The future high street: defined by people, purpose and technology

The recent Future High Street Summit in Nottingham saw the UK's leading organisations and town centre stakeholders join together to discuss strategies and visions for the high street of tomorrow. The two-day conference ended on a high, with agreement between attendees that the future high street depends on three ingredients: people, purpose and technology.

"This year's event had some great content and an overwhelming response, with almost double the number of attendees, compared to our debut summit in 2014. We covered a lot of topics in a relatively short amount of time, and throughout the event these three messages came across loud and clear," enthuses Clare Rayner, Founder of the Summit.

"The people behind our high streets are the ones with the passion, commitment and determination to address the current and future needs and wants of the community. Collaboration between all town centre stakeholders is a vital component of successful place-making – from local authorities to investors, businesses to volunteers. The future depends on the people who are invested in their place, who share a common vision and a strong sense of civic pride. We also heard how great leadership is essential to effecting that change, to supporting those who find the process uncomfortable, and to achieving the transformation required.

"Of course, every town has a purpose. It has a unique personality, its 'DNA', driven by the role it fulfils for the people it serves. Many of the keynotes drove home a clear message about the importance of understanding a town's purpose – each local authority, town team, BID, town centre manager and volunteer needs to identify what that is for their specific place. Strategy and vision need to match a town's personality and towns should also celebrate their heritage – as one speaker pointed out, what happened in history influences what will happen in the future!"

In one keynote, bira's Michael Weedon urged local authorities to recognise that the independent retail sector has been growing for five years, filling the gaps left on the high street by departing chain stores. However, with the latest figures showing that the rate of growth in indies is slowing, Michael emphasised that town centre managers need to do everything they can to continue supporting the retailers that have kept our places alive.

Fortunately, it appears that the message was well received, as the Support for Independent Retail Campaign's new licensed structure, launched at the Summit, received much attention and several local authorities expressed interest in joining the nationwide efforts to raise awareness and draw footfall to smaller businesses.

Equally important to this support, however, was Springboard's Diane Wehrle's observation that the future high street isn't exclusively about traditional retailing. Springboard's figures show the importance for town and city centres to conduct analysis and use insights to better understand their purpose. While some towns still rely on their retailers to draw in visitors, others are better known for an excellent leisure offering or for great historical value.

In fact, one of the highlights of the event was a keynote by volunteers from Belper in Derbyshire, the Winner of Winners in the Great British High Street Awards 2014. Local campaigners Adrian Farmer and Ian Jackson impressed delegates with their inspiring journey, illustrating what can be achieved when a town invests in its independent businesses and leverages its heritage assets. Their key message was to enjoy your place and celebrate its culture, personality and key features.

However, in this digital age, one of the most significant drivers of change is technology. The summit was fortunate to get insight into the Future High Street Forum's Digital High Street 2020 report and heard much about its key recommendations. Throughout the event, the theme of using technology to enable better community engagement and greater business opportunity was apparent. The opportunity for high streets to embrace digital is immense; however, it was acknowledged that there is a fundamental skills gap to overcome.

Clare said, "We need to keep a close watch on technological advancements, paying attention to the innovators and early adopters. Initiatives that we might see as 'new' technology are already pushing the boundaries of consumer expectations, and consumer demand for fresher digital experiences will only continue to accelerate. Place-makers need to respond to this and make sure that they have the infrastructure in place, invest wisely in digital solutions, and, more critically, support local businesses in developing their digital skills."

So strongly did the message about digital come across, Clare plans to develop a spin-off event which will focus on action – what towns can do to engage with both businesses and residents. This event will focus on both activities and events that draw people into town but also on how digital must seamlessly integrate with the physical experience.

Clare concludes, "This year's Future High Street Summit was jam-packed with advice and ideas for the UK's place-makers, and we hope that delegates left feeling as inspired and passionate about their future high streets as we are.

"There were some fabulous case studies presented by vibrant, engaging speakers and we believe that our primary message was shouted out loud and clear: the high street is not dying – it's evolving. With a focus on people, purpose and technology, the future high street will be something that entire communities should, and will, celebrate. We can't wait to get stuck into planning our new event, and looking ahead to 2016!"

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