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11/01/2017

Digital tools can make planning more transparent

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Technology can help create a transparent planning system - and free up planners to be more creative, argues Stefan Webb

Control of the planning process rests in the hands of a select few. As a result of complex language, aged processes, and professional hand-wringing, experts obscure the development process from outsiders, bringing about criticism of a difficult, but vital, process. A digital overhaul could help solve the problem.

The roots of the opacity are varied. Planning jargon creates barriers that make it hard for outsiders to understand the process. At its worst, such obscurity can be used to game the system. On other occasions, data is simply locked away by those who control it – much of the time because what are effectively analogue records are ill suited to sharing. Sometimes it may be a conscious decision. Either way, a lack of transparency and asymmetry of information is central to the poor functioning of the housing and development market, so the barriers to entry are huge even for the largest foreign developers.

Without action, this will continue. Planners, planning, and development will continue to be made scapegoats for what is an essential function of society. The public is right to complain: cities have a democratic duty to enhance their knowledge of how planning works. What cities don’t seem to realise is that increased transparency would positively impact on citizens’ acceptance of new development.

"Clarity of language and clear design can improve citizen engagement"

Digital tools and data visualisation translate complex or opaque ideas and enhance their accessibility. Gov.UK is an excellent example of how clarity of language and clear design can improve citizen engagement with complex government services. Data fusion systems such as those used by CityMapper provide a single window onto a complex pool of public information. 

For cities to achieve similar success with planning data, planners will have to work with user experience experts, service designers, data visualisers and software designers to understand the right level of detail and design for different users of the planning system. Some start-ups are beginning to show how that can work. 

Critics may argue that opening up the system to more users will de-professionalise planning. But, software and artificial intelligence will soon take over many of the lower-value activities in planning anyway. Planners could now actively focus on the higher value, creative components of planning and placemaking, before technology forces them to. 

Only unscrupulous developers, politicians and planners have anything to fear in increasing transparency. The rest will be able to enjoy a development ecosystem where standards rise because of increased competition and the public understands – and more readily accepts – development.

Stefan Webb is head of the new Future of Planning project at Future Cities Catapult

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