Digital disruption to de-risk planning

Interview: Stefan Webb, head of projects at the Future Cities Catapult, talks about the need for new digital tools in the planning and urban development process – and looks forward to public asset consolidation

Digital disruption has torn up the rule book for some areas of business, with operations such as Uber and Airbnb causing headaches not just for taxi firms and travel agents but the regulators. The newcomers created a “regulatory arbitrage” by refusing to play by rules they argued did not apply to them because of the way they harnessed technology.

Stefan WebbStefan Webb believes something similar could happen to city planning, but could be prevented by government developing new digital capabilities for anyone involved in the process. That’s why the Future Cities Catapult (FCC) is making a sustained effort on the digitalisation of planning.

It is taking up most of Webb’s time in his role of head of projects at FCC, the smart cities organisation funded by national innovation agency Innovate UK. He says that government got off to a good start in digitalising the planning space in the early 2000s, notably with the launch of the Planning Portal, but that it is now in danger of being caught out.

“If a tech company comes into the planning development space it would follow the rules it wants to and create a new reality,” he says. In response: “We want to create the space for others to feel safe to experiment, and did it by experimenting ourselves.”

PlanTech projects

FCC has been involved in a series of projects around planning, showcased in its current PlanTech exhibition and reflecting its role in developing ideas that could have widespread use in smart cities.

“We can try to develop solutions that meet all their (planning authorities) needs when at the moment none of them are incentivised to do so,” Webb says.

“There is a lot of good academic research in this area, but not applied. There’s good stuff from industry, but too expensive or too focused on developers rather than planning authorities. This is a common theme throughout our work.

“Another is that local authorities’ planning departments have had their budgets cut and don’t have the type of people in-house that we have. We’re here to de-risk and improve the demand for that kind of thing.

“We also want to change some of the narrative around planning being broken. It gets blamed for the housing crisis, poor urban design and citizens resisting development, and we think part of the challenge is in the tools used.”

Practitioner challenges

It prompted FCC to commission research among planning practitioners – taking in local authorities, large building companies, architects and SMEs – that came back with four key challenges. One is that so much of the data available is in PDF format, costly to produce, frequently updated and hard to take up for further use.

Second is that planning is a long winded process in which many of the details can go out of date well before approval is granted. There is a need for a more iterative approach with digital layers that can be amended in response to changes in policy and the site for which an application is being made.

Third is that the application process is ponderous with a heavy reliance on PDFs; and fourth that there is a need for a much better form of citizen engagement than the traditional planning notice.

FCC has been working with a range of partners on projects to deal with elements of these challenges.

One of the earliest was the development of an open data infrastructure map. It originally emerged from work with the Greater Manchester Infrastructure Advisory Group – a collection of utilities providers and city planners – that engaged FCC to develop a prototype tool showing the location of assets such as substations, pylons, waste water treatment works, transmission towers and with the ability to combine with extra layers of data such as heritage assets and property prices.

While it proved popular with the group, and is now available on the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s website, it ran into a “money blocker” for developing the capabilities further.

Belfast support

FCC then took the concept to Belfast City Council for it to work with real utilities and planning data, with the authority funding the latest element of the software development. Webb said the city’s planning department and smart cities team are now gearing up to use it, and that FCC is looking at what other elements it could add.

“What they like the most is having all the sites in their development pipeline for the next 15 years plotted on the map, with all the capacity data for today and what it could be like for the future, and on a site-by-site basis,” he says. “It also enables them to view the constraints that might apply, like buildings and archaeological sites.

“They’re now starting to use it and we’ll support it over the next year. We’re eager to find another city to work with to do some validation and modelling. Then we will take it to market.”

He says one of the big issues on which it could provide data is around social infrastructure such as green sites and the capacity of schools and GPs.

Other projects have followed and several are now under development. They include a prototype Land Information Portal, which draws together different data sources, urban modelling techniques and user workflows to support decision-making the development of policies. It could be used by public sector planners and private sector developers, giving them a clearer view of choices and trade-offs in the process.

It can also provide a platform for others to build digital products and services for planning.

Toolz for visualisation

Live Plans is a 3D virtual environment developed with French company Toolz with input from the City of London Corporation, and taking in geographical information systems, 3D and building information models. It makes it possible to visualise development scenarios, make adjustments to plans and analyse impacts in real time.

Urban planning specialist Space Syntax has been working with FCC on the Tombolo project, with input from Milton Keynes, Leeds and Greenwich Councils. It deals with the data needed for quick and robust analysis of different challenges in a city, on issues that are not so obvious but which can be relevant, such as obesity. The aim is to provide a holistic picture of complex urban issues.

Efforts are also being made to support householders. The PLANx prototype, developed with Southwark Council, translates planning guidelines into a parametric tool that enables people to model the changes they want to make to their homes and verify if they require planning permission. This is aimed at improving transparency and saving councils the time spent on dealing with applications that do not fit the rules.

FCC is now developing a ‘to market’ strategy for some of the innovations, although details are still being decided.

While planning has been occupying most of the Webb’s efforts, FCC has also been involved in a significant project with Belfast City Council, as part of Innovate UK’s Small Business Research Initiative, to encourage small companies to develop software to identify businesses not paying their rates. A shortlists of six SMEs has now been reduced to two with a second round of funding for development.

Door knocking

“It’s about how you could use data to identify businesses not paying their business rates,” he says. “It saves knocking on doors and saves the council money.

“Currently a lot of activity in local authorities around this is a bit random, so this is about using analytics to ensure you knock on the right doors and target resources more effectively.”

Webb has also been looking forward to new areas for FCC, in particular the issue of public asset consolidation.

He points to the Cabinet Office Government Property Unit having taken ownership of central government properties and given organisations some resource to pull together the data on their assets. This is creating a challenge in terms of finding and consolidating the data, and making it available in a way that gives officials plenty of flexibility in how they use it. Spreadsheets do not provide many options.

“We want to work with others to get multi-variant analysis, how you can give lots of different options around what you consolidate, how you ensure you are not consolidating something very important to a particular group,” he says.

“We’re also thinking about how to future proof some of this consolidation, looking at which services are likely to become digital in the future, and how this will impact on the services that need to be delivered from buildings. You need to have that in mind for consolidation. You need a view on a five-year horizon and the shape of service delivery.

“The last element is around how the public sector re-provides buildings and how it can do so in a way that gives it more insight into the building’s performance. A couple of local authorities are looking at how they could test scenarios like including sensors in the buildings. There are opportunities there.”

Third party advantage

Again, this is where the FCC aims to work on projects for which most other organisations lack the expertise and are relevant to a mixture of agencies. It can act as the third party that takes all their needs into account in implementing a project.

How much it can do in the future will be influenced by the results of the ongoing five-year grant review, the result of which should become public in September. Webb is optimistic about the prospects and, when asked about the catapult’s return on investment, says it has a strong case.

“Yes, there should be an RoI, but it’s also about us being a position to enable a culture shift and to challenge the market to do better. That is valuable and helping cities be the intelligent client. If we help one big city procure one thing really well it can have a trickle down effect.”