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We Must Embrace the Future or Our High Streets Will be Consigned to the Past

23/10/2014 13:32 BST | Updated 22/12/2014 10:59 GMT

By Bill Grimsey

There was once a time when politicians not only instinctively understood technological change would transform the way we lived, but that they should encourage and attempt to shape this revolution because Britain's future depended on it. Over 50 years ago now, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously spoke of how a New Britain "needed to be forged in the white heat of technological change".

The world he evoked back then, of a need to upskill workers to make Britain's industry more competitive, still resonates today. But the pace of technological change has moved on and nowhere is this more evident that on Britain's high streets. This is one of the most vital areas of British society, a place that's home to 95,000 companies with a total net worth of £135 billion and also one of the best builders of civic pride and community we have.

Boarded up empty shops have become a familiar sight on all too many high streets and this is an obvious symptom of the disruptive technological change sweeping through town centres. The rise of online shopping, omnichannel retailing and smartphone ubiquity is just the beginning. Google Glass, personalized consumer-controlled promotions and the rise of big data will be the next wave to hit an outdated 20th century model fast sinking in the sand.

If Wilson were making the same speech today, he might talk of Britain harnessing the superfast broadband of digital technology to ensure we don't stand still as a nation and be overtaken by change. We have to be at the forefront of change, not playing catch up.

But, sadly, it's not just technological change that's largely leaving politicians left behind in a 20th century world. It's consumer behaviour too. Last week, for example, the Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis, revealed that the Government has no idea how many out of town shopping developments are currently being built. If the Government hasn't even begun to understand the bricks and mortar shift in where more and more people are doing their shopping then what chance have they of understanding the much bigger technological shift in how people shop?

Technological progress won't wait for planners to help capture this wind of change, it'll happen regardless. But it won't happen everywhere and wouldn't it be better if technological innovation was nurtured and supported to help revitalise high streets that have lost their way and become symbolic of a desperate Britain lacking in confidence?

There's now an arms race to redesign towns and cities through technological change - and Britain is still in the starting blocks. As I write, a major conference is currently taking place in Philadelphia looking at how communities are being changed by civic innovation. Barack Obama is inviting civic hackers into the White House and Santander in Spain is already a fully formed smart digital city. In the port city on the north east of Spain 10,000 censors have been installed, which are leading a digital revolution that the city's leaders say will make everyday life cheaper, more efficient and bring services and businesses closer to residents.

It's easy to see why. Offers spring up on smart phones as people walk down the streets, the same phones help navigate residents around and tell them when the next bus is coming and drivers are directed via Twitter messages to free car parking spaces to make driving round endlessly searching for a place to park a thing of the past. Lights are dimmed when there is no one in the street, bins are only emptied when they're full and sensors optimise the amount of watering that parks need so no water is wasted. This smart city model will no doubt be replicated in many other places in the years to come to make communities more sustainable, more efficient and better places to live. It will also open up high streets in a way hitherto unimagined so that services, experiences and offers are available in real time as part of an adaptive, reactive network.

Our politicians need to understand this transformational shift that's already underway and make sure that Britain doesn't end up a bystander to a revolution it should be leading. We ought to be supporting and equipping our towns and cities to make this change, not pouring taxpayers' money into pilots where money gets wasted on things like Peppa Pig costumes and gorilla statues. The irony is that while disruptive technology has done so much to bring about the demise of a 20th century high street model it can be harnessed to create a powerful 21st century model.

Wilson's speech on forging Britain in the white heat of technological change showed real ambition to create a truly modern country. Fifty years on it's time that level of ambition was seen once more.

Bill Grimsey is ex CEO of Wickes, Iceland and Focus DIY, author of 'Sold Out: Who really killed the High Street', and High Street advisor to The Labour Party.

He will be speaking at "The High Street is Dead, Long Live the High Street", hosted by Intelligence Squared and eBay at Kings Place in London on 28th October 2014.