Gloucester is rapidly developing an international reputation as a pathfinder for UK and global companies testing Digital High Street and smart city initiatives. So what’s leading to the spotlight being shone on this small city, nestled at the foot of the Cotswolds?
No one can deny that there is a wind of change blowing across the retail environment, with national trends in the UK showing a steady decline in footfall for many of the country’s towns and cities. Following hot on the movement towards out of town developments, the impact of Internet shopping through giants such as Amazon has left many traditional shopping areas struggling to fill voids and on a downward spiral of lower footfall.
However with every challenge there comes opportunity, and it is an opportunity that those involved with managing the city of Gloucester were determined to grasp and to do so in such a way as to put the small city at the forefront of the development of technologies that potentially could have a transformative effect on how residents and visitors will use their town and city centres in the future.
In 2014, Marketing Gloucester, the place making organisation for the city of Gloucester set out its aims to make the city the go to place for technology providers looking to develop smart city and digital high street solutions.
Jason Smith, CEO of Marketing Gloucester told us: “Gloucester is ideally suited to solution providers test bedding new technologies. It is a relatively compact city, with a representative demographic and a high degree of innovation and good digital infrastructure. It is a city that confirms with many of the norm baselines and so can provide an excellent modelling opportunity. Most importantly there is a team of people here who have built up a huge group of partners, including the University, private sector, and the local authority, who are happy to speedily adopt innovative products. By working with a wide range of partners we are rapidly building the jigsaw that will lead to digital solutions to support town and city centres and produce a seamless journey which will lead consumers from online to bricks and mortar”
Some of the innovations that have taken place in just a few years have included Gloucester becoming one of the first in the world and the first city in the UK to adopt a three in one integrated solution with CCTV over IP, Free high-speed WIFI across the whole city and 4G being installed simultaneously. This model has since been adopted by Cardiff, Glasgow, Nottingham, Leicester and Newcastle with others to follow.
Gloucester Councillor Jenny Watkins was instrumental in driving through the provision of this three in one solution and said “Once it was evidenced to us by Marketing Gloucester that we could leverage the funding we had budgeted for CCTV to also provide a step change in WIFI and 4G digital infrastructure, it become obvious to me that we should seize the opportunity especially since it would allow us to pursue our goals for digital inclusion and to be a connected city.”
A recent survey of the City centre wifi showed that over 10 million people had potential access to this annually with speeds regularly being reported of up to 136 mbps – which equates to faster download speeds than most people achieve at home or at their place of work.
So what else has been going on in Gloucester that is building its reputation as the place to testbed digital high street and smart city technolgies?
In 2015 Gloucester became the first destination outside of the UK to partner with Google’s Niantic Labs on the FieldTrip™ app, which allows virtual, location based tourism information through cell phone, tablet or Google Glass. Whilst Google Glass may have come and gone, the relationship between Marketing Gloucester and Niantic labs has shown real dividends during the recent Pokemon Go™ craze.
Pokemon Go™ is also produced by Naintic Labs and since much of the location data for Pokestops and Gyms was based on existing information uploaded for Fieldtrip™ and Niantic’s app Ingress™, Gloucester has an especially rich environment for Pokemon Go™ players which has attracted players from around the region, boosting the local economy. Needless to say Marketing Gloucester, were not shy in capitalising on this through social media, and by educating and encouraging retailers to promote their businesses near Pokestops and gyms and quickly trained retailers how to use the opportunities by purchasing and using Pokemon “Lures”. Gloucester cafe owner Nick Brookes reported “it was incredible the number of people who came and sat down in the cafe once we started using the Lures”
Prof. Richard Cuthbertson of Said Business School, University of Oxford has been examining Gloucester’s example as part of a European wide study, he has praised the city’s approach commenting:
“In our research of European cities with a positive focus towards digital technologies, especially those involving small retailers, Gloucester is an excellent example. This city recognises the need for a independent, third party enabler in Marketing Gloucester, providing a long-term, single point of contact, developing the relevant digital and physical infrastructure with multiple means of access for customers and retailers, while utilising simple tools, all within a strategy for “place” that encompasses the individual flavour provided by local retailers and services.”
Two of the projects that are currently being implemented are those being developed by Rewarding Visits, which was granted £1 million from the UK Government, Innovate UK funding, and Maybe, a solution that is being delivered as part of the DCLG, Great British High Street Project. Both of these are operating within the Digital high Street environment with the aim of encouraging purchasing to me made in bricks and mortar business rather than online.
Guy Chatburn, of Rewarding Visits, which won a £1 million Innovate UK grant to develop digital high street solutions comments “We chose Gloucester as the partner location for the third phase of the role out of our technology, primarily because alongside a great digital infrastructure, the city had a “can do” organisation like Marketing Gloucester that already had the trust of a wide range number of partners throughout the city which it could rally together relatively easily in order to enable our project to happen. They were especially good at helping us work with other organisations operating in complimentary areas such as Stagecoach and Trinity Mirror. There was also a much lower learning curve as Gloucester has a team with a understanding of the tech and the issues facing towns and cities, and that has definitely lead to us having a much stronger offering in a shorter period of time”.
Polly Barnfield OBE of “Maybe*” backed this up saying “Gloucester has proven to be the perfect place for us to test our digital high street solution #WDYT, and the help from Marketing Gloucester, GFirst Local Enterprise Partnership and Gloucester City Council was instrumental in enabling us to successfully roll out our pathfinder project across the other conurbations in the county and now futher across the country.”
Marketing Gloucester is part funded by Gloucester City Council with a board made up with movers and shakers in the private sector and chaired by the Leader of Gloucester City Council Paul James who is justifiably proud of the progress in realising the aims to make the city the go to place for technology providers looking to develop smart city and digital high street solutions. Councillor James is ambitious to build on the successes to date, commenting “The world is just at the beginning of the transformational opportunities presented by digital technologies and its great that Gloucester is being viewed as the ideal place to test these. In fact the city has a history of innovation in digital and high performance technologies, including being the home to Fasthost (UKreg owned by United Internet), Amazon’s Print on Demand service, Raytheon’s recently opened cyber security division, and Tidal Lagoon Power. We are open to working with those looking for a compact city to testbed their technologies”
Marketing Gloucester is also currently working with the Local Data Company (LDC) who with University of London are developing next generation footfall data collection and reporting, combined with their current retail dashboard. There are plans for Gloucester to have the highest number in the UK of LDC sensors generating data that will help retailers and place management teams intelligently model the city.
So what for the future? Jason Smith says that he is keen to continue building relationships with technology solution providers to build the jigsaw that will deliver a unified digital, place-based, solution for bricks and mortar retailers, and he mentioned Facebook and IBM as being targets for partnership. He enthusiastically responds when asked about the long term goals “this is all about letting tech companies know that Gloucester is the ideal place to test their technologies from the point of view of physical environment, infrastructure and partners already operating in the city. This is a city where we present solutions not problems to businesses wanting to be involved and we welcome new partners”
It is clear that Gloucester has very ambitious plans to be a smart city, and from talking to those involved, it looks like they might achieve it.