Smart Planning needs Smarter Thinking… and a lot of courage

Reflections of our first experiments in using Smart Technologies at the service of planning

Smart Planning needs Smarter Thinking… and a lot of courage

This post reflects my own, very personal, emotions experimenting on real projects and situations – and the roller coaster that the experience represented. So if you are looking at measurables and results, perhaps a future post will suit you better: this is about resolve and courage, and lessons learned that might be interesting to others.


First, I would like to come clean: not all the initiatives have been a success… but none of the difficulties has shaken my conviction that planning, as we know it, is obsolete!


First and saddest failure – Building Bottom-up Evidence for Planning


Towards the end of last year, we joined forces with Italian Start Up Get COO to develop a platform for a crowd-sourced approach for heritage and character assessment. We applied for innovation funding in the UK and failed: the idea was considered interesting by all in the panel, but the technical and financial details we provided were insufficient and, especially, the concept was judged to be untested – which of course it was, and that was the reason why we applied for innovation funding in the first place.


The concept in itself was quite simple: at present, experts decide if an area has architectural / townscape or historical value. Based on their decision, an area is protected or otherwise. Local communities are typically notified and consulted, but an external professional decides for them. Our approach was reversing the process: individuals (residents, people who work or study, etc.) could nominate directly on a smart phone app places and features that were significant to them and essential to the character and identity of a place. The entry would also include a factfile and description. All this could be ‘harvested’ by the authorities as a Character Assessment statement – but a much richer one than the stale and static usual types. First and foremost, it would describe what people really value – which may not be what external expert consider important... It would also show how many people use or are interested in the place, and how this changes year on year. It would also engage people in constructive participation in planning and create over time a catalogue or guide book of the assets of a locality.


The idea is good, and definitely worth testing. If people like it, the same approach could be used for identifying and rating other local assets notoriously difficult to assess, such as community facilities and services.


Lessons learned


But why did it fail to get funding? First, because planning is not a product or investment opportunity: the app would save money and do things better, but would not generate a financial turnover on which to base investment funding. And second, because the local authorities (who would save money and work better with the communities) have so many statutory requirements that they find it easier to do ‘as always done’, unless there is a ready-made alternative. So investors (including public innovation funds) will not invest in planning, and planners will not invest in innovation.


Therefore, a back-door must be identified – to piggy back on something else and find a way to develop Smart Planning methods just enough to make them real and ready and obvious.


Second setback – and source of reflections


With new planning legislation in 2011, the UK government instituted ‘Neighbourhood Plans’: mini local plans for a neighbourhood or defined area prepared directly by the community, voted locally and adopted as bottom-up statutory planning. The concept is great: people can come together, share views and decide the future of their own area – at least in terms of land and development.


Recently, I was asked to participate and contribute to one of such plans – especially to try some innovative methodologies to source information and bring people together.


The practical reality of Neighbourhood Plan preparation is that procedures and statutory requirements are similar to those of a local plan: evidence base multiple reports, formalised dinosaur assessments, fear of the external examiner’s questioning, professional ‘tests of soundness’, etc. all without the organisational skills, time and structures of a local authority – all shouldered by courageous volunteers, who by now feel Neighbourhood Plans are a giant machine to crack a nut-shell. Worth doing only if the nut is such a source of controversy that it is worth the trouble – and therefore useless for planning as dialogue, more planning as self-defence!


Will community groups be the innovators? Maybe. But only if the overwhelming requirements of the current out-dated planning system does not wear them to the ground! or turn them into rebels or sceptics.


Lessons learned


The dismay and fatigue of the Neighbourhood Plan community group was there for all to see at the last meeting, but so was their determination to achieve something good - actually excellent - for their area. But we had to change tactics: no experimental work with social media and digital technologies. At least not now.


Back to basics: organise the plan as the document that will bring people together, will safeguard what they care about, and will be a conduit for better organised community action. … as well as pave the way for future smarter ways of planning.


Procedures and bureaucracy won the present battle, but hopefully this one community will hold their grounds and figure out ways to win in future. Helping them holding grounds and looking forwards is just as important for now: testing new ways of doing planning will have to wait.


Moreover, for a community, low tech and personal engagement may be a goal in itself.


Third mountain – and some hope


This third ‘adventure’ is actually too recent to see how it will turn out. I am supporting friends of a company called Movement Strategies (www.movementstrategies.com ) in a successful accelerator bid part of the Sheffield Smart Lab initiative (http://www.sheffieldsmartlab.co.uk/#home1 ) . Our proposal is very exciting: identifying ways to track and describe people’s movement in the centre of the city in real time and 24/7, and define packages of insights that are useful for urban management and planning decision making.


I will write more about this in future. The important thing for now, is that movement in the centre of the city can be used as a good indicator to identify trends (success or failure of an area, for example; and several others) before they are actually visible on the ground. This could provide trigger points for intervention, before crisis set in, and major regeneration initiatives are required. This is the real sense of dynamic planning.


Lessons learned


The programme is only in its first few weeks of life, and the practicality of pulling data together from different sources and cross referencing them is a real challenge. Especially the need to create a representative enough sample to obtain credible insights. At present Movement Strategies are working with datasets that have been made available to the team – but we start to feel that a specialist set might be required.


And this is the hurdle: chicken and egg again. Unless we can demonstrate that there is an outcome worth having, we cannot have the go ahead for sourcing the data. And without the data, we cannot be sure how clever the system can be.


I am greatly encouraged, however, by a simple truth: unlike other traditional ways of data collection and evidence, we can start small – answering simple questions – and build up from there, as the same data and platforms can be expanded and cross referenced and made to grow. You cannot do that with standard planning! Moreover, it will put people (and their behaviour and choices) at the centre of evidence: not rent values, not shopping sales… It would capture the value of independent shops and small businesses, typically ignored by the property and retail based assessment of the strength of a centre. It would link multiple synergetic activities and show the impacts of change.

Passing this test will make up for all the other heartaches. And this is already a success in any case, as it is starting to provide a framework and method for Smarter Planning. Just needs the courage of conviction and lots of flexibility!