Tech’s role in rebooting tourism and culture in London

Rob Iles

25 Jun 2021

An old, wise geezer (Heraclitus) once said the only constant in life is change. If he’d lived through the past year and a half – or however long this pandemic-induced haze has dragged on for – it’s safe to say he’d be dropping that proverbial mic. Or whatever device philosophers once used to belt out Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head (apologies in advance).

Because not only have our lives been subject to a lot of change thanks to a certain submicroscopic infectious agent, it’s been unrelenting. And as the world slowly but surely starts to reopen, change isn’t going away anytime soon. Which is no more evident than right on our doorstep in London, with its bold, forward-looking plans to reinvent itself in line with today’s increasingly digital world.

From the recent launch of the London Tech Manifesto, to Sadiq Khan’s Let’s Do London campaign, our city is in the midst of exciting, sweeping change. And underpinning everything is technology, with London’s creators, innovators and stay-at-home-haters leading the way to a cleaner, more inclusive, culture-rich future for the capital.

In this blog, I’m going to explore some of the technologies that are ushering in this new dawn of tourism and culture.

Say goodbye to laps of your local park and hello to laps of Central London parks

Shortly after being re-elected as Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan took to the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe to announce the launch of Let’s Do London: a huge new multimillion-pound campaign to boost the city’s culture, hospitality and retail economies.

Given the fact that international tourism to London fell by a reported 90% in 2020, the financial fallout from this has been huge. But of course, overseas travel is looking limited, if not unlikely, so the campaign is intended to attract domestic tourists and encourage Londoners to rediscover everything that’s great about our city.

So, where does technology come into this? Well, there’s the stuff you probably know all too well by now, such as the QR codes, booking software and NHS COVID-19 app that enables us to easily book and check-in to venues, and order copious Aperol Spritz. But there’s also the exciting, tech-enabled innovations that are making the city’s culture proposition more attractive, and inclusive.

One such example is the promise of more displays of public art, not hidden away in the lobbies of buildings. Spearheaded back in May by one of Britain’s most celebrated living artists, David Hockney, who unveiled his new video project on London’s iconic The Piccadilly Lights.

The city’s major museums and galleries are also getting in on the act, with their leveraging of augmented reality (AR). Whereby, the National Gallery has teamed up with the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Academy of Arts and other institutions to create the Augmented Gallery: an app-accessible, interactive walking trail of 20 historic and contemporary artworks visible by smartphone.

By downloading the free app (simply search for ‘Art of London AR Gallery’) and scanning QR codes attached to exterior walls along the way, walkers can see and hear details about world-famous paintings like Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, or more contemporary pieces such as Tracey Emin’s Trying to Find You 1.

Ultimately, this summer-long incentive has been launched to display beloved works of art beyond gallery walls in a free and accessible environment for all, using augmented reality to present the public with the art gallery of the future. And it’s not just London where technology is being used to boost leisure and culture, with Cisco’s ongoing work with 5G Wales Unlocked another indicator of AR’s role in the rise of connected, immersive tourism in even the remotest corners of the UK.

Supporting sustainability, two wheels at a time

Beyond technology’s role in giving London’s cultural offering a much-needed boost, it’s also helping the city to effectively hit reset, with the capital’s metaphorical reopening coinciding with the launch of green initiatives.

In the words of Sadiq Khan: “we want to avoid at all costs a car-led recovery.” Instead, the focus is on “more walking, more cycling, more pedestrianisation.” Accordingly, when you’re next galivanting around London – no doubt on an augmented reality tour – you’ll be presented with more ways to get around on two wheels than ever before. With the city’s famous Santander Cycles and Lime e-assist bikes being joined by electric scooters available for rental.

This approach to ‘micro-mobility’ is just one of the steps outlined in the recent London Tech Manifesto, which is committed to making London a global pioneer for purpose-led tech. By way of encouraging businesses and people alike to embrace digital-driven change on the journey to helping London become a world-leading smart city.

Ultimately, London and indeed, the world, is living through a period of exciting albeit uncertain change. And the tourism-stimulating, sustainability-supporting initiatives that are sweeping across the capital are but a few of the ways technology is leading the way to a cleaner, more inclusive future.

That’s not to say the road ahead won’t be without its challenges. But if we trust in the technology and the innovators behind it, our cities of the future know no bounds. And Harvard will be here every step of the way to help brands tell their stories, and shine a light on the great work being done.

So, if Heraclitus’ words are anything to go by, change will always be a feature of our lives. He also said “big results require big ambitions” – which seems fitting of this so-called new world and the need to not only embrace change but seize the opportunities it presents.

But then again, he was also eaten alive by dogs after covering himself in cow dung, so maybe don’t embrace it too hard.