Originally published in The Municipal Journal (MJ) by Kathy Kyle Bonomini

According to the Carnegie UK Trust’s COVID and Communities Project’ 2020 report, the pandemic has increased the number of hyperlocal partnerships in communities. The team’s assertions were supported by over 80 conversations they had across the UK: people are coming together to help each other using methods that focus on technology, art, wellbeing, place making, and digital empowerment. 

For nearly five years, I’ve developed and executed award-winning campaigns for business improvement districts (BIDs), businesses and councils to help empower communities to reimagine their high streets. As our dependence on digital technology has increased, so has the digital chasm that exists between citizens with councils and businesses. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this issue – as well as the demise of the traditional independent shop that hasn’t modernised – widening the digital divide for those who have not grasped technology to deliver services, but also for those who receive them. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was engaged by a council on a digital and place making ‘safe shopping’ high street initiative. As this evolved into a more public health-focused campaign as lockdowns occurred, I realised that something was missing in the national conversation around high street rejuvenation. 

Throughout the pandemic, I was also working on SME digital transformation projects: developing e-commerce websites and integrated branding campaigns, sharing AI tech for good services with BIDs, and helping a non-profit pivot to an all-online offering. 

The pandemic had dictated that we all had to pivot quickly in order to survive. I wanted to understand how my customers were evolving – or being left behind – in order to do my job better. How were councils and BIDs communicating? There are excellent toolkits on LGA, but what about live in the moment digital posts across industry, the kind that happens when you’re an operator? 

My team and I conducted research on BIDs, councils, non-profits, artists, businesses, museums, tech, and corporations. We looked across industries and sectors and found that there are disparate echo chambers where groups had created networks on their channels of their choice (depending on their demographic, profession or their industry, and this also varies across Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook). 

In my separate conversations with tourism operators, BID managers, town centre managers, small businesses and employees, these groups didn’t seem joined up and operated in silos. They face common issues and challenges. They are working toward a common goal of high street revitalisation. We discovered they didn’t have one place to access the same inspiration, award opportunities, resources, or networks. Shouldn’t they have one place to collaborate, innovate and share information?

We’ve created a free community platform (DigiKind) and social media channels where any of these groups can join our community, promote and share best practices, across all of our channels, for free. For example, a BID manager from Bristol or a charity from Bath can share their approach to frictionless transaction or touchless donation technology with a town manager in Swansea. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to inspire the Leeds BID with an art lighting installation from the Southbank or with a Scottish photographer’s beautiful imagery? Or enable a town centre manager in Hull to connect and implement clever ideas from a brilliant Lewes independent shop (with credit, of course). How about Southwark LBC sharing its use of AI tech for good for sustainability consultations with a BID in Brighton who wants to use it for a wellness campaign? The community sparks community and everyone wins. 

We’re encouraging councils to think like businesses by taking into consideration the entire customer journey and building digital ecosystems that serve their community.

Not all of our audience is at the same level of digital capability or modernisation, and we understand that this takes time to cultivate. As we curate and create content, we are also inspiring and educating – how can we use digital to not only to stay safe and stay home, but to help our businesses survive and transform their business models? Our approach is to help the high street recover from COVID by creating a sustainable community and for free, creating a network, by promoting businesses who pivot, sharing best practices, discovering new business models and innovation, and creating a safe, shared space where our audience can connect.

Our audience groups may be dynamic, but their goals are exactly the same. 

Kathy Kyle Bonomini is co-founder of DigiKind and Amplia Group