What does 5G mean for place marketing, placemaking and place branding?

5G has been in the pipeline since as early as 2008. While most of the world was still waiting in anticipation for the arrival of 4G on their devices, phone companies and standards organisations across the world were gearing up to tackle the next challenge in internet connectivity. Today, 5G is nearly in our grasp and 2020 will see the first roll out of commercially viable 5G in consumer devices.

For many though, 5G is a nebulous concept. Most of the world seems enthused by its arrival, but what will it mean for cities? For businesses? Will 5G herald the next wave of digital transformation or will we just be living in a faster version of our current society?

What does 5G actually mean?

Hands in the air, I’m borrowing heavily from Deloitte’s report for the detail on 5G. There’s an awful lot of technicality around how 5G differs from 4G, and the mechanisms by which we’ll be able to achieve the speeds that 5G makes possible. In layman’s terms, there are three key differences: speed, low latency and bandwidth.

Speed is the easiest to explain. With 5G, users will be able to download an entire HD movie under 10 seconds. For comparison? That would take 10 minutes on 4G – if you have a solid connection.

Low latency is how long a data packet takes to travel from one point to another in a data network. 5G networks will be capable of transporting a data packet in a millisecond. This is critical in terms of moving to real-time feedback decision making.

And lastly, 5G opens up the number of bandwidth ‘lanes’ that we’re able to operate on. 4G has been running off a comparatively small range of frequencies for a number of years now, and as more devices connect to the internet, that space is getting more crowded. By being able to access new spectrum, 5G is able to spread out the burden, ensuring that devices won’t lag or drop connection.

Collectively, these will provide a reliable, fast era of connectivity which opens the door to data processing on an unimaginable scale.


What can 5G do?

The short answer is nearly anything you can think of. Nicola Palmer, Senior VP for Technology and Product Development at telecommunications giant, Verizon, suggested that “When you think about 5G, you should think, ‘Well, what doesn’t really work on 4G?’”

The Internet of Things. AR. VR. Autonomous vehicles. A lot of impractical concepts floating around at the moment suddenly become a lot more achievable. With the increased speed, the ideal of a truly smart city also moves within our reach.

Lag time on a device is an inconvenience. But a delay of a few seconds could be a matter of life and death in a city relying on intelligent traffic monitoring for example. So far though, this has all been hypothetical. What’s actually being achieved now? And what does it mean for place branding organisations?

Place marketing: Investing in smart tourism

There are a wealth of opportunities for the tourism sector to develop its offering through 5G. According to a TripAdvisor study, 45% of users used their smartphone throughout their holiday to plan the details of their itinerary. And honestly, that number seems far too low.

With smartphones already a constant companion during our holidays, new mobile technology is the logical next step.

The British government has launched a programme of 5G testbed facilities and trials designed to boost the UK’s digital infrastructure. 5G Smart Tourism is one of the six programmes to receive funding, with the West of England investing heavily in using AR, VR and 4K 360° content to improve the tourist experience.

The Roman Baths in Bath, UK, recently completed their first public trial of an AR app which allows visitors to see the Baths in their original glory. The historical reconstruction was a huge success, with over 80% of visitors saying they’d be more likely to visit a museum if it offered these kinds of experiences.

Elsewhere in the UK, Nottingham has plans to reimagine Sherwood Forest as the world’s first 5G ‘Connected forest’. As well as bringing Robin Hood to life with AR and VR technology, the project is also working to improve forest management and health through 5G methods. The increased reliability of 5G will enable drones and robots to monitor the forest, while smart accommodation is being trialled to improve energy-efficiency.

As a global society, we’ve been conditioned to rely on our phones for information. The tourism industry has had to re-evaluate its interaction with potential tourists drastically over the last few years, and the change will only be driven faster by the advent of 5G. In 2016, the City of Helsingborg closed their tourist offices in order to meet their visitors in the digital spaces they were already inhabiting. Since we’re already connected to our phones, there’s a huge potential for tourism to leverage this technology.


Placemaking: Creating the cities of the future

Smart city technology is where we really start to hit science fiction-made-reality. The amount of data that can be collected, processed and translated into actionable insights with 5G is phenomenal. 5G relies on more touch points to deliver coverage over a set area than would be needed with a standard mobile tower - the side effect of this is that it will be possible to collect data with greater accuracy than ever before.

