Digitising the planning system

Daniel Mohamed, founder and managing director of Urban Intelligence, believes a digitised planning system is vital for the setting and adoption of global standards for urban development


Quito in Ecuador will this month host Habitat III, the United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development. Following the 1996 Habitat Agenda of Istanbul, a New Urban Agenda will be adopted setting global standards for sustainable urban development for the next 20 years.

Reflecting the opportunities and challenges presented by rapid urbanisation and digitisation, two core themes of this New Urban Agenda are the promotion of cross-border collaboration through integrated planning systems and the advancement of technology-driven sustainable development. As heads of state and government resolve to adopt these initiatives, it is worth pondering how they are relevant to the UK planning system and property sector.

To cut to the chase, the current planning system in the UK is neither integrated nor technology-driven. Property developers – all built environment professionals, in fact – will be familiar with its sorry state; every stage of the development process, from finding a site to construction, requires jumping through hoops resulting from disaggregated information and antiquated practices.

Let’s look at finding a suitable development site, for example. A developer may be keen to know what the planning policies are for its area of interest, but getting to the bottom of them involves spending much time on a council website searching through swathes of information contained in PDF documents, most of which will turn out to be irrelevant. If the developer is lucky, the local authority may provide an interactive policy map, but it will abruptly end at the boundaries of the local authority area, making any cross-boundary efforts cumbersome even on an inter-local-authority level.

The problem reaches far beyond inconveniences for professionals. Key pieces of information, such as infrastructure capacity or environmental risks, that can not only make or break a scheme but also potentially engender costly and long-lasting detrimental consequences, can be missed without specialist consultants’ traditional and laborious research efforts. For how much development requires a concerted endeavour, the necessary data and tools are neither integrated nor technology-driven at the moment. 

But what if there was another way? What if you could zoom in on a site on an interactive map and find everything that was relevant to development, from planning history to future policy, from school requirements to local bus stop locations? Imagine a fully digital planning system in which all relevant information is available in real-time, right then and there on a single platform.

Thankfully, this future is very near. Start-ups such as Land Insight and ourselves, Urban Intelligence, are transforming the planning system by digitising it piece by piece. Land Insight is mapping land ownership and planning history data to help developers find land, while Urban Intelligence is mapping planning policy data to help developers assess and design what they can do with it.

Such efforts by SMEs are met with complementary initiatives in the public sector, such as the GrowthMapper project spearheaded by the Future Cities Catapult, which is mapping infrastructure capacity to aid cities’ planning and investment decisions.

While focused on developing their respective innovations, these entities and many more have been sharing ideas, working in close collaboration, and exploring potential interoperability – preparing for a revolutionary ecosystem of a digitised planning system. 

Planning and development involve long-term foresight and must tackle complex questions, such as: Where should we be investing in infrastructure? Where are the most sustainable places to build new homes? Which areas are manifesting decline such that we must plan for managed shrinkage or regeneration? With planning data and information fully digitised, we will have the ability to ask the entire system these questions and be quickly and accurately returned answers, without needing to trawl through myriad individual datasets and PDF reports.

Having such a holistic systemic view will give developers, built environment professionals, and government the ability to work across boundaries and clearly see where and how growth should be focused for maximum returns. Furthermore, digital systems will provide us with the facility to update models in real time with the latest data and information available without having to rerun entire appraisals. Development decisions will be made using the best available evidence, as opposed to outdated policies.

Reflecting on this future that is on the cusp of realisation, the New Urban Agenda to be adopted in Quito could not be more timely and relevant. An integrated and technology-driven digitised planning system will play a key role in guiding the urbanisation of decades to come, and, as we see it, London surely is at the forefront of this movement.

Interact with Mohamed on Twitter using  @danmohamed or @urbanintelUK

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