future of the High Street project supports these aims, and EFI’s collaborative and data-driven approach to helping address contemporary challenges and deliver real impact.”

Jenny Elliott (Project Lead, EFI): “As the Smart Places Lead at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, I work closely with the Edinburgh Living Lab and Data-Driven Innovation programme at the University of Edinburgh. A Chartered Landscape Architect and multi-disciplinary designer, I have particular experience in leading and delivering projects focussed on urban design and research, user experience, co-design, and visual communication (graphic design, illustration, photography, film).

When originally designing the project proposal it was important to combine a participatory approach, with novel digital engagement tools that would help us reach people and navigate the challenges of placemaking safely during a pandemic, whilst ensuring an inclusive and accessible co-design approach to working together with local high street businesses and stakeholders.

I am excited that a key project aim is to collaboratively develop two small-scale prototypes to ‘tweak’ the built environment or digital ‘place’ of two Edinburgh region high streets. These will be in situ during June 2021. They will be evaluated for their immediate impact in enhancing these two high streets’ desirability as a place to visit, shop or spend time, with a focus on supporting local independent businesses and the high street’s important role in a community. Through blogs such as this one, and a webinar in July, I wanted to design a project plan that openly shared the project process, co-produced ideas, and other project findings to impact wider ongoing work to help imagine a brighter future for the high street as a key neighbourhood place, social connector and centre of economic activity.”

Shawn Bodden (Project Officer, EFI): I’m a cultural geographer and researcher with a broad interest in the many projects that individuals and communities get up to while trying to make their world a better place. Specifically, I have studied how activist groups decide how to pursue political change; how groups try to create tolerant community spaces; and how pedestrians and pigeons make room for each other in city streets. I combine long-term, participatory ethnographic methods with detailed micro-analysis of social interactions to understand how people solve problems, make trouble, and work on better possible futures.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions to all of our lives — but in many different, often unpredictable ways. I’m interested in working on the Future of the High Street project because it asks important questions about the ways that specific communities might respond to the situation. In a sense, I’m interested in the many different futures of the High Street — the projects that people want to use the High Street for.

Megan Miller (Visual Communication Project Intern and Film-maker, EFI): Megan is an award-winning videographer and editor with four years of professional experience in the New York metro area, producing and editing short documentary, hard news, lifestyle, and marketing content. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Documentary Film Directing at University of Edinburgh, but resides in Glasgow.

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have affected our lives in unique and difficult ways, bringing to the fore a necessity to adapt. I believe a human’s adaptive capacity is found within their creative ability, and I’m excited to play a role in this project precisely because of its goal to elicit positive change through creativity and innovation. It presents a challenge to all those involved — how to negotiate being with people without being with them, or (in my case) how to create moving images without moving images — but the very pursuit of a solution suggests one exists.

New Practice: New Practice is an architecture practice. We exist to develop the creative capacity of places and to connect people with the decision making processes that underpin their lived experience. New Practice is committed to the design and delivery of beautiful, practical places which offer social and environmental sustainability for healthier and happier neighbourhoods.

The pandemic has compounded long running challenges for local economies and radically changed how we all relate to local places. As a practice committed to place-based development, it is critical that post-Covid recovery focusses not only on economic outcomes, but also on revitalising high streets as critical spaces for the generation of local identity and connection.

Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve worked hard to ensure that the voices of communities and local stakeholders remain central to decision making processes. This has meant developing new skills and tools for delivering the sorts of creative engagement that in the past would have taken place primarily in workshops, classrooms and at local events. Translating these fun, collaborative and messy experiences into meaningful and effective remote engagement is a huge challenge, and through the Future of the High Street project we are excited to share our experience and curiosity with a wider team of practitioners, advisors, and researchers and learn more about how innovation and research can play a role in revitalising high streets.”

Duncan Bain (New Practice — Digital approach and technology): “The focus on research and learning through this engagement programme means that we are encouraged to try out new ways of working, use new tools and embrace experimentation. For me, the chance to experiment with new technology and novel approaches to working collaboratively with local stakeholders is really exciting. We have spent the last year trying to find ways to promote the voices and agency of communities in really challenging circumstances, when other concerns are very obviously more pressing. What we have learned is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to remote engagement. We are excited to get to know the communities of Gorgie/Dalry and Dalkeith and build bespoke approaches to co-creation that meet their needs, abilities and interests.”

Abi (New Practice — Community Engagement): “The Future of High Streets project provides a lengthy opportunity for relationship-building with each community before the commencement of the creative engagement programme. This creates an opportunity to generate a truly tailored experience to both communities which will likely strengthen the outputs for each of these locations.”

Juliet (New Practice — Junior Designer): ‘What excites me about this project is the cross-disciplinary nature of the team, and I am interested to see how remote working might lead us to more creative ways of collaborating. I hope to learn more about the issues business owners have faced over the past year, and to create a meaningful output, responding to local residents’ ideas and opinions.’

