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Why We Need #plantech


Guest post from our series on Property Futures, by Stefan Webb at Future Cities Catapult.

Why we need #plantech

Planning and planners are often the focus of ire from politicians, developers and communities. The task of mediating space and making place is one that involves many interested parties, all of who are equally passionate in their belief of what should (or should not) happen. What is not equal is the tools and information that those parties, including the planners, have at their disposal.

The method by which cities develop, design and communicate how they intend for the city to change has remained essentially the same for the past 70 years. Since Abercrombie’s London Plan of 1944 the process of gathering evidence about the city, how it has changed, how it is today and how it could change in the future, remains paper (or pdf) based. There have been similarly glacial changes in how the resulting plan is consulted on and communicated to stakeholders and citizens. The only process that remains as stubbornly analogue is the one by which planning applications are submitted and communicated.  

A recent report by McKinsey evaluated the extent to which different industries are digitised and their productivity. Unsurprisingly the construction industry is close to the bottom of the table on both accounts. Whilst developments in BIM may raise this, productivity will be limited unless the accompanying planning process can help in realising construction quicker.

In the same way that robotics offers the opportunity to remove the ‘dirty, dangerous and demeaning’ jobs in construction, data science, data visualisation and digital transformation in planning offers the same potential for planners, with the added bonus radically improving the speed and transparency of the process for all.

Future Cities Catapult has been working with the Greater Manchester Infrastructure Advisory Group to explore how investment by Government in the Open Data Infrastructure map could be leveraged to support the evidence base for the first Greater Manchester Spatial Framework but also collaboration and coordination between different stakeholders. We began by conducting user research with a variety of city planners, infrastructure providers and developers.  

As soon as you begin to scratch the surface of what information and tools these professionals use, how they currently communicate and collaborate and how they make decisions, it’s clear how much the sector requires digital transformation. Just thinking about the information in the Open Data Infrastructure Map, we generated a long list of over 30 use cases. We prioritised three of these and have developed a working prototype for one, a tool that fuses utility capacity data and planning pipeline data, to forecast likely future demands on infrastructure networks.

This short piece of work has opened our eyes to the scope and value of potential innovations within the plan making and planning application field that could reduce risk, increase certainty and critically increase the speed of these processes. By thinking of the city plan as a digital spatial platform, there is the opportunity to deliver a radically more efficient and transparent process, which would deliver both better market information but also stronger democracy.


Future Cities Catapult

Company Bio: Future Cities Catapult @futurecitiescat

The Future Cities Catapult accelerates urban ideas to market, to grow the economy and make cities better. Bringing together businesses, universities and city leaders solve the problems that cities face.

Personal Bio: Stefan Webb @stef_w

Stefan Webb is Head of Projects at the Future Cities Catapult.  He has a background in planning, public policy and politics, previously working at the Greater London Authority.


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