Public sector should lead on ‘Plantech’

Thursday 20 July 2017

London is blessed with tech companies coming up with innovative ways of trying to bring planning out of the dark ages and into a digital future. But the public sector must step up to formalise a single response for the benefit of planners and the wider public alike.

That was the key view to emerge from a wide-ranging conference yesterday arranged to investigate responses to the planning system’s dismal showing in the rankings of those industries embracing smart technology.

Currently planning is languishing at the foot of the table with construction, and only the combined sector of agriculture and hunting is below it, said Euan Mills, from the Future Cities Catapult set up to bridge the gap between technology and built environment. Mills said his organisation was looking at how we can change how we plan, with so much data going through planning departments that we don’t collect – could we start considering things like mobile phone data? Social media? Sensor technology? Or how about using real time visualisations or experimenting with augmented reality to visualize what projects might look like before they are built? ‘We’re not very far from the point in time where every building that goes through consultation you can see on your mobile’, said Mills.

The conference looked at technologies where mapping and data was used to provide better modelling in the City of London, for example, where information on wind, building heights, public realm and noise could be layered into a 3D model to aid development. Or there was Streetscore, which again used a series of 11 variables to come up with an evaluation for streets. AECOM director of landscape architecture Eric Hallquist showed an approach to city-making in Istanbul and beyond, but suggested that we need to transfer ownership of tools back to the planning authority. Transport for London’s visualisation specialist Paul Harwood, meanwhile, demonstrated the ways in which the organisation is looking at 3D modelling, VR and mixed reality to enhance the ‘inherently long-winded planning process’, but also suggested that to achieve a smart city we ‘need to work together towards a common goal’.

Francine Bennett, CEO & co-founder of Mastadon said that she was convinced that demand forecasting is an essential component of planning the right city, with her firm’s work including a look at the demands of special educational needs at a time when local authorities face distinct pressure on budgets. Perhaps, said Yeonhwa Lee, director of operations at Urban Intelligence, the work her company does in collecting and digitising planning policy might help in creating a future where planners will watch screens in the way stockbrokers watch the market. Or maybe car sharing is the smart idea that has the power to change the city’s relationship with the car, and improve its air quality said Zipcar UK general manager Jonathan Hampson. ‘Car ownership in the city we believe is a broken model’, he said. ‘We have to change our relationship with the car’.

RWDI senior consultant and prinicipal Ender Ozkan said his firm’s work with the City of London on comfort modelling had allowed a 3D model of the City on which it could simulate climate conditions and even the ‘huddled penguin’ effect, where clustered towers often show windier conditions at their periphery, but calm spaces in their midst. Pedestrian modelling and wind guidelines – even as it relates to local cycling conditions, can also be plotted, and the work can be scaled fairly easily to other boroughs and the cost shared, with the City keen to share its knowledge. But where does the developer come into the funding of such technology, he asked. Should they be contributing? City of London policy and performance director Paul Beckett said the modelling had helped with the cumulative effect of tall buildings, but had been forced to ‘cough up’ the resources to fund it rather than wait ‘forever’ for the GLA to move on the issue. ‘It’s still a work in progress’, he said. ‘But it is already paying dividends.’

Ramboll project director Ann Gordon showed the audience a tool to help with massing scenarios generated by computers fed with the site constraints, and which can make savings by suggesting which solutions might be appropriate for modularisation and limited use of cranes.

But Euan Mills put his finger on the main issue when he said that although there was an undercurrent of interesting experiments in the area, it all felt very fragmented. ‘This is where the public sector has to step up’, he said. ‘We have to treat data and these digital tools as we do our physical infrastructure. And the ownership of that is going to be critical. It’s going to be the big companies that are going to step up, but imagine a world where its Google owns all our planning data and built environment. That’s probably not a good idea in the long-term. And the only way forward is for public authorities to start stepping up and taking data and digital tools a lot more seriously.’

David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 

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