Meet our Advisory Board:

In addition to the project delivery team, we are lucky to have the support and insight of a fantastic advisory board. Here they share a little about themselves and their perspectives on the project and this topic.

Gemma Cassells, Data Driven Innovation Programme, University of Edinburgh: “I am interested in the Future of the High Street project as it builds on previous work I’ve developed with Jenny Elliott and other colleagues in EFI, looking at how data can be used to support communities, and how community-sourced data can be used to inform policy and drive social change. This project will provide tangible insights into our changing relationships to place and place-making, and help local businesses survive the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr Jo Morrison, Director of Digital Innovation and Research at Calvium, ‘Expert’ at High Streets Task Force and co-Director of the Association of Collaborative Design: “As digital technologies play an increasing role in how people act in and upon the world, it’s vital that their voices influence the architecture and experience of emergent hybrid public spaces. I am pleased and intrigued to be part of this project as it has the potential to significantly shift the ways in which places are envisioned, approached and valued.”

Phil Prentice, Chief Officer, Scotland’s Towns Partnership, National Programme Director of Scotland’s Improvement Districts and Director of UK High Streets Task Force. “With 25 years economic development experience across the public and private sectors, my role is to drive sustainable change through collaboration and partnership. Town and City Centres are clearly back on the political agenda. High Streets and Town Centres are places of creativity and enterprise, where social and cultural interaction drives innovation and wealth-creation. They provide a sustainable core where all parts of society can come together and share resources and services. Their density means that shops, workplaces, leisure, culture and public services are near, they are still where public transport goes, and are accessible to the whole community. These long-established places are our true eco-towns, resources whose health is critical to a sustainable future. Our towns and high streets are critical to Scotland’s future social, environmental and economic success which is why this project can create key learning and resources for others to use.”

Andy Edwards, Transport and Environment Manager, City of Edinburgh Council: “Andy Edwards is the Transport and Environment Manager for the South West Locality. Andy is a Civil Engineer with over 25 years of experience in both the construction industry and leading local authority service teams. He joined the City of Edinburgh Council in 2005 managing local transport and environment functions across the city. Currently, he is working on the delivery of the Spaces for People Programme and project managing the regeneration of Westside Plaza.

I am interested in this project because [through my work] I have seen local town centres with a high turnover of businesses, [and a] lack of proper investment that has resulted in them looking tired and dated. Improvements identified through Public Life Street Assessments and community engagement have not materialised due to other aspects being prioritised. The current circumstances have shown that local town centres are needed so that people can shop local.”

Andrew Ralton — Economic Development Officer, Midlothian Council: “I have worked in Economic Development for 16 years. First with East Lothian Council for two years, and after that with Midlothian Council ever since. The main focus of economic development is to facilitate economic growth, and ultimately bring jobs and an improvement in residents’ standard of living in an area. The Economic Development team currently plays a critical role in the response to the current Covid 19 pandemic.

It is clear that the way people shop and socialise has changed and that the traditional model of the high street as the retail and social centre of the town is becoming less dominant, as it competes with online and out of town shopping for custom and footfall. Yet the high street is a key part of the identity of a town, and the unique story of each town can play a very important role in encouraging civic pride and community cohesion. […] The High Street still has, and could continue to have, significant economic importance at the local and regional level.”

Kyle Drummond, Programme Development Officer, City of Edinburgh: “I am part of the Council’s Commercial Development & Investment service, which supports development and regeneration in Edinburgh, ranging from strategic brownfield redevelopments to historic building refurbishments. His background is in economic development and project management. The Commercial Development & Investment team supports town centre regeneration activity, including administering the national Town Centre Fund in Edinburgh. Gorgie/Dalry town centre — one of nine town centres within the city — has enormous potential to help drive future sustainable economic growth in Edinburgh.”

Stephen McConnachie, Social Researcher, Connected Places Catapult: “Stephen is a qualitative research specialist based in Edinburgh with a PhD in social anthropology. He most enjoys using tailored research methods to bring deep insights about people and society to projects, and does so by balancing academic rigour with the pragmatism required in time-bound public and private sector projects. His subject specialisms include wellbeing, greenspace, place, mobility, and values.

People’s relationships with the places in which they live and travel are bound up with the social and cultural meanings embedded in the built and natural environment. The pandemic has precipitated changes in the ways in which we engage with our surroundings, in some cases accelerating existing changes. With signs of a growing appreciation and desire for localism, it’s important places adapt to ensure they offer viable, valued spaces rich in social meaning which allow local people to feel a sense of belonging. This necessitates a holistic approach which recognises and draws on the rich tapestry of ways that different people and groups understand the (specific) high street. As an Edinburgh (and Gorgie) resident, this project offers an opportunity to help shape how local high streets are configured.”

