With close to one in three people around the world now using some form of social media, social networking is changing the way we live, work and play.

Smart businesses are recognising that Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, Facebook and Facebook Messenger are not just old forms of communication repackaged, but a brand new source of information and inspiration.

Some of the most interesting examples of how social media is enhancing the built environment are those that provide a new lens through which to look at old problems and craft new solutions.

Got vacancies? #popup

Since the early 2000s, pop-up stores or ‘flash retail’ outlets have become a regular occurrence in cities like New York, London, Sydney and Melbourne. Designer labels and start-ups alike are using this fast-paced form of retail to build their brands, minus the commitment to onerous, long-term leasing agreements.

While pop-ups certainly have the ‘stumble-across’ surprise and delight factor in their favour, their success is largely driven by cheap, word-of-mouth customer referral campaigns on social media. Word spreads quickly on the web and, unlike traditional advertising, the message is far more likely to get through.

In fact, recent consumer behaviour studies by Google, Ogilvy, TNS and BrightLocal indicate that 74 per cent of consumers cite word-of-mouth as a key influencer in their purchasing decisions, and 88 per cent of people trust online reviews written by other shoppers as much as they do recommendations from friends or acquaintances. Throw in the FOMO (fear of missing out) generated by the temporary nature of a pop-up, and it’s easy to see why they have become a winning formula for retailers.

The benefits are obvious for store owners, but pop-up stores represent a unique opportunity for building owners and leasing agents too. They’re a great solution for owners looking to fill vacant tenancies while longer-term renters are found, and by demonstrating that a given space can attract customers, they form a valuable selling point in leasing discussions.

Pop-ups are also a novel tool in the battle to ‘activate’ CBD areas that are largely dominated by commercial office end-uses. Enlivening these precincts with shops and restaurants (even if they are only there for a few weeks) contributes to an enhanced sense of safety and liveability in the area, which in turn boosts the leasability of surrounding buildings.

And of course, the most sustainable shop is one that is already there.

Places for people, by people

Smart firms are also using insights from the social network to inform building design.

When tasked with creating a concept design for a new shopping centre, UK engineering giant BuroHappold conducted a social media review of 10 large malls across Europe. The team analysed more than 50,000 tweets, 150,000 followers, and 4,000 mentions collected over the course of a week to identify what shoppers did and didn’t like about competitors’ centres. This data allowed BuroHappold to identify key consumer drivers and trends, from place-making and identity, to user experiences, brand, design and operation technologies.

Tools for analysing the ‘big data’ generated by social media are getting better every day, and in the future we can expect social media to be a primary source of information for viability studies and design option reviews. The social network will help inform when and where buildings are built, what they will be used for, and how they can be adapted to serve new purposes at the end of their life cycle.

This will lead not only to more commercially successful developments, but more inherently sustainable ones. By responding to the needs and preferences of users, buildings are simply more likely to be used. And with the need to do more with less growing every day, less under-utilised space is always a good thing.

Building better communities one click at a time

Some argue that social media has an atomising effect, but it’s also bringing us closer together than ever before.

Every day, new groups are being formed on LinkedIn that allow professionals to share and debate everything to do with the built environment – from ideas about technical solutions to policy options and planning follies. The salons of the 17th and 18th centuries may be long dead, but the digital salon is alive and well, and social media is its new host.

The social network is also allowing for a democratisation of debate around our built environment. While social media campaigning is sometimes cynically labelled as ‘clicktivism,’ Facebook and Twitter lend ordinary people a strong voice and an immediate channel through which to influence the way cities and communities are built.

As built environment professionals, we build communities. We do it with physics and science, and with precision and accuracy. What’s exciting about social media is that it gives us new opportunities to connect these physical spaces with the cultures that evolve and thrive within them, and to make our buildings and cities a working reflection of the people who are their heart and soul.