How can we expect towns to thrive if we can't actually get hold of anyone?

Posted 6th December 2022 by Marcus Chidgey

How many telephone numbers do you know off-by-heart? I used to remember 10 or 15, but these days it seems it’s normal to only know a handful.

Once we have saved them in our phones, we mentally discard telephone numbers. We barely look at, or reference, these bits of data once we have the utility of them.

Telephones have brought people together for more than a century. They’ve facilitated everything from romantic relationships to blossom, business orders to boom and day-to-day diaries to be organised.

The value in being able to connect and speak to people as and when we need is immeasurable. Even exchanging telephone numbers is a ritual that builds trust and signals an intent to strengthen a relationship.

So when we talk about growing local economies and building community in towns and cities, how is it we imagine we should effectively connect with each other today?

Most town managers don’t have the ’telephone numbers’ they need at their fingertips – neither, for that matter, do residents, community organisations or businesses. The meaningful local conversations we need to take place just aren’t happening.

Instead, we’ve become heavily reliant on social media to ’share information’. When we use these platforms, we must remember we’re renting a ‘town contacts book’, and somewhere along the line, the owner wants to be paid!

Many businesses forget that the average organic reach of a Facebook post is 5.2% of a page’s likes – meaning roughly only 1 in 19 of followers will ever see a post that a business hasn’t paid for. In practise, that’s 18 missed sales opportunities! When town centres are struggling, how can we let this level of inefficiency persist?

Way back in 2015, the Digital High Street Advisory Board (which arose from work sponsored by the Department for Communities and Local Government) came up with a series of recommendations to be achieved by 2020.

These included widespread adoption of public wifi, a High Street Digital Health Index and centralising the aggregation of place technologies to provide a common platform for digital consumer services. None of these recommendations were implemented, and it doesn’t look as though they will be anytime soon.

Put simply, many town centres are missing the digital infrastructure needed to help communities thrive. We can change the physical environment to create desirable spaces, but if we don’t have the social glue of technology that keeps today’s consumers coming back, we’re missing a trick.

Every town and city needs a way to collect, store and publish information from the community that is fully aligned with the interests of that community – not the interests of Big Tech.

This will take investment and a rethink about the role of organisations like local groups, BIDs and councils in operating technology platforms on behalf of local communities.

It’s vital we do something now. The future of all sorts of things – for instance, mobility, energy and money – is just around the corner. We can’t leave our town centres behind.

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