What is digital placemaking?

Our physical and digital worlds are colliding in ways most people wouldn’t have thought possible just a decade ago. This trend is especially apparent when we look at digital placemaking, which has begun to enhance destination experiences around the globe.

What’s digital placemaking? Placemaking can be defined as a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of a public space to best serve the community’s interests. This can include objectives such as encouraging people’s health, happiness and well-being through the power of the arts, culture and creativity. Digital placemaking, therefore, can be considered the integration of the internet, and other digital mediums into this practice. It is one of the key tenets of the smart cities movement occurring across the globe.

The practice has its roots in architecture and urban planning, where digital technologies lend themselves well to collecting public input on city projects service improvements. But the idea is quickly spilling out into the art, gaming, and marketing worlds, all of which wish to connect with people in a more immersive way.

We see diverse manifestations of the way digital placemaking has been used to create new, engaging experiences in familiar and perhaps underutilized places. Augmented reality (AR) games like Pokémon GO and its predecessor, Ingress, require participants to explore their physical surroundings as part of the gameplay. In a different approach, Oh Heck Yeah has designed massive videogames customized to their surroundings in public spaces. These street arcades pit friends and strangers against each other, using their bodies as the controllers instead of their smartphones.

Apps are another tool that help to bridge the digital-physical divide. Some invite visitors to interact with monuments and sacred spaces in deeper ways (the 9/11 Memorial apps), some display the events happening near them, and others provide information on local attractions and businesses (Google Trips).

Co-creation is an essential step of placemaking. If the goal of placemaking is to enhance the well-being of the community, designers must first understand what it is the community wants and needs to progress.

Co-creation is important as it encourages personal investment from stakeholders, yielding greater engagement. The community will usually include key stakeholders such as residents, businesses as well as cultural, religious or educational organisations. Feedback from stakeholders can be obtained using workshops, or often more cost-effectively with digital platforms such as surveys and social media. Hames Sharley has adopted this approach for the Shire of Serpentine Jarrahdale in Western Australia, utilising online surveys to help prepare development strategies for four town centres in the area.

The goals of digital placemaking and destination marketing organizations (DMOs) go hand in hand. We see this in the examples above, all of which improve the travel experience and encourage exploration regardless of the creators’ intentions. But existing and emerging technologies will allow DMOs, perhaps in conjunction with city governments or other partners, to directly create more engaging experiences that will be a draw for locals and tourists alike.

With today’s travellers demanding such engaging experiences, especially those that integrate with their beloved gadgets, wise DMO leaders will start incorporating digital placemaking into their strategies now.

Or if your stakeholders need any convincing, just show them Vivid Sydney, the festival that transforms the city into the world’s largest outdoor art gallery featuring hundreds of light sculptures and projections. This Destination NSW-owned event has been hugely successful, to the tune of 2.3 million visitors during 2016 alone, an aspirational goal for digital-savvy DMOs the world round.

What opportunities do you see for digital placemaking in your destination?

Check out my related post: Would you host the Olympics?

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