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Digital technology & the Planning White Paper

Jen Manuel, Newcastle University

In this blog I’ll be reflecting on my research in the light of the Planning for the Future White Paper. Sitting alongside this is a podcast I recorded for UrbanUnplanned, the Global Urban Research Unit’s series at Newcastle University.

The first thing I would like to say is: I am a huge advocate for the use of technology in the planning system. There’s a lot that needs to change about our system and one of those things is the need to modernise the way we ‘do’ planning. Technology can help with this and it can do a lot of good. But, there should always be a note of caution – technology does not simply fix our problems.

My PhD looks at neighbourhood planning and the process citizens go through to make a plan, thinking about how this could change for the better and support more areas around the country to get involved. Within this, one of the main aims of my research has been to consider how civic technology could also be used to support neighbourhood planning groups (and the wider planning system). As a qualified planner working with neighbourhood plans since they first started back in 2011, I work across planning and human-computer interaction (a discipline within computing) to explore this and try to bring together the two fields of research.

Planning for the Future: What does it say about tech?

The White Paper is very clear – it proposes the use of open data and technology throughout to achieve an efficient, consistent and inclusive planning system. It talks about:

· data to create a reliable national picture

· data for property developers and the Property Technology sector

· data for informed decisions to develop land

· real-time information and quality virtual simulation

· simplicity and inclusivity for all

· data not documents

· faster decision-making

· the need for national data standards

· examples of open data as being planning decisions and developer contributions

· co-creation platforms for neighbourhood planning

· digital tools to offer support and improve accessibility for neighbourhood planning

So, it says a lot! What does this really mean?

The short answer is…we don’t know. Just like many other features of the White Paper, the detail is thin and purposefully so since this is a consultation.

But, there is a long answer too – if we explore some of the claims and think critically about what it could mean, we can begin to form our own understanding and opinions about the approach.

I’ll explore below some of the issues, and finish by thinking a little bit about designing technology.

Data Not Documents

Our planning system currently relies too heavily on the hundreds of pages of PDF policy and evidence documents that are simply not inclusive. A move to data not documents seems positive, but it makes a lot of assumptions.

It is assumed that data is ‘good’ and that more and bigger data is ‘good’. However, data is always political – how it is collected, analysed, interpreted and the ends to which it is used are all decisions made by people/governments from a particular standpoint. Data isn’t always ‘good’ and it certainly doesn’t provide us with the ‘truth’ – it can tell many different stories depending on what you want to say.

In my research, I worked with a community that wanted to do a neighbourhood plan – the data showed their area as deprived. This data was used to show why this area should never embark on a plan when, in fact, those statistics do not show the reality of the strong community, the rich culture and the amazing work already going on.

Data doesn’t give you the answer.

Availability or Accessibility?

Open data means data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone with only the requirement to attribute the data to its source. So how will our planning system enable anyone to be able to access and use this open data?

The White Paper does mention accessibility but does not provide any detail about what this means. Simply publishing lots of data does not make it truly ‘open’, it just makes this data available and provides access to those that already have the skills and tools to access and use it. In my research, neighbourhood planning groups already get access to lots of data and evidence and, in the majority of cases, are unable to fully access, understand, interpret and use it by themselves.

To be able to access and meaningfully use open data, we need technology that can help everyone – and that means everyone!

Radically Easier Engagement?

The White Paper states that they want to make it “radically easier to raise views”. Yes, we need that. We want more engagement and inclusivity in planning – we want to hear from everyone, not just the usual suspects. The White Paper proposes new visual, interactive map-based tools, engagement tools, and efficiency tools – yes, yes, and yes to all.

Thinking about neighbourhood planning specifically, the White Paper talks of digital tools to offer support, co-creation platforms and data standards to help groups access data. Again, yes to all of this. My PhD literally evidences the need for all of these things.

My question: how will these tools be designed, who will design them and will they involve communities in the design?

Designing and Configuring Technology

When we design technology or think about open data, we have to think about how these things come about. Just like I said with data, technology is political – the decisions made when designing technology are influenced by the people, institutions and governments involved. Whether they mean to or not, it is easy for designers to create technology with bias and flaws without even realising it – there are so many examples out there!

Throughout the White Paper there is often references to developers and PropTech. For example, when speaking of open data the White Paper states: “unlocks the data needed by property developers and the emerging Property Technology (PropTech) sector”. The narrative of the White Paper still points to the market-driven approach to planning – it’s all about growth right? If we’re designing new tools and technologies for any of this, then we need to make sure the values we embed in them will support the inclusivity the White Paper claims and doesn’t just support developers and PropTech.

We also need to make sure that we don’t start from scratch in designing technology. There is an enormous amount of practical research already out there which has created, tested and refined technology for open data and civic engagement. One example is the work of Open Lab and researchers there doing place-based tech projects – of which I am one. There’s the Civic Tech Field Guide, a wealth of research in planning and research in human-computer interaction and that’s just in academia!

We also need to involve people in designing technology. MHCLG has a digital team that works on the design of technology – but we need more engagement. It’s not just about engaging local authorities, developers and professionals, we need to engage communities. If we’re designing technology for everyone and we want tools to support civic engagement, then let's involve people to design the most appropriate and useful technology.

Final Thoughts

You can probably guess that I have more I could say. Technology in planning is something I’m deeply passionate about and I really believe we need more of it. But, I want technology in the right way – created by and with citizens, inclusive for everyone, and ensuring we don’t just create tools that engage the already involved.

My PhD research has shown the need for more creative participation methods, the need for improved neighbourhood planning processes to support citizens, civic engagement tools also to support citizens, and the need for true co-design to make sure that what we design is useful and is used. My work, though, has also shown the failure of technology and what happens if we don’t involve people in the design of tools – it just doesn’t work.

If you’d like to know more…

You can listen to the podcast here.

My website has links to other talks I’ve given about this topic and more info about my PhD.


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