THE BLOG

An Alternative Perspective on the Future of the High Street

19/09/2013 12:08 BST | Updated 16/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Small independents versus big chains; bricks and mortar versus online; Bill Grimsey v Mary Portas: the debate about the future of the high street is nothing if not divisive.

But safeguarding the future health of our high streets means moving away from the confrontational approach so beloved of UK media to focus instead on partnerships.

I'd describe it thus: the British high street is a service design challenge. Service design is all about developing an approach that crosses disciplines and brings together different functions in order to solve problems. A key element of service design is that it focuses on people and their needs. So in the case of the high street, a service design approach would examine how it can evolve to become more relevant, engaging and profitable for the communities it serves.

From a service design perspective, what is needed to drive the future of the high street are partnerships between people who understand the complexities of finance, communities, planning and entrepreneurship.

In other words, the holistic perspective of town planners who decide how buildings and streets should be used (and paid for) needs to feed into a digital and physical strategy for how to increase consumer footfall and engagement. This needs to be done through regular highly multi-disciplinary working groups. And I am not talking here about rejigging local authorities - this is an ideal opportunity to get local people involved, especially if they have experience in different sectors.

So I welcome Grimsey's suggestion of a Town Centre Commission - but why not make it open, make it digital? Local authorities need to be discussing the high street constantly not just annually. And they need to fast forward out of the 1970s and use Facebook and Twitter to engage the local community in an ongoing conversation, rather than expecting them to turn up to annual public meetings.

The Wired Town vision is another positive recommendation but it needs to bring together physical and digital. By all means provide vacant spaces for would-be entrepreneurs but why not also provide them with a digital toolset which could include a website kit, and advice on digital marketing, to help raise their profile and allow them to sell.

A key challenge for the high street is that it needs the wherewithal to evolve in line with the changing needs of local communities. In practice this means that the way in which rates, usage and even parking restrictions are set needs to be able to change over time, flexing to what people need to do.

Digital is a key enabler here. Imagine if planners had access to networks of connected sensors in the high street that could track the movement of cars and pedestrians. What if this information could then be correlated with footfall and purchase data from local shops (aggregated in order to protect commercial sensitivities)? And then imagine if powerful analytics software could be applied to these data sets in order to understand and interpret them. The resulting picture could provide much needed fuel for analysis and improvement of the high street without the need for the hefty meetings, consultations and political spats that characterise the current approach to high street/town centre planning. If this sounds too futuristic, it's worth noting after all nearly all the technology required to realise this digital vision already exists.

Crucially the mind-set around the future of the high street needs to shift away from large-scale projects to one of continuous learning and experimentation. And we need to allow shopkeepers to do the same - to be free to change the use of their premises as their business evolve rather than doggedly sticking to what they know isn't quite working until they can't go on any more.

As I said earlier, partnership is key to meeting the challenge of the high street. Businesses will always compete but this does not rule out big retail brands helping much smaller outlets if it benefits the high street as a whole. As both Grimsey and Portas point out, local traders and market stalls help make the high street feel more human. Supporting them means offering them the opportunity to 'pop up' wherever works best, even if that's within the footprint of a larger brand.

And finance needs to be at the core too - everyone can and should contribute to local growth, not just through rates, but via hypothecated taxation that feeds directly back to the community.

I am hopeful about the future of the high street - provided we can move beyond a dialectical approach and embrace experimentation that has partnership and digital thinking at its core.