View Point: Alex Thomas


As the gaps on our high streets grow, it’s time to future-proof them for the growing cohort of tech-enabled and eco-conscious customers by harnessing the potential of digital venues, says Alex Thomas from HKS Architects

There is no doubt we have left retail-only high streets behind. The pandemic and its multiple lockdowns put rocket boosters behind the existing digital boom, and by the end of 2021 a third of all shopping was done online in the UK. Even more telling – by March 2022, 90% of Debenhams stores were still empty almost a year after the former high-street stalwart closed its doors for the last time.

But the high street isn’t dead. These areas can be vibrant, commercially viable places in 10 years’ time, if we seize the opportunity to reconsider the make-up of businesses and services that will best sustain communities and drive value for owners. Alongside F&B, flexible workspace, healthcare and education, technological advancements mean that sport, art and culture can – and should – play an exciting role in this reimagining.

Investors and developers are already waking up to this opportunity and we have experienced a spike in demand for immersive projects – venues that can recreate anything from a community hall, to an art gallery or a stadium using cutting-edge technology. As well as drawing footfall to existing retail businesses and night economies, these digital venues increasingly align with the direction of both consumer and corporate priorities.

Amid all the talk of levelling up, immersive venues can democratise art and culture and take the biggest events and experiences to regional towns and cities. We’ve already seen this trend emerging in London, with immersive shows featuring artists from Van Gogh to Banksy, but that’s just the beginning. New technology means you could watch football like you’re at Wembley, attend an exhibition at the V&A or sit front row at London Fashion Week, all from a previously vacant unit on your local high street – and with a significantly lower price tag.  This potentially creates substantial benefits in terms of boosting engagement in arts and sports and opening them up to people with different backgrounds and experiences.

These new venues are also more sustainable. While some of the biggest music acts in the world (such as Coldplay) claim to be organising more eco-friendly tours, transporting fans to an event has the biggest impact on carbon and energy consumption. That is dramatically reduced if people can attend in their own neighbourhood or home town. Immersive venues – that can recreate the stage and effects of the biggest stadiums in the world in a plug-and-play format – offer a much more sustainable way for people around the world to enjoy entertainment.  Those strong eco-credentials mean they are a future-proofed choice in terms of corporate ESG objectives as well.

As well as repurposing existing building stock and driving footfall to traditional retail businesses, digital venues can act as hubs for future generations and put art, sport and culture back at the heart of communities.

Alex Thomas is design director of the London Venues team at HKS