Digital City of the Future: Meeting Wayfinding Challenges
As urban populations around the world swell and reflect the graying of the Boomer generation, how are cities coping with the wayfinding challenges this demographic shift will surely bring? Are they up to the task of keeping up with rapidly advancing technology that is changing both architectural signage and exterior signage, including digital signage, social media, and GPS?
By all accounts, there are some indications that some cities are looking towards the future and have begun to improve creaky (or nonexistent) wayfinding systems. London, for example, has already implemented a comprehensive (and “funky,” according to some bloggers) pedestrian signage network called “Legible London.” The city’s urban planners hope that the signs will encourage more Londoners to walk rather than use overcrowded public transportation, and recent reports indicate that they’ve been able to decrease the number of pedestrians lost by about 65%.
Many, many cities, however, remain well behind in updating their wayfinding plans to address anticipated population changes and growth projections. The Internet has experienced explosive growth partly because of the work of specialists in web wayfinding such as search engine optimization consultants, programmers and developers. Urban planners, however, have yet to fully recognize the power of technology and wayfinding best practices to create cities prepared for a future very different from the present.
- Sustainable technologies. Although “green” is dangerously close to becoming a cliché, few would question the fact that as developing countries progress and the human population grows, natural resources such as petroleum and water will become ever scarcer and pricier. Some would argue that digital signage serves as a sustainable alternative, but unless they’re solar powered and utilize renewable materials, they’re not necessarily any more eco-friendly than peeling billboards. Still, their flexibility, ease of use and dropping prices make them difficult to ignore, particularly for small businesses that recognize their critical role in branding and information dissemination as well as wayfinding.
- A graying population. The first wave of Baby Boomers has entered their retirement years, and their wayfinding needs will be different from those of their younger counterparts. Urban signage has traditionally been poorly designed, poorly placed and poorly written, but the large number of driving, walking and navigating Boomers will likely be demanding better signage, with larger print, more logical decision points, and improved cohesion.
- A more mobile population. Many urban planners – like their London counterparts – are turning their focus on the needs of pedestrians and are designing wayfinding systems geared specifically for them. Unfortunately, many other cities have been slow in recognizing this trend. Dallas, for example, has its share of pedestrian- and bike-friendly interest groups, but the city and its surrounding suburbs have yet to really implement signage that targets them.
- Personal wayfinding solutions. With even cheap smartphones now sporting sophisticated GPS systems that once cost a small fortune, individuals increasingly rely more on their handheld devices to navigate their environment and less on existing wayfinding systems. Of course, we’ve all heard our share of stories of people who lost their way because their GPS units failed them, but their ubiquity is impossible to ignore. How do urban planners and wayfinding consultants take into account the rapid adoption of personal wayfinding systems as they update municipal wayfinding and design?
Urban wayfinding continues to be a work-in-progress, even more so under present economic challenges. As municipal governments and urban planners wrestle with population growth, aging demographics and outdated signage, however, they face extraordinary opportunities to reconfigure and redesign their environments and wayfinding signage to create truly dynamic cities.