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Digital Placemaking in Bristol and Bath

by Stephen Hilton

Anna Rutherford, Director of the Architecture Centre, interviews Architecture Centre Board Member, Stephen Hilton about his role as Digital Placemaking Fellow on the Bristol+Bath Creative R+D Pathfinder.

Digital Placemaking is a fusion of the utility that Smart Cities offer… and the creativity that cities like Bristol and Bath are recognised for.

The idea of “Placemaking” is fairly well understood but “Digital Placemaking” will be a new idea for many people. Can you explain what it means?

You are right - there is a body of professional practice about Placemaking as a human-centred approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. In comparison, Digital Placemaking is a newer concept - but digital space now surrounds us all of the time. It’s how we navigate places, connect with people, buy things, share things seek out interesting experiences... Digital Placemaking considers this “Digital Public Realm” alongside the physical world - it is about creating ways to link and utilise both to create healthier, happier, more interesting public spaces and buildings. In my view, it’s also about having more local control over the way digital space in our cities is developed and used. At the moment, this is not something that people feel they have influence over and we need to change this.

So is Digital Placemaking the same as Smart Cities, or is it something different?

I think there is some crossover between Smart Cities and Digital Placemaking - but Digital Placemaking is really a fusion of the “utility” that Smart Cities offer - making places cleaner, greener, safer and more efficient - and the creativity that cities like Bristol and Bath are recognised for. Cities do need to be Smart but they should also be creative, green, connected, open and inclusive - otherwise why would anyone want to live in them? It is this fusion that I think Digital Placemaking can help create and drive.

What do you hope to achieve as a Digital Placemaking Fellow for the Bristol+Bath Creative R&D Pathfinder?

The Bristol+Bath Creative R+D programme has brought together a truly eclectic, creative and passionate group of Digital Placemaking Fellows - it’s one of the most diverse and positive working groups I’ve been a part of and we have lots of energy and ideas to deliver something special for the region!

“I was inspired by a talk about a building that uses data to create human rather than artificial intelligence”

The Follows are supported by the 4 West of England Universities, Watershed and by some great Industry Partners - Stride Treglown, City ID and BBC R&D and Consultants Calvium. Our first task, which in itself is challenging giving the diversity of the group, is to develop a brief to commission Digital Placemaking demonstrator projects to take place over a month in Bristol and Bath during Spring 2020. I’m also working on my own research project. I was inspired by the talk I heard from an Architect, Elizabeth de Portzempark, about her winning proposal for a new high-rise tower in `Taiwan, which seeks to use data to create a building with “human” rather than “artificial” intelligence. I like this idea and plan to spend some time researching the possibilities.

“Digital Placemaking is not fluffy, I’m interested in the money just as much as the creativity and innovation”

How can Architecture Centre Members help you or get involved in the research?

I want to hear from Architects, Engineers and Urbanists who are doing interesting things in the digital space - playing around with BIM data in creative ways, embedding digital infrastructure and human-experiences into their design proposals, thinking innovatively about Augmented and Virtual Reality and the fabric of buildings and public spaces. It’s worth mentioning that my eyesight is pretty poor and I often find screens difficult to read, so I’m also really interested in locative audio and voice as an access channel. I’d love to find examples of buildings or public spaces that we can talk with!

Yes, please get involved! I’ll be pulling together a workshop in October and working with the Architecture Centre, Watershed and other Bristol+Bath Fellows to hold a bigger public event early in 2020 - but there’s no need to wait. Drop me a line if your are interested and we can arrange to meet or speak. My contact details are below.

“It’s about having more local control over the way the digital public realm in our cities is developed and used. At the moment, this is not something that people feel they have influence over.”

Any final comments?

I guess I always worry that when people hear phrases like “digital” and “creative” they feel it is all a bit “fluffy” and a “nice to have” rather than essential. So just to be clear – I’m really interested in the money! There needs to be strong understanding of the business case for Digital Placemaking – and I want to talk about this just as much as the creativity and innovation.


The Architecture Centre was founded in Bristol in 1996 as the UK’s first architecture centre outside London, the Architecture Centre’s mission is to encourage the understanding and enjoyment of architecture and the wider built environment, and to champion better buildings and places for everyone.

Stephen Hilton is one of the people who, over a decade ago, invented what it means to be a Smart City. As Director of Futures at Bristol City Council, he transformed the concept in to reality by delivering multiple projects spanning, Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, Smart Energy Grids, Open Data and recently, Virtual Reality and 5G Networks. However, Stephen’s passion is for technology and democracy – paving the way for a “Smart Society” where everyone can contribute and everyone can benefit. Stephen is currently Strategic Advisor to the West of England Combined Authority, leading the creation of the Smart City Region. He is Founder and Director of Bristol Futures Global, the leading UK Smart Cities Consultancy, a Fellow of University of Bristol, a Trustee of the Bristol Architecture Centre and a non-exec Director of Bristol £ local currency.

Email: stephen.hilton@bristolfutures.global

Twitter: @stephenhilton