Future of the High Street

January 2021
July 2021

Project ‘Future of the High Street’ (Jan-July 2021) combined citizen engagement and co-design with rapid prototyping, urban data and research. The aim? To better understand key high street challenges and opportunities, and pilot two small-scale 'tweaks' with potential to support the high street as a successful, vibrant and liveable place as we emerge from Covid-19. A Toolkit of 6 ideas for these ‘high street tweaks’ was developed through conversations, surveys and digital co-design workshops with businesses, residents and organisations from two high street project locations - Gorgie/Dalry in Edinburgh and Dalkeith. Two ideas were selected to be rapidly prototyped, piloted and evaluated on-site. The project was funded by the Scottish Funding Council, and delivered by the Edinburgh Futures Institute and Edinburgh Living Lab in collaboration with the Data-Driven Innovation programme and New Practice architects.

Blogs and Films

Project Webinar

On 21 July 2021, Jenny Elliott (Project Lead at EFI) and Duncan Bain (New Practice) shared their summaries and reflections on the project and its findings via a webinar chaired by Prof Chris Speed and live illustrated by Illustrator Katie Chappell. The full recording is available here.

Project Report

The full project report is available to view here. This includes all project findings, methods and approaches, as well as full details about pilots, and Public Life Studies for Gorgie-Dalry and Dalkeith high streets.

High Street Tweak Toolkit of 6 Ideas

View the High Street Tweak Toolkit - 6 co-created ideas for prototypes that respond to common high street challenges and identified through this project. The toolkit was developed through conversations with local businesses, residents and organisations on Gorgie-Dalry high street in Edinburgh, and Dalkeith town centre in Midlothian, and distills common themes for small-scale changes to the high street that could deliver meaningful impact.

A Collaborative Approach

The 'Future of the High Street' project was designed to take a deliberately collaborative approach:

The project's Advisory Board included representatives from relevant organisations across Scotland and beyond (see below). It allowed us to build a professional community of interest around this topic, share best practice and learnings, as well as discuss and seek input on the live project process. We also shared monthly project blogs, diary extracts and short films documenting the project process, our learnings and findings as they evolved.

Through the live project work, the project team worked with local businesses and stakeholders for two Edinburgh city region high streets - Gorgie/Dalry Road and Dalkeith town centre - to identify the significant Covid-19 impacts on their businesses and longer-term challenges and opportunities. Wider engagement with residents, young people, local organisations and other stakeholders focused on the high street as a 'place' more holistically. For example, to help understand the ways the high street could be more successful as a place to visit, spend time, meet others or walk/cycle through. Together, we  collaborated to talk about these themes and to design and develop ideas for the two pilots tested on site in June 2021.

Due to the pandemic, we needed to focus on digital engagement tools and approaches, with the team exploring novel tools to help support this process.  The project's engagement 'shop front' was the 'High Street Tweak' website - a name which builds project's focus on small-scale rapid prototyping of ideas. This has been used to share the ways Gorgie/Dalry and Dalkeith high street businesses, residents and organisations could be involved in the project - from an online survey with participatory mapping, to signing up for digital co-design workshops using Miro, Whereby and Zoom.

We also developed an approach to 'collaborative evaluation' - that incorporated the perspectives of all those involved in the project - whether on the advisory board, project team or a local high street stakeholder - to extend the project's co-design approach to how we evaluated its success - both during active project decision-making, and to reflect on at project end.

Findings from the evaluation of pilots and documentation of the project process and outputs have been openly shared with other interested professionals and back with project participants.

A Data-Driven Approach

The Future of the High Street project also incorporated a focus on the use of relevant urban data throughout.

To input into the initial project stages during January and February 2021, a series of baseline datasets were collected about Gorgie/Dalry high street and Dalkeith town centre. These include land use, character and facade studies of these two high streets, the types of businesses present, their opening hours and status during lockdown. These studies help provide context and understanding about the current status of these high streets.

A large number of existing reports and previous consultation summaries were also reviewed and distilled into the key challenges and opportunities identified for both high streets. This was important to respect both this prior work and citizen time and input that had already gone before, and allowed the online survey for this project to put forward our understanding of current high street challenges/opportunities for review and priority ranking, rather than starting from scratch again.

