Time For A Digital Overhaul Of The Planning System?

Urban planning decides the layout and fabric of our cities. It influences the protection and use of the environment. It shapes how we live our lives.

In many ways the planning system has done a good job: trying to balance competing demands for scarce resources and mediating between economic forces and the views of local communities. And, over the years, it has proved remarkably resilient.

But the system certainly has its flaws – and its critics. Complex language, outdated processes, and professional interests conspire to make the planning process time-consuming, expensive and obscure to outsiders.

Jargon is partly to blame. It helps developers, consultants, planners, infrastructure agencies, and politicians to keep knowledge hidden, or at least privileged, sometimes in order to game the system.

On other occasions, information is simply locked away by those who control it. And much of the time, it’s because planning records are often still on paper, in non-machine readable formats, making them ill-suited to sharing.

Of course, the burying of knowledge isn’t necessarily done on purpose. Planning authorities are bursting at the seams, with boxes full of planning application drawings and supporting documents which are rarely read. Planning officers trawl through drawings measuring the area of flats, or distances between bedrooms; or spend hours deciding on specific sensitive viewpoints that may need assessing to make semi-informed decisions on the impacts of development on a conservation area or listed building.

City administrations still rely on a ‘call for sites’ to estimate the amount of development land available. Developers then scramble over each other offering inflated amounts of money for land and then rely on case officers being over-stretched and poorly informed in order to negotiate affordable housing contributions down to a minimum.

The extent of this problem can be seen by the existence of the online platform ‘Concrete Action’. It allows local authority planners and those working for developers to leak critical and confidential documents, and decodes the planning system for local citizens who want to resist development. It shows what happens when professional gatekeepers and industry players hide their knowledge behind walls: people try to break them down.

The fact that the planning system remains so analogue and un-transparent contributes to the poor functioning of the land and development market, and creates high barriers to entry. This makes it difficult for challengers and disruptors who would encourage competition and boost effectiveness.

So, what we need, is a new way to plan. When we consider how big data, artificial intelligence, and visualisation have transformed the way we process and interpret information, isn’t it time for PlanTech to follow FinTech, GovTech and PropTech?

The potential is huge, and some technologies are already in use. Sensors, for example, are being deployed to collect data on how people are using cities. This means real-time data on the number of homes built and how they’re occupied, the extent to which streets are overcrowded, how often car parking spaces are being used, or the popularity of parks, can all be quantified and measured.

Agent-based modelling technology is giving us the ability to create significantly more complex models taking into account population demographics, land market, transport and social infrastructure and even cultural trends, which can all be modelled simultaneously. And the application of Building Information Modellling (BIM) to understand neighbourhoods and whole cities will only enrich this.

At the same time, virtual, mixed and augmented reality allow us to easily build virtual models of our cities to explore the impacts of development on our skylines or daylight hours, and experience the resulting design of our streets and spaces. This will make it cheaper and easier to consult and optimise before anything is built.

Or course, progressive local authorities are already working on this. Talking to city officials over recent weeks from Hackney, Newcastle and Plymouth I’ve been really impressed by the drive and creativity they are bringing to changing the planning system.

And there are some great SMEs, too, in this space. Commonplace offers an online consultation platform. Land Insight makes it easier to search for land. Space Syntax models the impacts of planning on human behaviour. And Toolz is creating a custom-made 3D interface to allow planning officers to assess development proposals within a live 3D model of the city.

My organisation, Future Cities Catapult, is also investing in innovations for a more transparent, data-driven and digitally-enabled system. And as part of the upcoming London Tech Week, we’re hosting a range of PlanTech events from our Urban Innovation Centre in Clerkenwell, where we’ll be showcasing the best in class and hosting a number of free talks on the subject.

A hundred years after the first Housing and Town Planning Acts, it is surely time to harness 21st Century tools and technologies to create a better planning system?

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