Niamh Webster, Policy Advisor (UK Government secondment from Scottish Government): “Niamh specialises in open government and digital engagement, and is currently on secondment to the UK Government policy profession unit advising on policymaking reform. She previously led on public engagement using digital technology in her role as Digital Engagement manager at the Scottish Government. She joined the government in 2018 to coordinate open government policy. Connecting all her work to date has been a focus on strengthening democracy, as she previously worked at non-profit Democratic Society and at the Scottish Parliament. She is an active contributor to global community of practitioners in the field of open government.

I’m pleased to be part of this work, following on from my involvement in ‘SmartPlaces’, and now looking at the future of local spaces and places. A lot of my work is internationally focussed, but really, it all starts at home. We’ve all spent more time than ever in our local area this year and immediate surroundings. It couldn’t be better timing to re-open the conversation about making great places to live. It’s timely to bring the learning from digital engagement and opportunities of new technology, and I’m delighted to be working alongside experts in placemaking, design and communities.”

Lindsey Sibbald, Business Growth and Talent Development Lead, Business Gateway Growth Adviser: “With over 25 years’ of experience in economic development, Lindsey is currently a Business Gateway Growth Adviser (Edinburgh). Lindsey created Edinburgh’s Town Centre Strategy; managing a team of 5 Town Centre Co-ordinators. She assisted in the creation of Edinburgh’s first central Business Improvement District, “Essential Edinburgh“ and 3 further BIDs. Lindsey has advised and supported several Boards including: The Edinburgh International Conference Centre; Waterfront Edinburgh; & The City Centre Management Company.

Participation in the advisory board is of particular interest as I am currently spearheading the “Shop Here This Year” (shop local) campaign across Edinburgh’s 11 town centres (including Gorgie/ Dalry). This will promote resilience, improve access to business support services and encourage collaboration between Edinburgh’s local business communities during and through the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Cat Magill, Senior Advisor, Edinburgh Living Lab and Data and Design Lab: “Cat has broad expertise in the integration of data and design to catalyse innovation and social change. She works to connect people and perspectives across research, industry, civil society and communities, designing and leading initiatives that prototype and test data-informed and human-centred solutions to complex challenges. Cat spent many years working and travelling around the world before coming to Edinburgh, giving her unique insight and ability to understand different perspectives and bring people together.

This project develops and builds on Edinburgh Living Lab’s work on integrating data-driven innovation and human-centred design to improve places for people. Future of the High Street is also a demonstrator project for the Data and Design Lab, a new initiative that I am advising on in the University’s Covid Beacon programme.”

Gerard O’Brien — Senior Design Officer, Architecture & Design Scotland: “[A] Chartered Member of the Landscape Institute, I have practiced in the private and public sector for fifteen years. Most of my work involved community based landscape design but I worked on a range of projects at a range of scales. I then became a lecturer in landscape design. I am currently a Senior Design Officer with Architecture & Design Scotland (A&DS).

[…] I am interested in the creation of meaningful places. The lives of spaces built or unbuilt and the lives of people in equal measure. I have been working within a team at A&DS looking at place planning for decarbonisation. I am therefore interested to learn more about the digital element of engagement and placemaking to see how these can enrich and be blended into design of resilient places. Moreover, I wish to observe and be part of the process and group which aligns with the Place Principle approach of working together.

It can only be hoped by looking at creating a resilient high street during the current situation we can create resilient places in the face of environmental and associated changes. The high street forms an important part of our towns and cities and is crucial in the 20 minute neighbourhood. We should not be talking about the preservation of our high streets but the flourishing of them.”

Douglas Strachan — Founder and Chairperson, One Dalkeith Development Trust: “Douglas Strachan is the founder and chair person of the One Dalkeith Development Trust, which is a vehicle for self-empowered community-led regeneration. One Dalkeith was formed by the town’s two community councils bringing the community together with a shared vision of improving the town centre and enhancing the provision of community facilities. It has pursued this vision by taking on large premises in the town centre to form a community facility, as well as through projects such as the Dalkeith Loves Local campaign and a wide range events and activities. Douglas is also Managing Director of Camerons Strachan Yuill Architects, a community-focussed Architectural practice operating across South East Scotland. Douglas’s membership of the advisory board is through his voluntary role as a community representative, but he is keen to participate in the broader conversation around town centres in both capacities. I am delighted to participate in the Future of the High Street project, both because of the direct benefit to Dalkeith and because of the potential for a much wider contribution to the national conversation on this subject.”

The Future of the High Street project is part of The University of Edinburgh’s ‘Design Lab’ — funded by the Scottish Funding Council, and will act as a demonstrator project for how a data-and-design approach can be used to address key contemporary challenges and deliver positive impact. The project follows on from our Edinburgh Futures Institute Smart Places series in collaboration with the Edinburgh Living Lab and Data Driven Innovation programme.

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