High streets receive £8m tech fund to aid shoppers

SCIENTISTS and inventors are being drafted in to help save Britain’s high streets after universities minister David Willetts yesterday unveiled £8 million of fresh funding to develop technology to attract shoppers back to town centres.

Boarded-up shops on Wishaw High Street. Picture: Robert Perry
Boarded-up shops on Wishaw High Street. Picture: Robert Perry

Ideas being bandied about to revive flagging town centres include sharing real-time parking information via the internet and developing closer “clicks and bricks” links to give online retailers physical store fronts.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB), the UK government agency that funds research and development work, is making £2m available for feasibility studies and a further £6m for full-scale projects.

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TSB chief executive Iain Gray, pictured below, said: “There is real appetite among business and consumers to come up with new ways to regenerate our high streets. This competition is aimed at encouraging businesses of all sizes to come up with innovations that address key challenges, such as ways we can combine both physical and virtual shopping or develop real-time parking information.”

Town centre vacancy rates in the UK have doubled between 2011 and 2013, and shoppers now spend more than 50 per cent of cash away from the high street, the TSB said. Over the same two-year period, online sales have rocketed by more than 200 per cent or £18.5 billion, the board added.

Willetts said: “Technology plays a vital role in people’s everyday lives and has the ability to influence our movements and shopping habits. By developing innovations to regenerate the retail sector we will be able to breathe new life into the UK’s high streets.

“This competition will encourage exciting new developments that could change the way business is done across our high streets. Giving shoppers and businesses real time information that they can use to their advantage will make a real difference in helping to boost the UK economy.”

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, told The Scotsman: “We welcome the help that has been extended to retailers recently, including the Scottish Government’s announcement of the end of the large retailer levy, short-term help with business rates and this competition to help local town centres become leaders in digital technology.

“We look forward to the innovative ideas that will result. Combined with a continuing focus on reforming business rates and keeping costs competitive, this could help open new opportunities for many retailers to increase their sales.”

Scottish firms that have previously won TSB funding include ingredients maker Macphie of Glenbervie, which was awarded £500,000 to investigate how it can use soundwaves in cooking. Other firms involved included Aberdeen-based Piezo Composite Transducers, with technical support by Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.