Like spring flowers covered in snow it is barely perceptible, but the despair over the future of our derelict high streets is gradually being replaced by action.

The notion of revitalising town and city centres by bringing people back to live there has been gathering pace but is much easier said than done.

Most shops open straight onto pavements and no-one wants passers-by gazing critically into their front room as if it were a furniture showroom. Nevertheless, the potential solution recognises that empty shops and lack of housing are twin symptoms of old infrastructure no longer fitting our changing ways of life. The local butcher and baker lost out to the supermarkets decades ago and the covered shopping mall has sounded the death knell of all but the most successful department stores. The internet not only takes that a step further with online shopping but marks the beginning of a shift to more people working from home. That now requires a reappraisal not just of public space but of office space.

Developing derelict office buildings rather than shops as apartments presents fewer planning difficulties and has the benefit of bringing a significant influx of new residents to boost the economy of the neighbourhood. While the recession has reduced the overall demand for commercial space, new or expanding firms are only interested in premises with up-to-date specification for 21st century technology. That leaves older office blocks as white elephants, with the cost of upkeep a burden to their owners that will become heavier when rates relief for vacant buildings is reduced next month. Turning them into housing, however, requires capital that is difficult to access when the property market has stalled.

The maxim that one person's problem is another's opportunity has been applied by the Edinburgh-based private equity firm, Consensus Capital, to a number of redundant buildings across Scotland. Work will start next month to redevelop a former office in the centre of Perth into 18 flats for a housing association.

Andrew Montague, the managing director of Consensus Capital's property arm, sees this as the first in a series of similar projects to provide a mix of social housing and open-market accommodation for housing associations.

Community-based housing associations have a strong record of transforming run-down and derelict areas. Where they have been the only provider of housing, their potential has been limited by a narrow social mix. That problem is overcome in town and city centres which not only have a more diverse population but also attract workers and shoppers. That should be the situation for other developments Consensus has in the pipeline, such as 48 new flats next to the Hibernian football ground in Edinburgh and the redevelopment of a school and an office building in Glasgow.

Mr Montague believes that developments offering a variety of accommodation to a mix of tenants will be necessary to meet the needs of a generation of younger adults which cannot find the increased deposits required to buy houses. They will want longer leases than the six months usual in the private sector and registered social landlords will want long-term tenants. When the homes on offer are in easy reach of amenities and transport hubs it looks like a winning solution.

It is also likely to bring at least the smaller local versions of the major supermarkets to the suffering high streets, but they will not be sufficient to counter the depressive effect of the empty stores which are all that remain of names that were a by-word for the goods they sold, from HMV to Woolworths.

There is no simple answer. Planners talk of leisure and entertainment replacing shopping as the main activity. In artists' impressions of new streetscapes this is translated as cafes with outdoor tables and spaces for performance artists but with no indication of what is supposed to happen in the winter months.

Grass-roots energy is being harnessed for the fightback in a former shoe shop in the centre of Stirling, which has become a laboratory to develop embryonic businesses. Despite being a centre for tourism, having a university on the doorstep and a good social mix, Stirling has its fair share of empty premises.

One of those is now home to Made in Stirling, which sells products, arts and crafts which do what it says on the shop front. These include vintage suitcases transformed into portable speakers for smart phones by Euan Meikle, who hopes to expand the idea into a booming business as a result of advice and help he has received from Stirling City Lab. This innovative project by the council and city centre management team provides a hub where anyone with a business idea can access information, use office space, meet other people setting up businesses and talk through their ideas.

Sarah Frood of icecream architecture which manages the project for the council, says the lab acts as a catalyst by enabling people to discuss ideas at the “pre-pipeline stage”.

It organises events open to the 40 people who have become participants at the City Lab, the most recent of which enabled them to pitch their ideas to final year business and marketing students at Stirling University. Kirsty Mitchell, a music teacher who has developed software to develop children’s creativity, relished the feedback this provided. More generally, she said Stirling City Lab has created “a really good buzz” in King Street.

Euan Meikle believes such initiatives have the potential, provided landlords can offer low rents, to turn a depressed area into one with a positive atmosphere. There are encouraging signs that he will be proved right, possibly when Nick Morris establishes his bicycle cafe, combining cycle repairs with soup and cake. That sounds like an idea with year-round potential. All it needs is customers living in a converted office block.