The Tomorrow People: Planners & Technology

This blog post scratches at the future of planning, which is a ridiculous topic in some ways. After all, whether the political priority of the day is to predict and provide, or to intervene and influence, the whole of planning is about the future (albeit learned from the past, and carried out in the inevitable fog of the present). Isn’t that why it is so fascinating?
Do we really know what lies ahead, however robust the OAN, however detailed the TEMPro modelling, however in-depth the OBR forecasting?
Politically, economically, technologically, the future comes at us fast – the outliers are always here already if only we notice them. 
Focusing on technology in the last month:
We have seen massive IT resilience issues in the light of the Google Docs malware attack, particularly affecting public services reliant on older software, and in the light of the BA global systems failure.
We have seen the partnership announced between Moda Living and Uber to provide up to £100 monthly Uber credits to Moda tenants, who would forego a parking space.

We have also seen Google’s revised plans for its Kings Cross development, and indeed its Toronto plans also announced last month. Bloomberg’s Toronto piece is worth setting out in its entirety:

“Sidewalk Labs LLC, the urban innovation unit of Page’s Alphabet Inc., has applied to develop a 12-acre strip in downtown Toronto, responding to a recent city agency request for proposals, according to two people familiar with the plans. Details of the proposal are private, but these people said the bid fits with the company’s ambition to create a connected, high-tech city or district from scratch.

Last year, the company began talking openly about building a theoretical urban zone “from the internet up,” with some of the same tools and principles that have fueled success at many tech companies. Before applying in Toronto, Sidewalk Labs discussed creating a district in Denver and Detroit with Alphabet executives, according to the people. They asked not to be identified discussing private plans.

In a speech last week at the Smart Cities NYC conference, Sidewalk Labs Chief Executive Officer Dan Doctoroff said the firm is exploring development of a “large-scale district.” 

“I’m sure many of you are thinking this is a crazy idea,” Doctoroff said, according to news website StateScoop. “We don’t think it’s crazy at all. People thought it was crazy when Google decided to connect all the world’s information. People thought it was crazy to think about the concept of a self-driving car.”

A representative for Sidewalk Labs confirmed Doctoroff’s speech but declined to comment further. Doctoroff was CEO of Bloomberg LP and worked as deputy mayor of New York City when Bloomberg founder Michael Bloomberg was mayor. 

Canadian officials set up Waterfront Toronto, a public corporation designed to revitalize a 2,000-acre downtown plot, in 2001. Earlier this year, the agency requested proposals for part of that area: a new “community” called Quayside to be developed with a private “innovation and funding partner.” Quayside would be “a testbed for emerging technologies, materials and processes that will address these challenges and advance solutions that can be replicated in cities worldwide,” the city wrote in its invitation. 

Andrew Hilton, a spokesman for Waterfront Toronto, declined to comment on the applicants for Quayside or its funding structure. The agency plans to identify its development partner by June at the earliest, according to its proposal document.

Formed two years ago, Sidewalk Labs was among the first independent units of Google before it turned into the Alphabet holding company. So far, the most visible project is LinkNYC, a network of ad-supported Wi-Fi kiosks in New York City run by Intersection, a Sidewalk Labs investment.

But the vision extends well beyond corner kiosks and other “smart city” efforts that typically involve selling software and infrastructure to local agencies facing budget pressures. Doctoroff has spoken often about how technology like autonomous transit, high-speed internet, embedded sensors and ride-sharing services could transform urban life. He’s also hinted at tech’s ability to overhaul zoning rules and control housing costs, a particular interest of Alphabet’s Page. 

Technology-focused companies such as Google, Amazon, Tesla, Apple and Facebook (not to mention Bloomberg itself) are massive influences for all of us in the planning world, directly through their increasing space and employment requirements (with their HQs being medieval fortress cities of ancillary uses) but also through the scale of their pioneering ambition. 

Self-driving cars, drone deliveries, blockchain, smart cities – to what extent does our planning system even attempt to plan for, or at least not make more difficult to achieve, an internet-of-things future that is more connected, more without boundaries than we can quite imagine? When I started work in the 1980s I never imagined an email, let alone a smartphone, or an online purchase. And nor did any plan of the time. 
There’s this passage in the Conservatives’ manifesto:
“Digital technology will also transform the management of our national infrastructure. We are leading the world in preparing for autonomous vehicles and will press ahead with our plans to use digital technology to improve our railways, so that our roads and tracks can carry more people, faster, more safely and more efficiently. Smart grids will make the most efficient use of our electricity infrastructure and electric vehicles, and we will use technology to manage our airspace better to reduce noise pollution and improve capacity. We will step up our programme of support for businesses developing these new technologies, creating a better environment for them to be tested in the UK.”
Whatever the election outcome (which you in the future reading this after next Thursday will know – please tell), this is all obviously right. But how do we do it, and do it right? If the Conservatives return to office, rapid progress needs to be made in response to their Building Our Industrial Strategy green paper  from January 2017. 
We also need to examine whether our planning system is fit for the future. I have previously blogged as to how in my view the C classes of the Use Classes Order do not reflect modern ways of living. I don’t believe that the B classes of the Order reflect modern ways of working. 
Another passage in that manifesto caught my eye:
“Digital land 

And we will use digital technology to release massive value from our land that currently is simply not realised, introducing greater specialisation in the property development industry and far greater transparency for buyers. To make this happen, we will combine the relevant parts of HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office Agency, the Hydrographic Office and Geological Survey to create a comprehensive geospatial data body within government, the largest repository of open land data in the world. This new body will set the standards to digitise the planning process and help create the most comprehensive digital map of Britain to date. In doing so, it will support a vibrant and innovative digital economy, ranging from innovative tools to help people and developers build to virtual mapping of Britain for use in video games and virtual reality.

Clearly that didn’t come from nowhere and googling led me to the really interesting wealth of material being created by the government-funded Future Cities Catapult on the Future of Planning. Their website has a series of blog posts, as well as a couple of papers with plenty of examples (with web links) of where emerging technologies are being used to improve planning processes:
 – Future of Planning: State of the Art Innovations in Digital Planning 
 – User Research Insights Report: Prototyping the Future of Planning 
For example:
– The GLA’s infrastructure mapping  
– Chicago’s State of Place walkability index

– Adelaide’s 3D city model  

stickyworld, being used by Canterbury City Council and the London Borough of Wandsworth

City Swipe being used in Santa Monica to learn citizens’ preferences and concerns about the city’s urban core. 

– and what about smelly maps

My personal experience is that local authorities’ online systems are now largely excellent, with most using similar indexing and searching systems. If you know what you’re looking for and have sufficient broadband capacity, the systems work.
The Planning Inspectorate needs to catch up in terms of online availability of appeal documents – its NSIPs unit is by comparison a paragon of excellence, driven largely by the modern, prescriptive, inclusionary, processes of the Planning Act 2008. 
Of course there are bearpits to be avoided with online availability of information, for instance, careful attention is needed to prevent the publication of sensitive personal data, as Basildon Council discovered to its cost last month with a £150,000 fine from the Information Commissioner
We also need to be thinking about how the planning system needs to adjust to a world of online campaigns and representations. In my 2014 Oxford joint planning law conference paper Heroes And Villains – Challenge And Protest In Planning: What’s A Developer To Do?, I put it like this:

“Via social media, we can readily show our frustrations and organise ourselves, quickly establishing a strong presence, strength in numbers and political influence, sharing data and knowledge.. Whilst there will always be a role for the old-fashioned demonstration with placards, has the traditional planning system yet caught up with the consequence of thousands of objections able to be generated on-line by use of SurveyMonkey and equivalent free software? How much detail does the objector need to provide for his or her objection to be registered and dealt with individually, and to what extent is the sheer quantity of objections received to a particular proposal a material planning (as opposed to a political) consideration? How are decision-makers and developers alike to cope with the occasional personalisation of campaigns? Some will recall the effigy of Secretary of State, Nicholas Ridley, that was burned by objectors following his announcement, that he was minded to grant planning permission for Consortium Developments’ proposed development of 4,800 homes at Foxley Wood in Hampshire in 1986 (subsequently overturned by his successor, Chris Patten). It is so much easier these days for objectors to turn up the heat on individuals via Twitter and Facebook from the comfort of their smartphone, often under a pseudonym. ”

Three years on, this is even more so. 

Away directly from planning, more widely in the industry, building information management (BIM) systems have already transformed construction and project management but only occasionally stray into earlier planning stages. 
Modelling has also reaped enormous benefits in the visualisation of development proposals as well as the modelling of the effects of development on daylighting, assisting for example with the excellent and challenging research document Guiding Light: Unlocking London’s Residential Density prepared by Gordon Ingram Associates in association with London First – partly using game engine software. 
When it comes to planning law, in my view we are way off the pace in terms of the technological applications that would make answers more accessible for the public and make professional planning lawyers’ work quicker (ie cheaper) and more accurate. For example:
– wouldn’t it be good to be able to carry out a thematic search within an authority’s website of all decisions in relation to a specific policy?
– why should Compass effectively have a monopoly in relation to thematic searches of planning appeal decisions?

– Why is http://www.gov.uk such a mess as a resource and a backward step on the old departmental sites?

– why is due diligence on planning aspects of real estate transactions such a regular reinvention of the wheel without the standardisation that the City of London Law Society has for instance applied to certificates of title?

– why has the Law Society still not updated since 2010 (2010! Pre-CIL even) its model section 106 agreement

– why is there no reliable way of checking with the High Court whether judicial review proceedings have been lodged?

– for on line access to court transcripts, why are we reliant on the fantastic BAILII, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute , a charity reliant on donations  ?

Don’t we all need greater processing power?
This was already feeling current as a topic and then I noticed that PlanTech Week is happening from the 12 to 16 June. You never know what’s around the corner. 
Simon Ricketts 3.6.17
Personal views, et cetera 

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