In addition to all the qualitative data gathering during the engagement process, evaluation of the pilots is another key way data integrated into this project. Two baseline Public Life Studies were conducted in May for both Gorgie/Dalry high street and Dalkeith town centre. Another was completed in June whilst the pilots are in situ to allow comparison of impact on footfall, dwell time, interviews about place quality etc.  Through robustly evaluating pilots, we were able to provide valuable insights as to what worked and lessons learnt, and an evidence base to support ongoing project legacy for these and other high streets.

The project follows on from the Edinburgh Futures Institute's Smart Places series of events and discussions, which highlighted the importance of this topic. If you have specific queries or are a professional interested in how our findings might relate to your work or high street, please email the Project Lead based at EFI - Jenny Elliott.

Each of the 7 blog articles in the series paired a thought leader in 'smart places' with an illustrator to together communicate their thoughts on challenges and opportunities relating to the Smart Places theme. All articles available via Medium. Illustrations shown and their corresponding articles were by the 7 collaborating illustrators and 7 'Smart Places' professionals named below.

Online Events

3-4pm Fri 29 May - Euan Mills.
One-hour Tweet Up discussion on Twitter (using #SmartPlaces) on article 'Design with Data: the need for data-driven and evidence-based approaches in the built environment industry'.

3-4pm Fri 5 June - Daisy Narayanan.
One hour Tweet Up  on her article 'Shaping a resilient future for Edinburgh'.

3-4pm Fri 12 June - Sarah Frood.
Tweet Up (using #SmartPlaces) on the topic of her article 'Digital and Face-to-Face' about digital tools for meaningful place-based discussions.

3-4pm Fri 19 June - Dr Jo Morrison
One hour Tweet Up (using #SmartPlaces) on her article 'Digital Placemaking for More Inclusive and Accessible Cities' - discussing how combining people, place, tech and data can lead to more welcoming public spaces for all.

3-4pm Thurs 25 June - Sally Kerr. One hour Tweet Up (using #SmartPlaces) on her article 'Why Local Data is the Key to Successful Placemaking'.

Panel Discussion - 3-4pm Fri 26 June.
One hour online discussion including public Q&A. Miss it? View the recording.

Project Team

Edinburgh Futures Institute:

Jenny Elliott (Project Lead), Shawn Bodden (Project Officer) and Megan Miller (Visual Communication Intern)
The Data-Driven Innovation programme
Edinburgh Living Lab at the University of Edinburgh
New Practice architects

"A Chartered Landscape Architect and Urban Designer, I lead the Smart Places workstream at the Edinburgh Futures Institute. When originally designing the project proposal it was important to combine an inclusive participatory approach to working with local businesses and stakeholders, whilst also exploring where novel digital engagement tools might help us reach a diverse range of people and navigate the challenges of placemaking safely during a pandemic. I am excited that this engagement will result in the collaborative development of two small-scale prototypes to ‘tweak’ the built environment or digital ‘place’ of two Edinburgh region high streets. These will be built and implemented in situ during June 2021. They will be evaluated for their immediate impact in enhancing these two high streets’ desirability as a place to visit, shop or spend time, with a focus on supporting local independent businesses and the high street’s important role in a community. Through this combination of research and practice, a team including the University of Edinburgh and New Practice architects, an aim to help mitigate some of the immediate challenges for the high street, and an emphasis on sharing our project process and findings to inform longer term learnings and action, I hope through this project we can deliver real positive impact." Jenny Elliott, Project Lead, Edinburgh Futures Institute

"I'm a cultural geographer and researcher. [...] I combine long-term, participatory ethnographic methods with detailed micro-analysis of social interactions to understand how people solve problems [...] and work on better possible futures. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions to all of our lives--but in many different, often unpredictable ways. I’m interested in working on the Future of the High Street project because it asks important questions about the ways that specific communities might respond to the situation. In a sense, I’m interested in the many different futures of the High Street--the projects that people want to use the High Street for." Shawn Bodden, Project Officer, Edinburgh Futures Institute

“I'm an award-winning videographer and editor [...] currently pursuing an MFA in Documentary Film Directing at University of Edinburgh. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have affected our lives in unique and difficult ways, bringing to the fore a necessity to adapt. I believe a human's adaptive capacity is found within their creative ability, and I'm excited to play a role in this project precisely because of its goal to elicit positive change through creativity and innovation. It presents a challenge to all those involved - how to negotiate being with people without being with them, or (in my case) how to create moving images without moving images”  Megan Miller, Visual Communication Intern, Edinburgh Futures Institute

