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Here comes PlanTech to help transform our cities – but how?

Posted by on August 2nd, 2021 · Data, Uncategorized
City scape and network connection concept, Blue tone.

By Claire Daniel, Jago Dodson, Chris Pettit and Audrey Marsh. Originally published by The Fifth Estate.

Big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and platform technologies are now common terms in our vernacular. But what do they all mean for the complex task of planning sustainable cities? 

We have seen the recent emergence of FinTech, LegalTech and PropTech, in the financial, legal and property sectors. Now PlanTech is emerging as a framework and platform for urban planning. But the planning profession, practice, and policy are starting from far behind these earlier adopter sectors.

While most planning systems now include digital elements, such as online submission of planning applications and documents they have not yet undergone the kinds of transformation that have occurred in financial or even property sectors. What might a transformation of Australian urban planning systems look like?

There are five principal ways that planning is likely to experience digital transformation: systems, decisions, analytics, professional practice, and governance.

Planning systems include the legislative frameworks for strategic planning and their translation into statutory regulatory processes. Most Australian jurisdictions have moved to online submission of planning applications, but this is largely for information management, such as substituting large bundles of traditional hard copy documents for a zip file of PDFs.

So far Australian planning systems are not embracing approaches in which applications are wholly prepared, submitted, organised and processed entirely on networked online platforms. Who designs, owns and governs future digital platforms, in whose interest, will be a major policy question.

Planning decisions remain the preserve of policy officers and elected representatives, plus legal appeal bodies, who apply planning policies and codes in making their assessment.  Yet the rise of algorithmic decision making offers the potential for routine decisions to be made via code.

This shift has compelling economic justification – why waste highly skilled planners time undertaking routine uncontroversial assessments that can be instantly made by an AI?

But PlanTech application beyond the routine also raises important questions about authority, democracy and professional judgement as well as bias and error. How can we avoid a planning equivalent of the robodebt income support payments disaster for example? Or the inscription of racialised discrimination into automated decisions as found in some police AI systems.

Urban analytics is set to boom as planning becomes comprehensively digitised with the vast accessible information flows generated offering a new universe of information and insight. This includes the creation of digital twins so that visualisation and impact assessment of new proposals can be plugged into virtual city models.

Digital platforms also potentially offer real-time comprehensive tracking of built environment development activity, enabling deeper timelier knowledge of urban processes to guide agile decisions. This is a major potential gain from PlanTech.

Fourth, professional practice is likely to be transformed by digitisation. While future planners will be expected to be “digital first” they may see loss of routine tasks like code-based planning assessment. Yet the rapidity and complexity of digital platforms and information flows will necessitate new skills and training around analytics as well as the ethics and governance of decision making. 

Recent research shows that planners themselves are expecting digital transformation of their sector and profession, although many feel unprepared.

Like similar professions outside of the ICT industry, the development of digital technology has traditionally been outsourced. Skills gaps have impeded the profession’s response to increasing expectations around digital service delivery. And planning is public purpose work.  As technology starts to underpin decision making planners must be able explain how the systems work to ensure transparency and legitimacy.

Finally, PlanTech poses key governance questions. PlanTech risks capture by particular interests such as platform monopolists.

Instead it must be managed according to best practice models of transparency, accountability and human oversight. The need to avoid the creation of monopoly private ownership of planning system platforms is particularly important, lest such interests improperly capture digital rents from such market power.

Recognising this need, the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), the overarching professional body for urban planners, has taken leadership role in shaping the digital future of the industry.

Together with planning academics the institute has drafted a jset of principles to guide professional advocacy in the transition to digitised planning systems. These principles aim to ensure appropriate professional development of planners and inform public knowledge of digital planning.

The 10 PIA principles address four key themes

Theme 1 is ensuring that planners have the skills and opportunities to design and adopt new technology, informed by sound ethics oriented to the public good.

Theme 2 is to ensure that digital planning systems are built and governed as public infrastructure that serve the public good and are not captured by monopoly platform providers.

Theme 3 is to encourage digitisation projects to reimagine how planning is communicated and processes made accessible, transparent, accountable and participatory for the community at large.

Theme 4 encourages planning organisations to work together and the establishment of a culture of innovation and sharing across the profession in collaboration with government, the private sector, non-governments and communities.

While we are still at the early stages of imagining a PlanTech transformation, the establishment of these principles represent the start of a coherent response by a traditionally non-technical professional body to the disruptive impacts of digital technology.

These principles will also be of use more broadly as an example for parallel efforts in other professions, or as a high-level checklist to ensure that digitisation efforts in areas of public policy and regulation are developed in the public interest.

They offer a major advance for researchers in disciplines across engineering, architecture, landscape design, urban planning, transport, and wider social and policy sciences, who will potentially have access to a vast trove of real-time information about how our cities are changing and the decisions we’re making about those changes.

Future knowledge of PlanTech might take two paths

The first would be an applied stream, investigating how PlanTech is being adopted and the hurdles and complexities of that shift.

Second, we need critical perspectives on PlanTech transformation to check malign trajectories. As a new domain of practice planning scholars and commentators need to be closely observing transformations and reporting their effects and consequences.

Planning is still haunted by past instances of embracing technocratic positivist black box systems-thinking that imposed harms on communities and the environment.  Planners need to seize the potential of PlanTech to support the public good, while avoiding its risks.

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