Placemaking in the digital realm

Infinite Global’s Tal Donahue interviewed Hannah Prideaux of District Technologies about the role that technology and smart buildings can play in the development and maintenance of great places for people.

Watch the video, or read the full transcript below.


TD: Thanks for speaking with us Hannah! Just to begin with, can you tell us a bit about what it is that District Technologies does?  

HP: Thanks, Tal. At District, we work with landlords, occupiers and property managers and provide our app and web platform to the people working and residing in their buildings to significantly improve their building experience and remove friction. From the landlord or occupier’s perspective, the technology enables cost savings, revenue generation and the ability to understand how their building is being used, and to make data driven decisions.

We’re delighted to have won the New York MIPIM PropTech Global Start-Up award towards the end of last year and now in the global final this year at Cannes! I’ll be cycling to MIPIM this year, which is both exciting and a bit daunting!

TD: We’re here today to talk about placemaking. What does the term mean to you and to District Technologies?  

HP: Placemaking is all about creating a destination, how you encourage people to go to your destination and how you are reinventing the places. Mixed use schemes like Kings Cross I think are a great example. I think there are three elements that are essential in doing that. The first element is looking at the services you provide to people when they are there, the second is engagement, activities and events – how are you keeping people interested when they are at the destination? The third point is how are the buildings used in terms of smart building technology and how are you removing friction from buildings?

From District’s perspective I really think we are the glue that holds all of this together in terms of creating destinations people want to be in and engaging with them whilst they’re there.

TD: One of the really interesting themes that emerged from the report we published last year was how digital and online is arguably the new ‘public realm’. How far do you think that’s true? What role does digital play in bridging the live, work and play dynamic?  

HP: You’re absolutely right there is now a fourth element which is digital. I think a digital layer is essential for all placemaking and we need to be very careful that we are successfully combining digital and physical with these schemes.

Regardless of the destination we visit we’re now using digital technology without even realizing in many cases. You could be shopping and looking for feedback on customer reviews and then finding out how to get there on Google maps. The key is to reconnect people with digital in a way that enhances the experience as opposed to taking them out of the physical.

Part of what we’re doing as well is engaging people but also with offline interaction. It’s really important to allow people to be online but once they’re online make the experience incredibly efficient so they can actually appreciate the offline world when they get there.

TD: What specific technologies are you seeing integrated into buildings at the moment and what role do you see District playing in complementing the smart city landscape?  

HP: I think a very important point to note first of all is technology is only an enabler. It has to be complementary to what people want and it has to be user-centric. The first thing we always do at District is to find out what the problem is, map out the customer journey and then solve that problem. What we can’t do is solve non-existent problems because then you’re creating things that actually no one really needs.

When you think of architects, property managers, facilities managers etc, what problems they try and solve? Is it HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), is it lighting or door access? We’re here to help solve these problems in a very user-friendly way with apps, with mobile devices and web platforms.

The app allows our clients to communicate with tenants and employees, we have a system at the back end which allows them to upload content, events, articles and send push-notifications immediately to the app.

TD: What role do you think brand and communications plays in curating a successful place more generally?  

HP: Branding is an absolutely key factor for a successful place and it’s something we’re talking to our clients about very regularly. People recognize brands and they associate value with that brand. Battersea Power Station for example, I associate that building with that brand, with the trust and associated benefits. I don’t necessarily associate it with a developer’s name. The place brand is key.

One of our core products is a white label fully customised application. All of our clients have slightly different approaches. Take Blackstone in the US for example; they have branded version of the app for the Playa District – the branding of the building is more important than the Blackstone brand here because it’s what people are interacting with day-to-day.

TD: How important is it for building brands, and users of technology like District, to have content as part of the wider communications and engagement strategy? 

HP: I think it’s really important to remember that tech is only an enabler. Without good content you have no user engagement. We work closely with our clients so they know what content to use. A lot of our clients work with third parties to then put on events, produce articles and news etc. In my experience there’s so much content out there that brands have but it’s not always communicated in a succinct way to a lot of the end users which is a shame. That would be my message: get great content, put it on the app and actually speak to the end users.

TD: When do you think developers should start thinking about placemaking and how technology is integrated within that strategy?  

HP: I think developers really need to start thinking about placemaking, technology and user engagement at the very start. One of the dangers of not thinking about placemaking and engagement is that by practical completion you’re essentially launching a building that’s already out of date. We’re working with a lot of developers for the moment on this specific point. We want to get to them at design stage and then almost by practical application we can push a button and it’s enabled for this technology.