"New Practice is an architectural practice. The pandemic has compounded long running challenges for local economies and radically changed how we all relate to local places. As a practice committed to place-based development, it is critical that post-Covid recovery focusses not only on economic outcomes, but also on revitalising high streets as critical spaces for the generation of local identity and connection.Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve worked hard to ensure that the voices of communities and local stakeholders remain central to decision making processes. This has meant developing new skills and tools for delivering the sorts of creative engagement that in the past would have taken place primarily in workshops, classrooms and at local events. Translating these fun, collaborative and messy experiences into meaningful and effective remote engagement is a huge challenge, and through the Future of the High Street project we are excited to share our experience and curiosity with a wider team of practitioners, advisors, and researchers and learn more about how innovation and research can play a role in revitalising high streets."  New Practice

"The focus on research and learning through this engagement programme means that we are encouraged to try out new ways of working, use new tools and embrace experimentation. For me, the chance to experiment with new technology and novel approaches to working collaboratively with local stakeholders is really exciting. We have spent the last year trying to find ways to promote the voices and agency of communities in really challenging circumstances, when other concerns are very obviously more pressing. What we have learned is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to remote engagement. We are excited to get to know the communities of Gorgie/Dalry and Dalkeith and build bespoke approaches to co-creation that meet their needs, abilities and interests."  Duncan Bain, New Practice (Digital Approach and Technology)

"I am excited to promote a programme where we will have been involved from the beginnings of relationship-building right through to materialising an outcome and studying the potential effects this may have for a community. The Future of High Street project provides a lengthy opportunity for relationship-building with each community before the commencement of the creative engagement programme. This creates an opportunity to generate a truly tailored experience to both communities which will likely strengthen the outputs for each of these locations."  Abi, New Practice (Community Engagement)

Advisory Board

Niamh Webster - Policy Advisor (UK Government secondment from Scottish Government)
Stephen McConnachie - Social Researcher at Connected Places Catapult
Sandy Robinson - Principal Architect at Planning & Architecture, Scottish Government
Gerard O'Brien - Senior Design Officer, Architecture & Design Scotland
Dr Jo Morrison - Director of Digital Innovation and Research at Calvium, 'Expert' at High Streets Task Force and co-Director of the Association of Collaborative Design
Lindsey Sibbald - Business Growth and Talent Development Lead, City of Edinburgh Council
Andrew Ralton - Economic Development Officer, Midlothian Council
Lynzi Leroy - Founder and CEO, Scottish Design Exchange
Phil Prentice - Chief Officer of Scotland's Towns Partnership, National Programme Director of Scotland’s Improvement Districts, Director of UK High Streets Task Force
Kyle Drummond - Programme Development Officer at City of Edinburgh Council
Gemma Cassells - Public Sector Lead, Data Driven Innovation Programme
Douglas Strachan - Founder and Chairperson, One Dalkeith Development Trust
Cat Magill - Senior Advisor, Edinburgh Living Lab and Data and Design Lab
Andy Edwards - Transport and Environment Manager for the South-West Locality, City of Edinburgh Council

"I am interested in the Future of the High Street project as it builds on previous work I’ve developed with Jenny Elliott and other colleagues in EFI, looking at how data can be used to support communities, and how community-sourced data can be used to inform policy and drive social change. This project will provide tangible insights into our changing relationships to place and place-making, and help local businesses survive the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic." Gemma Cassells, Public Sector Lead, Data Driven Innovation Programme

"With more and more shops lying empty, especially in some of our smaller towns, I believe there is huge opportunities for small growers, craftspeople, clothes-makers, up-cyclers, farmers, skincare and soap producers. I am interested in how we can use space differently, by perhaps encouraging small crafts people to share space at the start up phase, thus sharing the costs and risk. Could one business run during the day, while another one uses the space at night? For instance, a café/coffee shop that is open 10-6 may be able to share with a small food producer making jam or pickles, who want to move from working at home from their kitchen to a more commercial space. They could rent the kitchen to use in the evening, allowing the café owner a way to make an additional income and at the same time, help another small business take the next step, before committing to their own premises. We may not return to the days of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker but we can revitalise our forlorn high streets with colour, vibrancy, unique experiences, and products. As people adapt to new ways of working post-covid, I believe there is a great opportunity for small businesses to work together, to share space, and to create a better shopping experience on the high street. For our High Streets to become more viable and vibrant, we need to look towards changing the way we think about using commercial space and adapting the space to work for us." Lynzi Leroy, Scottish Design Exchange Founder and CEO

