Is the Property world getting 'a sense of place' all wrong?

April 2014

I’ve been reading the online summary of the ‘How to develop a socially productive place’ conference held at the RSA and sponsored by British Land on the 2nd of April.

And you know what? I think the property world has got ‘a sense of place’ all wrong. Or maybe not wrong, but distinctly out of date. Whilst the conference contained much of interest there was, as far as I could see, no mention at all of technology and the digital world we now live in. You’ve probably seen the image below but the property world seems to be stuck very much in the 2005 mindset:



In 2005 there were no smartphones and consequently one’s experience of the space around us was purely connected to the physical environment. In this case it was the inauguration of the Pope. Eight years later smartphones are everywhere and with us at all times. Our experience of the space around us is now as heavily influenced by that computer in our pocket as the physical environment we find ourselves in.

People want information, especially local, in the palm of their hand, and physical space has a past, a present and a future. The digital layer is about unlocking this content.

  • I am here
  • What’s going on?
  • What happened here?
  • What’s going to happen here?
  • Are my friends here?
  • What did they like?
  • What should I do now?

It’s the smartphone that will determine how ‘a sense of place’ is experienced. Think about the questions above; they cover the variables that determine how successful a place is. At the human level, they are what all of us want to know. The place that helps us answer these questions will be successful. The place that informs, inspires and excites us will prosper.

Socially productive places will embrace this digital layer. And if they don’t then they will not be fit for purpose. You can talk all you like about mixed uses, high quality architecture, good urban design and sustainability (and the conference did) but if you do not expose the digital layer then your place is stuck in the past.

The property world needs to take technology seriously and accept that the physical and digital worlds have collided and are now one and the same. To discuss one without the other is a dead end.

You will not create socially productive places without getting the digital layer right. And that involves a lot more than just installing decent wifi. You need to understand how the internet of things, cloud computing, social, contextual and mobile technologies will effect how people work, rest and play. All of these will form part of creating a smart city, and the future of socially productive places rests within smart cities.

The world has fundamentally changed since 2005. And the way we think needs to change with it.

Who’s in?