From District’s perspective our technology is very cost effective. We are continually iterating the product because we work in two weekly sprints so the product is continually changing and updating with new features. That’s really important for the end user and also for the landlord to keep the ideas fresh.

From a broader perspective, if we’re just talking about the community and engagement features, it’s essentially the equivalent of buying each of your employees a cup of coffee. It’s very cost effective and through that you’re engaging with your tenants, getting to know who’s in the building and how they work. You’re using that data in the building but also you’re monetizing, you’re saving cost.

TD: Some retailers are now looking for ways that they can better monetise their data. Is there a way that they can share data with landlords that’s beneficial to both parties? What is the role of digital integration on the retail side of placemaking?  

HP: Retail is a really interesting sector that we’re all watching closely to see what happens. It’s a challenging sector, but it’s certainly not dead. It really needs to change and the retailers that don’t change are going to be in trouble. Digital is a really important part of differentiation and I think Sweaty Betty has done a great job in this respect. They opened a three-storey store in Carnaby Street last year and part of what they’re doing is getting to know how people are using their building. They’re offering yoga sessions, hosting talks with champagne and healthy eating events. It’s not just about who is buying what and how are they buying it – it’s all about the experience. It’s really important and something that we’re doing at District by helping the landlords get closer to the end user.

With our technology we’re enabling landlords to develop a relationship with the people in the building so they can then learn from them and understand how they’re using the space to push that data back into the building. This helps them keep evolving so that the user experience gets better and the landlords can start differentiating from their competitors.

TD: There are so many stakeholders involved in the placemaking process… What role do you see tech playing in facilitating that collaboration and improving communications between all the interested parties? 

HP: Placemaking inherently has a multitude of stakeholders; the investors, developers, funding, local planners, councils, governments – and all of them want their say. I think it’s very important going forwards that, at least from our perspective, that it’s not just about the real estate now but it’s also about the tech overlay. So I think there needs to be collaboration between real estate and tech so pushing forward you’re really creating a product that is engaging with the local community through the technology.

Certainly at the development stage I think it’s important that not only are we just having the interactions between the developers, investors, funders, planners but that’s also communicated with the people who are actually surrounding the environment whether they live, work or socialize there.

We’ve partnered with a developer on a scheme in Brighton and we’ve launched our app as a marketing tool. They’re using the app to show local businesses and potential tenants – this is what the building is going to look like, these are all the services you have available to you. So, if you have any issues – let’s say a light’s gone off – you can take a picture you immediately send it off through one of the features and then it’s dealt with. So it’s really pulling out a lot of the friction that some buildings have at the moment and that from a marketing tool I think is quite powerful in terms of a developer who is taking tech seriously and wants their building to be differentiated from a new development down the road.

TD: We’re conducting this interview just a few weeks before MIPIM 2019 – obviously it’s a challenging time for some with Brexit just around the corner. What’s your, and District’s, perspective on the current climate? 

HP: I’ll actually be cycling to MIPIM so will hopefully have recovered for when this goes live!

From District’s perspective we are geographically agnostic. We are now in the UK the US, Canada and we’re rolling out to Europe. So from our perspective, wherever there are buildings, wherever there are tenants, residents and people using buildings – they need engagement. So as far as we’re concerned it affects us to a lesser degree in that respect; we’re based in London and New York at the moment and have no plans to relocate. I think developers, investors, landlords still need to appreciate the importance of engagement with tenants and with users, and making your buildings better and making a building smarter. And in terms of the younger generation you’ve got to bear in mind they’re growing up with this technology so I think any buildings going forward that don’t have the type of technology they’re expecting – that helps them get allows them into the building with phone access for example – they are going to be outdated very shortly.

TD: What does the future hold for smart buildings, and for District specifically – let’s say in 2050? 

HP: I think it’s quite challenging to answer in respect to specific technologies – who knows what future innovations may be coming? – but certainly from our perspective our role going forwards is we need to continue to listen to our users; what are our users telling us, what are the problems that they have and how are we solving that; how are we really creating value and how are we streamlining the day to day. That well that will not change that prerogative will continue, it’ll just be channelled in different directions in terms of the type of technology available. I think what we certainly will see a lot more of will be landlords, developers, investors paying a lot more attention to their end users and learning from them. And that’s one of the big things we’re pushing: Find out who’s in your building give them a lot more interaction engage with them and learn from them, create revenue streams. You can be very creative with this type of technology and it’s really exciting to consider where we can be in the future.