Smart shopping: The high-tech high street of the future

 —  Article by Natasha Stokes
people on crowded high street in London
Image credit: Shutterstock

A London shopping street designed with cutting-edge eco-friendly technology could be the future model for high streets in smart, sustainable cities.

Bird Street was a little-used alleyway just off the busy shopping hub of Oxford Street. Earlier this summer, the tiny street was transformed by an installation of pop-up shops and a swathe of clean-tech innovations.

The CleanAir bench is a high-backed seat that filters harmful nitrogen dioxide from the air, providing its occupants with a space to take a (clean) breather. Airlite paint on the pop-up store pods breaks down major atmospheric pollutants in the air. The walkway is paved with Pavegen tiles that convert footsteps into electricity to power the street lights at night. Visitors can also download the Pavegen app to see how much energy their footsteps have generated.

“Bird Street is a case study in technology that can improve air quality and reduce energy consumption in urban settings,” says Connor McCauley, Associate Director, Sustainability at JLL. “Within several years, it’s quite likely that some of these features will be rolled out to high streets across the country.”

Follow the funding

For now, however, Bird Street is one of a kind, designed to build awareness for green, clean technology that can be easily incorporated into existing city infrastructure. “These innovations going mainstream will be driven by consumers demanding cleaner spaces,” McCauley says.

Many consumers currently underestimate pollution levels, but that could change with the emergence of low-cost air quality sensors, embedded roadside or potentially in upcoming smartphones. “Being able to see the air quality in real-time where they are standing could be the catalyst to encourage consumers to demand that more is done to create pollution-free public spaces,” McCauley says.

Another challenge is the question of who has responsibility for funding the development of a particular area. “Shopping destinations that are owned and managed by a single entity – like London’s Carnaby Street – have the ability to act faster and may be more open to investing in new technology before demand is strictly at critical mass,” McCauley says.

The installations on Bird Street were supported by the government body Transport for London, whose Future Streets Incubator invests in projects to improve London’s streets. But other, larger shopping areas may face more hurdles for high-tech redevelopment with the onus on retailers, landlords and local councils to work out the funding division.

The future high street

As congestion and pollution increasingly impact the health of city dwellers across the world, the high street of the future could ultimately be defined by clean tech that battles the detrimental effects of high-density urban life.

“There’s a big push in the property industry for companies to be net-zero or net-positive,” where they put more back into society than they take out,” McCauley says. That includes restorative measures such as generating energy from sustainable sources and cleaning up the city air.

For retailers, data will be more integral than ever in creating the shopping experience. “Take footfall data – having insight into when pedestrians are near their store lets retailers know when to turn on lights or how to target store advertising,” McCauley notes. Savvy brands are already using tech to enhance the in-store experience; down the line, they will also focus on an out-of-store experience, McCauley says, using beacon technology that can push tailored messages or offers to the phones of passersby.

Perhaps of greatest relief to the would-be shoppers circling today’s congested shopping areas, the rise of autonomous electric vehicles could herald a total rethink of where parking spaces need to be located – and whether they’re allowed on high streets at all. “Instead of the traditional high street, we would have open, green and pedestrianized spaces where shops and restaurants run along an outdoor corridor,” McCauley says. Smartphone apps might redirect the flow of shoppers based on footfall, while the air would be filtered by the storefronts and benches and the lights powered by footsteps.

For now it may seem futuristic but as the smart technology evolves and demand grows, it could herald a new era for city shopping areas.

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