#PlanningMarch – “Why the planning system really needs a digital overhaul” by Stefan Webb, Future Cities Catapult
As anyone who has had to engage with any stage of the planning process surely knows all too well, it can be a daunting space to step into and as such only a select few ever truly benefit from it.
The complexity of the language and its archaic processes coupled with all too frequent professional hand-wringing can make the development process even seem deliberately obscured to outsiders. All of which makes this vital process notoriously unloved.
What the planning system really needs is a digital overhaul to help set it up for a future where engagement, clarity of vision and collaboration is fast becoming the norm.
The roots of the system’s opacity are varied. Planning jargon certainly creates barriers which make it difficult for outsiders to understand the process. This is then exacerbated by the fact that gatekeepers of knowledge – developers, consultants, planners, infrastructure agencies, and politicians amongst them – still exchange critical information in this ‘language’, thereby maintaining its exclusivity.
Another factor is how the information is archived. It’s all too often simply filed away on private drives (or, worse still, filing cabinets!).
Much of the time, that’s simply because the value of making this information shareable is usually, and at best, an afterthought. Never is shareability embedded into the documentation from the outset. Information is captured in what are effectively analogue records—at best in proprietary, non-machine readable formats, at worst on paper. It can even on occasion be a conscious decision on the part of the expert.
Either way, this lack of transparency and asymmetry of information is central to the poor functioning of the housing and development market. It means that the barriers to entry are huge even for the largest foreign developers. Skanska and Bouygues, for instance, have taken over a decade to enter the UK housing market.
What hope, then, is there for challengers and disruptors who would encourage competition and boost standards?
Without action, this status quo will continue. Planners, planning, and development, in general, will continue to be made scapegoats for what is an essential function of society. The public is right to complain: cities have a democratic duty to their citizens to enhance their knowledge of how planning works and their involvement in how their cities will look and function in the future.
What cities don’t seem to realise is that increased transparency would positively impact on citizens’ acceptance of new development. Resisting development is the natural reflex if you don’t know or understand what it is, how it came about, or its likely impact – if you feel excluded from it.
The world of data analytics, big data and machine learning seems to have passed by much of the planning system. Yet paradoxically, of all public city services, the planning system possibly spends the most money on generating and retrieving data.
This data, required (usually as a result of regulation and legislation) to provide the evidential grounding for planning applications, master plans and city plans, is held in a vast number of overlapping document management systems which have little or no interoperability, and are inaccessible to both machine and citizenry.
Digital tools and data visualisation though already have a long history of translating complex or opaque ideas and enhancing their legibility and accessibility.
Gov.UK is an excellent example of how clarity of language and clear design can improve citizen engagement with complex government services. Data fusion systems such as those used by CityMapper—a smartphone app that combines freely available public transport data—provide a single window on to an incredibly complex and disjointed pool of public information. And the Metropolitan Police Service’s crime mapping allows citizens to straightforwardly probe data that was once locked away in analogue records.
For cities to achieve similar success with planning data, planners will have to work with user experience experts, service designers, data visualisers and software designers to understand the appropriate level of detail and design for different users of the planning system.
Fortunately, there are already startups which are beginning to show how that can work. Cardiff based Urban Intelligence, for instance, is building a single database and search engine of UK planning policy, enabling planners, developers and citizens with the ability to quickly access the planning policy they want to review. And Land Insight is streamlining the process by which developers search for land by providing planning history, ownership information and sales information in an easy-to-access format.
Critics may argue that opening up the planning system to allow greater insight and access to more users will deprofessionalise the planning profession. But, in truth, software and artificial intelligence will soon take over many of the lower-value activities in planning and surveying – such as data collection and collation – anyway.
Now is the moment at which planners can actively focus on the higher value, creative components of planning and place-making before technology forces them to.
Only unscrupulous developers, politicians and planners have anything to fear from increasing transparency in the planning sector. Everyone else will be able to enjoy a development ecosystem where standards rise because of increased competition and the public understands – and more readily accepts and engages with – development, because they’re aware of how it works.
That is a future that we should be working hard to build together.