Let’s get digital, digital – how the planning sector is taking baby steps towards a digitised dream destination

Let’s get digital, digital

I wanna get digital                                                                
Let’s get into digital
Let me hear your data talk, your data talk
Let me hear your data talk

Olivia Newton-John doing Lets get Physical but with my head on it!

It’s been a year of involvement in digital projects here at PAS and 2022 looks to be much more of the same with many of the more widely supported planning reform proposals for a digital revolution of the planning system having begun already. But what is actually meant by the word ‘Digitalisation’?? well to be frank it’s a non-word and is trying to capture various strands of change and innovation in the sector.  Some strands are related to modernising ways of working with increased transparency and some strands are about better use of data, new tools and automating processes. Within the wider planning world there is some criticism that the speed of change is coming too fast and that planners will all be replaced by AI robots. So, should we fear this digitisation steam-train coming down the track? Absolutely not, but we should be prepared to guide the digital agenda towards improvements in how we work for the better rather than change for the sake of change. Don’t get me wrong there are plenty of areas where improved data will be welcomed with open arms.

Before we take the initial step: right now, we do monitoring badly

The current state of affairs is we can even answer some basic questions such as ‘Do you decisions or policies work?’. Take, for example, the monitoring of housing; many planning teams still rely on counting net additions only once a year and using the yard stick of ‘is there a net curtain in the window’! For many other policies and decisions, we aren’t able to monitor the right indicators to know whether the plans we make are successful – we don’t even know what we don’t know. This is even more true for emerging issues, how on earth are we going to capture data on carbon impacts, water usage, health/wellbeing improvements????

Where is it all heading?: we need to keep our eyes on the destination

Everyone and by that, I mean everyone involved in the planning sector e.g. LPA officers, digital specialist, DLUHC need to start with the end goal of digitisation in mind. The journey to a digitised planning system is going to be a long one and there is a danger we will take our eyes off the end goal and simply look down at our feet, concentrating on the next step ahead and before we know it we have veered off the path & into the deep dark woods.

So, what is the end goal? what is the utopian dream of a digitised planning system? Well, if we look to other industries who have gone through their digital revolution such as retail, we start to get a few clues. For a start when tech is good it is invisible, you don’t even realise that AI and software platforms are involved everything just happens seamlessly and is integrated with other parts of your life, such as receiving a text that your order has been dispatched. Smart homes are another example of where the tools and technology are seamless at just making life easy.  Planning is definitely at the start of that journey towards an integrated and seamless utopia. We are starting to work on the small jigsaw puzzle pieces needed to make those initial first steps.

Over the last 18months I have had the privilege of having insight into a number of the digital projects and sprints being undertaken as part of exploring the possibilities for planning reform. Each of these bits of work have focussed on a particular part of the system or a process an LPA undertakes, for example some projects have looked at automating validation of planning applications, using A.I. to read and filter Local Plan reps, using GIS to create a fully geospatial local plan and creating data standards for how LPAs produce data on sites. What struct me during those projects was there is a clear need, while we create all these individual pieces of the jigsaw, to keep the one eye on that digitisation journey. Planning is not isolated from the rest of world and is not an abstract ‘thing’ in its own right – Planning is about the world so we need to make sure any progress we are making is all integrated. We must not lose sight of that.

While we’re on the road: don’t lose the planning magic

The more I learn about potential digital solutions or tech tools the more I realise these ‘bits of kit’ really are starting with the fundamentals of codes, formulas, data schemes, rules and shapes. But this isn’t where the ‘planning’ magic happens though! the most interesting bit of planning is the placemaking – that wibbly wobbly moulding of spaces and places that we actually got into the planning profession for. Data and rules-based assessment can help but there are some elements of place making and planning judgement that digitising the system will be unable to replace. The dream and the reality of what ‘digitisation’ of planning can achieve might be very different.

Each step should make life easier:  let’s not keep doing bad planning faster

So, with all these cautions, should we resist the coming tide of digitisation??? Well, I don’t think we can and, in any event, this is pushing at an open door. Most LPA planners I’ve spoken to in the last 18months say digitisation was the part of the ‘Planning for the Future’ proposals they were actually excited about. This is an area of planning reform which definitely has support across the public & private sector divide. Digitising the system will happen but only if makes the way we work easier, simpler and quite frankly more fun. When digital tools add burdens to workloads or don’t add tangible benefit, they tend not to be successful. A classic example is the brownfield register process, whilst it might be a shining example of collecting consistent information using set data standards in reality it hasn’t achieved its original aim of realising brownfield sites to the SME development market and many LPAs view it as yet another data collection they need to undertake with very little point. We need to ‘show the world’ through this journey to digitisation the extra value of placemaking and answer the question ‘what does the better use of data buy?’. The creation of tools to use, automating processes and creating digital versions of what once was a paper document is all well and good; but making things digital for sake of just being digital is not going to be good, it will just digital but bad.

Tools and tech to help processes such as assessing SHLAA sites or monitoring housing completions become easier and automated is great and I can see many time saving efficiencies. But tools are only as good as how we use them; let’s not keep doing bad planning but faster.

Who is up for the journey?: capacity building in planners

Whenever I hear industry commentators speak about the role digitisation in planning reform the issue of resources and skills in councils gets raised. There seems to be a lack of faith that a new digital way of working will be within the capacity of local authority planners. I respectfully disagree; there are plenty of amazing planners working in councils who have the digital/GIS skills and the ability to implement digitisation and would happily adopt new tools and tech into their work. The problem is they aren’t current given the headspace to innovate or the time to drive digital transformation. Digitisation simply isn’t in the core business of churning the apps and making a plan – the hamster wheel of a planning department! Most of the private sector involved in the digitisation of planning have extensive research and development programmes with new solutions being tried and tested, yet councils who have any time or resources for planning R&D are few and far between. This seems ridiculous as most of the solutions and innovations being created will have LPA planners are the ultimate primary user. Don’t get me wrong user research involving LPA planners is happening and is, of course, worthwhile. But what we gave LPAs themselves the creative headspace to come up with digital solutions that were actually tailored to the problems.

Over the next 5-10yrs the world, and how planning operates within that world, will be very different. A digitised planning system and using smarter data will have become a core part of how we make places. However, at this point in time, right now – LPAs are so busy doing the day job, it leaves the question where does the innovation come from?

Thanks to my friend Mary for the lovely photoshopped image of me as Olivia Newton-John having listened to me go on about digitisation all year @maryindevon (Mary Elkington – Figura Planning)