"As digital technologies play an increasing role in how people act in and upon the world, it’s vital that their voices influence the architecture and experience of emergent hybrid public spaces. I am pleased and intrigued to be part of this project as it has the potential to significantly shift the ways in which places are envisioned, approached and valued." Dr Jo Morrison, Director of Digital Innovation and Research at Calvium, 'Expert' at High Streets Task Force and co-Director of the Association of Collaborative Design

“High Streets and Town Centres are places of creativity and enterprise, where social and cultural interaction drives innovation and wealth-creation. They provide a sustainable core where all parts of society can come together and share resources and services. Their density means that shops, workplaces, leisure, culture and public services are near, they are still where public transport goes, and are accessible to the whole community. These long-established places are our true eco-towns, resources whose health is critical to a sustainable future. Our towns and high streets are critical to Scotland’s future social, environmental and economic success which is why this project can create key learning and resources for others to use.”  Phil Prentice, Chief Officer, Scotland's Towns Partnership, National Programme Director of Scotland’s Improvement Districts and Director of UK High Streets Task Force

"I am interested in this project because [through my work] I have seen local town centres with a high turnover of businesses, [and a] lack of proper investment that has resulted in them looking tired and dated. Improvements identified through Public Life Street Assessments and community engagement have not materialised due to other aspects being prioritised. The current circumstances have shown that local town centres are needed so that people can shop local." Andy Edwards, Transport and Environment Manager

"Gorgie/Dalry town centre – one of nine town centres within the city – has enormous potential to help drive future sustainable economic growth in Edinburgh." Kyle Drummond, City of Edinburgh

"People’s relationships with the places in which they live and travel are bound up with the social and cultural meanings embedded in the built and natural environment. The pandemic has precipitated changes in the ways in which we engage with our surroundings, in some cases accelerating existing changes. With signs of a growing appreciation and desire for localism, it’s important places adapt to ensure they offer viable, valued spaces rich in social meaning which allow local people to feel a sense of belonging. This necessitates a holistic approach which recognises and draws on the rich tapestry of ways that different people and groups understand the (specific) high street. As an Edinburgh (and Gorgie) resident, this project offers an opportunity to help shape how local high streets are configured."  Stephen McConnachie, Connected Places Catapult

"I’m pleased to be part of this work, following on from my involvement in ‘SmartPlaces’, and now looking at the future of local spaces and places. A lot of my work is internationally focussed, but really, it all starts at home. We’ve all spent more time than ever in our local area this year and immediate surroundings. It couldn’t be better timing to re-open the conversation about making great places to live. It’s timely to bring the learning from digital engagement and opportunities of new technology, and I’m delighted to be working alongside experts in placemaking, design and communities."  Niamh Webster, Policy Advisor (UK Government secondment from Scottish Government)

"Participation in the advisory board is of particular interest as I am currently spearheading the “Shop Here This Year” (shop local) campaign across Edinburgh’s 11 town centres (including Gorgie/ Dalry). This will promote resilience, improve access to business support services and encourage collaboration between Edinburgh’s local business communities during and through the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic."  Lindsey Sibbald, Business Growth and Talent Development Lead, Business Gateway Growth Adviser

"This project develops and builds on Edinburgh Living Lab’s work on integrating data-driven innovation and human-centred design to improve places for people. Future of the High Street is also a demonstrator project for the Data and Design Lab, a new initiative that I am advising on in the University’s Covid Beacon programme." Cat Magill, Senior Advisor, Edinburgh Living Lab and Data and Design Lab

"It can only be hoped by looking at creating a resilient high street during the current situation we can create resilient places in the face of environmental and associated changes. The high street forms an important part of our towns and cities and is crucial in the 20 minute neighbourhood. We should not be talking about the preservation of our high streets but the flourishing of them." Gerard O'Brien - Senior Design Officer, Architecture & Design Scotland

"I am delighted to participate in the Future of the High Street project, both because of the direct benefit to Dalkeith and because of the potential for a much wider contribution to the national conversation on this subject." Douglas Strachan - Founder and Chairperson, One Dalkeith Development Trust