The evolution of the Internet of Things will make a truly connected city a reality. And street lighting will be key to this. Already spread throughout towns and cities around the world, public lighting is one of the most reliable powered grids in a destination, enabling an IoT platform that could support a number of urban solutions.

In Copenhagen, 20,000 LED street lamps have improved energy efficiency by roughly 65% by increasing the lighting if movement is detected and dimming them when they’re not needed. Barcelona’s smart LED lamp posts have a similar motion detection system, but not only are they more energy efficient, they also provide free Wi-Fi across the city and collect data on air and noise pollution.

Streetlights are also supporting intelligent parking systems. Take Germany: it takes a driver an average extra 4.5km to find a parking spot in German cities. Berlin is installing a series of sensors on streetlamps which will transmit data to a control centre. This information is then processed into visual data that drivers can access through an app. Across the world, similar solutions are being implemented to huge effect. Not only is the experience improved for the user, it makes significant steps towards decreasing the carbon emissions of each journey.

Speaking of decreasing carbon footprints, between 1970 to 2000, the number of people using buses decreased from over 70% to under 30% as car usage rose significantly. In Seoul, South Korea, the Smart Mobility Reform in 2003 jumped bus and subway users back up to nearly 70% of all travellers. Traffic data from across the city is communicated to passengers through bus stop information panels and apps. Disruptions can be managed immediately with a direct line between individual bus drivers and the control centre. Even the number of buses on a route can be adjusted in response to usage patterns on that day.

A system of relay data points across a city allows for much more precise city management. As you can see, a number of cities are already leading the way in urban solutions, but 5G will open the door to what is possible – particularly in terms of data management. We’re entering the era of smart-everything, from lighting, traffic control and public transit to citizen engagement and waste management.


What challenges does 5G present?

It’s not all sunshine and roses. 5G has huge potential to revolutionise our world, but we have to be able to realise it first.  Current predictions suggest that 5G technology rollout will have hit $2.7 trillion by 2020 and $1 trillion of that will be on investment in the necessary infrastructure.

Even before we get off the starting blocks then, there’s a massive global investment that needs to be considered, and given the cost, it’s not certain that 5G will be accessible outside of cities. Not only that, nearly half of UK phone users report struggle to get a 4G connection, making 5G a questionable investment in the eyes of some.

Then there’s the big question around data privacy. The possibilities that 5G opens up are largely reliant on the vast amount of data that can be collected. As with any new technology, for all the opportunities it offers, it’s also a new window for hackers to take advantage of. While the 5G technology itself has largely been considered as a significant improvement on 4G, the number of IoT devices connected to it could be considerably more at risk.

Hackers aside, advertising could step over the increasingly blurry line between well targeted and “creepy” and “intrusive” according to Simon McDougall, the executive director for technology policy and innovation at the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office. 5G would provide accurate footfall movements through constant communication between personal devices and the relay network, but marketing ethics will need updating to account for the new possibilities. 


Collaboration: the most challenging opportunity for a 5G place brand strategy

The last great challenge will be collaboration between departments and organisations. It’s also the greatest opportunity for growth. Collaboration is a mantra we return to at City Nation Place, and it’s going to be key to landing 5G successfully.

Government and private sector are coming together to create the infrastructure already, but place branding organisations have a huge potential to step in as the medium between organisations. Many of the IoT systems I’ve already outlined rely on inter-government departments working together; the department for public lighting is suddenly integral to Transit and Health. And using 5G to ease the way for citizens and tourists also involves pooling several data sources into one system.

Helsinki, the 2019 European Capital of Smart Tourism, has built a reputation for digital ease and transparency with good reason. For some years now, the city has been launching apps designed to simplify life for their users by connecting several providers through an independent third-party app. Chinese tourists are encouraged to explore the city through a WeChat mini-programme, with the ability to peruse restaurants, shopping, events and transport mode through a single app. Or the Helsinki's Whim app, which allows users to plan and pay for trips across public transport, bikeshares, taxis and carshares. There’s even a subscription programme for regular travellers.

5G offers a veritable treasure trove of opportunities. Sure, there will be teething problems and unexpected pinch points. But for places looking to transform themselves into a digital-first destination, collaboration will be key to paving the way to an easier, more connected future for businesses, citizens and tourists.


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The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.