Future Cities Catapult Stefan And Euan
From left to right: Euan Mills, urban futures team lead, and Stefan Webb, head of digitising planning and standards

Future Cities Catapult | Masterplanning to come under microscope

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Stefan Webb + Euan Mills

One major area ripe for innovation is the planning system — we’ve been thinking about the potential for a more data-driven and digitally enabled planning system for over two years.

Our Future of Planning programme was initially a hard sell, with planners, developers and government unsure of the scale, feasibility and desirability of digital transformation in planning. However, 2018 has been the year that plantech has really taken off and there is even more to look forward to in 2019.

We saw both central and local government grasp the nettle with renewed vigour. After working with us on a design sprint into the future of the planning application service in early 2018, the London Borough of Hackney was awarded funds by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government to develop an Alpha version of the user experience prototype we developed together.

FCC Invisionapp

The prototype developed by the London Borough of Hackney and Future Cities Catapult. Click to expand

The digital component of the MHCLG Planning Delivery Fund not only supported Hackney but a range of other new plantech products and services, including Milton Keynes using AI to validate planning applications, Gateshead Council working with us to de-risk the planning process for smaller developers, and the London Borough of Southwark and Open Systems Lab improving and automating householder applications, building on work we supported in our first Plantech Open Call.

FCC PlanX

PlanX is a digital planning guide. Applicants say where they are, what they’d like to do, and the software fetches relevant information for them and checks their statements against policies and guides. Click to expand

So, what do we know is coming for plantech in 2019? As part of the review of its planning system in 2017, the Scottish Government set up a digital planning task group, which has been guiding the development of a digital planning strategy due to be launched in early 2019. MHCLG’s Local Digital Fund is supporting other plantech projects including Southwark’s work on a Discovery Project into the back-office planning systems and the Greater London Authority’s exploration of ways to improve and automate the London Development Database.

Much of this activity is focused on fixing the plumbing. But most of the real benefits will come from what we do once that is done — and this is what we’ll be focusing on in 2019 Expect to see more and better information about viability and developer contributions in the open, with MHCLG working hard on this.

We’d also expect that the masterplanning process will come under the digital transformation microscope as the rules, customs and practice of masterplanning become more transparent and automated. Might we have a computer generating the massing scenarios for a masterplan, rather than architects’ sketches?

If 2018 has focused on the core of the planning system — the planning application service — 2019 is likely to see more plantech activity in areas such as the process before application, as well as planning conditions and design quality. To truly transform the way development is managed, there will need to be better human and digital connections with the plan-making process, so expect to see early versions of all-digital spatial plans and new tools to support policy writing.

Finally, might we start to see the major planning consultancies, offering software-as-a-service-type solutions instead of providing developers and local planning authorities with ‘single use’ analysis and data trapped in PDFs? We know they can technically do it and we also know they would lose profit margin, but someone surely has to grab the first mover advantage.

Whatever the future holds, we’ll be doing our best to continue to bring people together and create a strong community of innovators. We will build on the momentum of the last two years and provide a space to share knowledge, online and face-to-face — and how about a plantech unconference next summer?

Future Cities Catapult is an innovation agency dedicated to improving urban living and helping businesses create and sell technologies that will shape the future of cities. Stefan Webb is the head of digitising planning and standards. Euan Mills is the urban futures team lead.

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