Data driving smart planning for cities

Monday 24 September 2018

Advances in digital can help reduce the ‘silo’ nature of the built environment sector and make the planning process more open and accessible for members of the public.

Those were just two of the points to emerge in a wide-ranging discussion on The Power of data: London’s smart futureheld at NLA last week.

The GLA’s Dr Stephen Lorimer, its Smart London Policy and Delivery Officer, said that its new strategy ‘Smarter London Together’ could help transform London into being the ‘smartest city in the world.’ It aims to help the city create vehicles that collaborate better in a less ad hoc way and in a more ‘collaborative and responsive’ environment, with ‘smart’ embedded in statutory frameworks and plans. ‘We’re really on the verge of a more dynamic understanding of how people use cities’, said Webb, focusing less on ‘gadgets and gizmos’ and more on service design and data analytics.

As part of three months of research here, in the US and Europe, Lorimer said that London needs to think of itself as not just one but many smart cities and that it should be bolder, trying things even if they don’t succeed at first. The organisation is aiming to ‘tick off’ some of the actions it set out in the report on items like achieving planning powers to acquire full fibre, perhaps through supplementary planning guidance, looking to new data sharing agreements and increasing the way data on air quality in London is collected and used.

Future Cities Catapult head of projects Stefan Webb gave a whirlwind tour of his organisation’s work on digitising the planning system, undertaking experiments to move towards greater coherence and standardisation of policy. The planning application process, said Webb citing a developer, is currently like a series of black curtains which open up to reveal more behind, with no knowledge of when they will end. ‘We need to redesign and rethink how we guide people through legislation and regulation’, he said. ‘And that’s a big challenge. If we want to have more small builders building more then we need to make the planning application process a bit easier; otherwise they are very reliant on consultants.’ 

The Catapult’s work includes looking at speeding up local plans, and how to guide people through legislation and regulations, thereby cutting down on unnecessary time spent by planners – Hackney has been awarded £200,000 from the MHCLG to build a real model of providing guidance and how it interfaces with policy. It is also working with Wikihouse on achieving greater clarity over what permitted development rights are, building a front-end so users can easily see whether their application is compliant or in need of a discussion. There is work underway, too, on monitoring and communicating, and on augmented reality views of planning applications (where more and more investment from Apple and Google is heading) and on planning notices in a bid to get citizens to engage more and, importantly, to understand the impact of developments. ‘We need to show members of the public the debates that planners are having in the background’, he said. ‘How do we bring that to the foreground?’

A panel discussion included Arup’s senior consultant Ina Dimireva on innovation and design at both the city and building scale and the possibilities from 5g and Ordnance Survey Smart Cities Programme Manager Simon Navin on geospatial as the ‘unique foundation’ to allow us to consume data. Questions from the floor included one concern, given the recent transport failures across London and the north and issues on waste cycling, how we are going to be able to work on city design. Webb said there was a ‘schism’ between land use planning and transport, but that in placemaking, digital can help in terms of more collaboration between what were individual siloes. But the digital divide in planning is the inverse of anywhere else, he said, with ‘digital people’ unable to get good access into the service. ‘The opportunity should be if we move to a more digital system that we can think more about the outcomes and what has been delivered. In lots of areas we should be moving to more outcome-based measures and at least “marking the homework” of those that produce these impact assessments to make them better and improve the underlying models’, he said.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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