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Blog - How tech companies are coming for your Planning Department

Euan Mills, Urban Design and Planning Lead, discusses how the combination of rapid urbanisation and technological innovation in cities means our age-old ways of planning need an urgent upgrade.

That technology is changing how we live in cities, is now as much of a cliche as re-hashed statistics about the proportion of the world’s population that live in urban areas. But the urgency around the need to plan for these changes cannot be underestimated.

Urban areas around the globe are growing at twice the pace of their populations. As London’s greenbelt contains its sprawl, it grows by nearly 300 people per day depending on what population projections we look at, and whilst we can’t predict the future, it’s likely to continue for the next couple of decades.

Meanwhile we’re experiencing radical shifts in the way we use cities, driven by technological advancements. Changes in the provision of space from an ownership model to ‘space as a service’ can be seen in businesses such as We:Work, The Collective and Near Hear. Infrastructure is more responsive to changes in demand, as shown by the proliferation of energy smart meters and new forms of delivery and transport. How we experience place is altered by digital filters and augmented reality with the emergence of services like Google Lens and Snapchat, and our cities are now searchable, having been indexed by large corporations such as Google and Foursquare.

Our current plan-led approach, where we spend years producing evidence, consulting and debating our plans, means that by the time Local Plans are adopted they are out of date. If all goes according to schedule, the current Mayor of London will have his London Plan published in Autumn 2019, less than one year before his term in office comes to an end in 2020. In other words, he’ll have spent the majority of his time as Mayor implementing his predecessors plan.

The unresponsiveness of the planning system is partly because of the quasi-judicial nature to UK town planning. Plans are written to stand up to scrutiny at Examinations in Public or Planning Appeals, where policies and their justifications are scrutinised for their every word. But as a result we are constantly playing catch-up to a rapidly changing world, where culture, politics and technology change faster than the speed at which we plan. Work on ‘reviews’ and ‘alterations’ of Local Plans are often underway as soon as Plans are adopted. In some cases we can spin SPG’s to bypass the lengthy timescales of formal Plans, but mostly we respond to these changes informally in Development Management, where heavily politicised decisions on development are made with little regard to the adopted policies.

Whilst Development Management is where the most impactful decisions happen today, it not only needs to navigate these out-dated policies, but also suffers from a legacy of slow and analogue processes, inconsistent decisions and little, if any, learning.

A typical London Planning authority spends over seven hours processing a Minor Planning Application. These tend to be applications for household extensions, advertising, boundary treatments and other relatively simple proposals that often simply require box-ticking checks, yet, only about half of these are approved. If a Local Authority receives 800 applications a year, over 200 days will be spent on applications that are not approved. This drain on resources prevents planners from keeping their plans up to date or ensuring their decisions are robust. Some Local Authorities are already looking at how they can automate aspects of this; for example Southwark Council, in partnership with Wikihouse and Future Cities Catapult, have been working on how automated screening of household extensions could cut the number of returned applications by over half. But many are reticent of adopting new technology to help them.

The decision making process around major applications is also a relic of a bygone era. Reams of information setting out the impact of every proposed development is received with each application. Written by a plethora of consultants at huge expense, this information is mostly filed away unused, undermining any opportunity for cross-referencing applications, learning from previous decisions, or benefiting from the opportunities that aggregating this data could present. At Future Cities Catapult we have been looking at the potential benefits of Planning Authorities collating data from viability assessments. This would allow the creation of a viability tool, which would learn over time and be overlaid with housing capacity figures from SHLAA’s to try and benchmark site values.

Fundamental to all this is how planning authorities treat data. The data going through their system needs to be digitised and made machine readable, so it can be aggregated and easily retrieved by planners, developers and the public alike. Everything – from the data in evidence base reports, to planning policies, to planning applications and plan monitoring. And then we can start aggregating other sources of data, from social media, telecoms to smart meter usage, all contributing to a more robust understanding of the places we plan for.

Large technology companies are already doing this. Google, with over one hundred million indexed places, has more data about our local high streets than our planning departments hold. They’ve created Sidewalks Lab to look into how they can help solve urban problems, and have even embarked in creating a neighbourhood from “the internet up” in Toronto. Others such as Facebook, are building affordable housing for its employees, CityMapper are providing buses in London and IBM, Siemens and Cisco continue to hard sell their ‘smart cities’ proprietary data platforms wherever they can.

Having large private technology companies trying to solve urban problems can be a good thing. However, for our planning departments not to become subservient to commercial interests, we must re-establish our position as experts in the built environment. To do this we need to urgently digitise the data we already have, automating the processes we can, and start making use of some of the seven petabytes of data London produces every day.

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