"It is clear that the way people shop and socialise has changed and that the traditional model of the high street as the retail and social centre of the town is becoming less dominant, as it competes with online and out of town shopping for custom and footfall.  Yet the high street is a key part of the identity of a town, and the unique story of each town can play a very important role in encouraging civic pride and community cohesion. [...] The High Street still has, and could continue to have, significant economic importance at the local and regional level."  Andrew Ralton - Economic Development Officer, Midlothian Council

Guest Blog Authors

Euan Mills

Euan Mills

Co-founder of the Digital Planning Directorate at Connected Places Catapult. Previously 16 years experience in the built environment industry, including advising the Mayor of London.
Daisy Narayanan

Daisy Narayanan

Director of Urbanism for Sustrans. Interweaving policy, public realm design and key place principles to create liveable towns and cities.

Sarah Frood

One of the founding directors at Icecream Architecture. Delivering place-based (cultural economy, digital place-making, public art) projects for the past 10 years.
Sally Kerr

Sally Kerr

Independent consultant with expertise in digital and data innovation including Open Data, Smart City and IoT with a focus on the public sector. Founder of EdinburghApps. Cofounder of Edinburgh Living Lab.
Niamh Webster

Niamh Webster

Digital Engagement Manager at the Scottish Government. Advises policymakers on using engagement methods to make sure people are meaningfully involved. Currently exploring how traditional offline ways of involving the public can be done online.

Kate Carter

Senior Lecturer Architecture Technology and Environment at ESALA, University of Edinburgh. Researcher in housing, architecture and sustainability. Worked on the ‘Present Voices Future Lives’ exhibition commissioned by the Scottish Government.


James Albon

James Albon

James is a British author and illustrator. His clients include the Folio Society, The Guardian, Libération, the Wall Street Journal, Penguin Random House and WIRED. He studied illustration at Edinburgh College of Art, and went on to a postgraduate scholarship at the Royal Drawing School in London.
Katie Quinn

Katie Quinn

Katie is an illustrator and comic book artist who works from her studio in Edinburgh. Her work is predominately digital; and has been used in editorials, publications, murals and exhibitions, with a recent focus on data comics.

Laura Sayers

Laura is a freelance illustrator based in Glasgow. Her intricate pieces are all made meticulously from different layers of paper, cut with scissors and finished with finely painted details. These are then photographed and edited for reproduction, providing a final print that has depth, texture and a novelty charm.
Victoria Rose Ball

Victoria Rose Ball

Victoria is a freelance illustrator based in Edinburgh. Her work is predominantly digital and focuses on architectural illustrations, often with her own take on perspective and playful colour schemes.
Jack Daly

Jack Daly

Working from his studio in Glasgow, Jack is a Scottish freelance illustrator focussing primarily on advertising, editorial, and product illustration. Previous clients include Adele, BMW, and the New York Times.

Katie Chappell

Katie is best known for her fresh wobbly illustration and giant live window paintings. Global clients include Facebook, Google, as well as some of the UK's leading universities. An alumna of Edinburgh College of Art, she runs The Good Ship Illustration - with her pals Helen Stephens and Tania Willis.

Next Steps

The aim of these events is to open up new conversations and connections between university researchers, industry practitioners and local people, to share knowledge and create a network of people working to improve local places using either community engagement and/or data/tech approaches. We also hope they will start to identify what some key built environment challenges of mutual interest might be for people across Edinburgh. This will feed into EFI’s work longer term, with discussions, connections and thinking all acting as a pre-cursor to a series of in-person physical events and Smart Places exhibition and conference which we hope can take place later in the year.

In the shorter term, the Smart Places work has directly led to a new, Scottish Funding Council funded project called 'The Future of the High Street' which was developed based on the challenges identified via these discussions and events. This is being delivered over a 6 month period from January - July 2021. You can find out more here.

As we consider the way forward into a changed and changing world, EFI seeks to put research, education and engagement in the service of the wider community and to support recovery and regeneration. The Smart Places initiative will contribute to conversations and activities in core sectors linked to the Data-Driven Innovation and City Region Deal contribution including creative industries; tourism and festivals; financial services/fintech; public services/data civics; future infrastructure; and ethics of data and AI​.

Project partners:

Edinburgh Futures Institute

Edinburgh Living Lab

Data Driven Innovation

New Practice

Scottish Funding Council

Related Events

No events were arranged for this project.

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