| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


Designing Digital Main StreetHow Toronto is partnering with local businesses, technologists and designers to create a digital city on top of the analogue one.

Adrian Kostic, CEO of VIV a dating app that connects people with businesses.

Heads of both the Liberty Village & Queen West BIA discuss ideas at the table.

Laura-Jean Bernhardson, owner of Fresh Collective and colleagues discuss apps for small business.

Digital ideas, analog scribbles and much discussion.

There are no guidelines for building a digital city on top of an analogue one. There are no building codes, blueprints, or overarching standards to reconcile the inherently Internet-woven world with the patchwork of neighbourhoods making up the fabric of Toronto. There are just islands of businesses bundled together in a sea of people in motion, makeshift “main streets” linked but never really connected.

This is the weighty reality that hung over John Kiru’s head as he looked out at a group of entrepreneurs, designers and technologists in the sparsely lit basement of The Drake Hotel.

“I don’t need to tell you business has changed,” said the executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) with a weighty grin, seemingly addressing not just the small assembly but also the 40,000 businesses divvied up amongst the city’s 80 plus BIAs. “Brick and mortar may still be in place but when you walk through the front door, past the walls of shelves you’ll see a curtain and behind that curtain there are people packing deliveries and online orders into the back of a UPS or FedEx truck.”

It was this same weighty reality that spurred Enterprise Toronto – an alliance between the private and public sector set up to help out the small business ecosystem – to put together a group of entrepreneurs, technologists and BIA directors to brainstorm a toolkit to help small businesses thrive in the ever-evolving digital reality.

And West Queen West will be the guinea pig when the toolkit is unveiled next year.

After a day of roundtables and free flow meanderings, the group established the five pillars of a digital main street, and devised tentative strategies for putting them into place.

Digital placemaking

The digital placemaking group zeroed in on how neighbourhoods can show off their idiosyncrasies.

“Strong visuals that demarcate something different about the community,” said Mike LeBlanc, senior vice president of digital retail for the Retail Council of Canada.

Edward Gadjel, a photographer with a space in WQW and a member of the group, pointed towards bright visuals or street art that act as a de facto welcoming sign. Another idea was having signature messages broadcast over transit when passing through an area.

To tie it into digital, the group suggested free Wi-Fi infrastructure that links users to a landing page telling stories of the business owners in that community.

Big data on the human scale

The next group tackled big data – which, though useful, is arduous to distill into something valuable for busy business owners.

Instead, the group suggested BIAs take the lead and establish a platform to track foot traffic and neighbourhood trends.

“How does this all come together? We view this as being a dashboard so when a retailer opens their computer in the morning it lets them know how they’re doing in the context of other businesses in the neighbourhood,” said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of design agency Shikatani Lacroix and a member of the Design Industry Advisory Committee.

The next step would be finding industry partners to help monetize the data collected and give kickbacks to individual businesses for being a part of the wider data-sharing experiment.

Engagement and connectivity

Genuine customer engagement is critical for businesses looking to widen their digital footprint. Often, what this means is encouraging independent feedback and review.

While retailers could benefit from knowing what people are saying about them, the review space is scattered. Small businesses could benefit from having a concise pipeline for reviews and social engagement.

“There isn’t a single store owner that has time to look through all these opportunities and figure it out,” says Adrian Kostic, president of VIV Life Group – a dating app connecting users to local venues and businesses.

One idea that emerged from discussion was for BIAs to step in and vet engagement tools and help with rolling out the ones the business community decides to embrace.

Beyond digital

The fourth element is ensuring not just that businesses are connected online but that they’re connected in the real world too.

“In the toolkit, (the BIA) should say this is what we're about, this is the type of people that come to our community and this is what’s different about us versus other places,” said Cory Rosenfield, co-founder of changeRoom – a platform that blends e-commerce with brick and mortar. “It keeps the message consistent with other retailers.”

The BIA can support through free monthly training sessions to help members build out their digital skillset.

Sustainable Main Street

To tie it all together, a group looked at how sustainability fits into the vision for digital main street.

“We don’t actually have good pedestrian data in the city, we don’t know how many pedestrians walk down Queen Street,” said Jeff Ranson, a consultant with Sustainable Buildings Canada, sharing the groups findings. “Until we understand that we're never going to be able to have a really meaningful conversation about sustainability (in BIAs).”

One tool the group thought might be useful was the Green Button, an initiative set up by Ontario hydro providers that lets users share the details of their consumption with others. Their idea is to collect the data for members in a BIA and compare and contrast.

“Utility providers have money to invest in incentives,” says Ranson adding that if BIA groups self-identified the worst performing businesses they could approach the hydro companies with the big data and tap into that money and support.

The future of the future

The cross-disciplinary approach paid off and as the day was coming to a close, there was a giddy buzz in the room; a sense of possibility at what digital main street will look like. Nirvana Champion, an economic development officer at City of Toronto, felt the session was very productive.

“But it’s not an overnight thing, obviously,” says Champion. “We’re thinking we’ll roll it out at the start of 2016 with TABIA rolling it out later.”

There may not be a blueprint, but at least there’s an idea of where the roads will lead.

Andrew Seale is a freelance writer based in Toronto. 

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts