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Future of Planning: Planning Needs To Experiment

Our Head of Projects, Stefan Webb, blogs about our GrowthPlanner project and the need to experiment in the Planning field.

Experimentation is central to innovation. To update the planning system, planners, developers, architects, citizens and all those who touch the planning system need the space to be able to think of different ways of working. The only way to understand the possible future of planning is to try new ways of planning, to temporarily forget how things are done today and design, prototype and validate experimental approaches.

But this can be difficult. Planning is a quasi-judicial process meaning that any change in how planning is conducted will require, at some point, a change in legislation. Planning cuts across many professions with well-established norms, rules and practices. Critically, planners have a demanding day job with a seemingly unrelenting caseload to manage. Creating the space to experiment is essential.

Part of our ambition with our Future of Planning programme is to create that space to experiment; to allow planners and those involved in the planning system to think how it could be done differently. We think this is important because we have evidence that when you give those involved in the planning system to think about improvements, they have plenty of ideas.


At present, city planners have limited data on infrastructure capacities, and infrastructure developers have limited insight into the likely location and trajectory of development, outside of local plans. This led Future Cities Catapult and the Greater Manchester Infrastructure Advisory Group (a subgroup of their Local Enterprise Partnership) to explore how Greater Manchester’s Open Data Infrastructure Map could be used to support strategic planning.

To understand how the map could be used to support planners, infrastructure providers and developers, we talked to them. By conducting a quick piece of user research, we unearthed nearly 30 ideas or use cases for how we could build on the map. These included using the map as a way for developers to gain a quicker and more accurate understanding of getting the infrastructure they needed for the development; tracking the cumulative impact on the infrastructure of smaller sites, and creating a spatial rating system to understand the capacity and connectivity of infrastructure. Some summary slides can be seen here.

Of the three use cases, it was decided to experiment, or develop a proof of concept, for the one that focused on how to plan growth, which we called GrowthPlanner. All city planners seek to answer the question “where will development not be constrained by electricity, water and transport networks?” And all infrastructure developers need to know “what new development is going to happen, where and when?” By combining data held by public and private infrastructure providers and combining it with data from planners on the development pipeline, GrowthPlanner will highlight where, for example, existing electricity, telecommunications and water networks have sufficient capacity to support future growth.

Two innovations underpin GrowthPlanner. The Infrastructure Rating Methodology, scored on a 1-5 basis and represented by heat maps, enables users to understand how much capacity or connectivity is available to support growth and where network are under pressure. These rating scores are processed over time in response to planned new development, and the user can see how capacity reduces.

The User Interface provides a shared portal through which planners and infrastructure providers can view and share spatial opportunities for future development. The idea of this is to facilitate intelligence sharing and promote more effective collaboration. A digital prototype that uses simulated data can be explored here.

A working prototype using data shared by the infrastructure companies has been developed, and the aim is to develop a fully working web-based tool that will be sufficiently robust to inform Local Plans. The hope is that GrowthPlanner can eventually be developed into a generic commercial product for use in cities across the UK and beyond.

This project highlighted the many opportunities for innovation through the better use of data and digital in the planning process and led to Future Cities Catapult setting up a Future of Planning programme. More details about the programme can be viewed here.

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