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Q&A five minutes with… Dr Mary Keeling

Words: Simon Wicks

Dr Mary Keeling is a business development executive with IBM. She’ll be presenting at this year’s RTPI Planning Convention (21 June) on smart cities and sustainability.

1. What’s IBM got to do with smarter cities?

“I formerly worked [at IBM] with cities on transport, water, emergency management, education, health and so on. In a way there’s nothing new under the sun. All a smart city is doing is improving the quality of services. You can say ‘leveraging technology’ – it goes back to when we first moved from horses to cars. 

“How can we improve the ways cities function and work? It’s about the things that make us say ‘This is what makes a good city’. It’s the same thing that we have always been driving for – improving quality of life, driving economic development.”

2. How is digital influencing the way businesses operate?

“They accept that major technological advances are happening. You’ve got to figure out how to harness that for your business – improving revenue or customer experience, lowering costs. You can shift the way the business functions.

“For example, airlines sell you a ticket, you roll up to the airport and get on the plane. But your ‘journey’ as a customer starts at home and includes the bus or taxi, shopping at the airport. What they’re trying to do is have the insight to say ‘I really understand Simon. He booked an economy flight but he stays at The Ritz’.

“You’ve then got a means to collaborate with other businesses providing other goods and services. We’ve got to share our data here (within the constraints of privacy legislation) so suppliers can develop new services for these customers – for example, ‘Click here to book a taxi’.”

3. What’s the potential for planning here?

“It’s about trying to harness technology to transform the service and the way the business itself works. Both of those trends are applicable to planning.

“There are two important elements to making this happen: 1. The solutions have to be there and developed; 2. You have to figure out the business model. There are the people making the applications and the people making the decisions. We’ve got to figure out who’s going to own that [technology-driven process], who’s going to pay for it.

“Planning has implications for contiguous areas, so it might be Sadiq Khan saying ‘I’m going to work with all the boroughs across London’ or local authorities themselves might say ‘We’re going to improve our planning process through a shared service. There’s such a broad range of stakeholders that you have got to get on board with planning. 

“One of the things cities talk about is innovative business models and new ways of generating revenues. So you might have a group of cities allowing planners to access their records. And now, instead of research taking two weeks it’s taking a day.

“There’s room for really transforming the way this is done, but it requires collaboration.”

4. So the key is sharing data?

“Unstructured data [i.e. information stored in documents that were not intended to be presented specifically as ‘data’]. So it’s about converging cognitive technology with the digitisation of information.

“You need to be able to ask questions in a natural language and get the answers. For example, ‘Show me all the planning applications for two-bedroom mews houses over 800 square feet’. That’s going to be a game-changer because analysing the decisions can help you get more planning applications accepted first time. From a local authority view, if you make the correct decision first time it reduces the number of appeals.

“There are many areas of the planning process that could be improved to the benefit of the people providing the service and the people using the service.”

“There are many areas of planning that could be improved for people providing and using the service”

5. How do you bring about that change?

“Cultural and organisational change is the most important part. That’s where leadership comes in. You put in a structured programme to prepare people for what’s coming. For example, labour change: ‘Your job’s not going to go, but it is going to be different’.

“This is also about attracting and retaining talent and skills. Young people have got that ease and familiarity and closeness to technology. So you have to ask: How can I make planning an exciting job to do?’”


6. But won’t artificial intelligence mean there will be fewer jobs?

“People tend to over-focus on this. Going back to the permanent trends, economies cope. Certain activities grow – for example, agriculture to manufacturing – and that’s the nature of economic evolution. Within planning the potential for these technologies to create jobs is much greater. There are new services, new insights to be had from thinking more about what private sector businesses are doing. What would that look like if it was applied to planning?”

Nine to share £200,000 for planning innovations 

Nine businesses and local authorities have been awarded a share of £200,000 to develop new tech tools to improve the planning system.

The nine have been given the cash by the Future Cities Catapult (FCC), which, as reported in February’s Tech Landscape, had launched an open call for ideas to create a more data-driven and digitally enabled planning system.

Nearly 90 entries were received, whittled down to nine winners. Each now has 12 weeks to develop a prototype of their idea.

FCC’s planning lead Euan Mills said: “For years we’ve heard how the planning system is broken, and how it hasn’t delivered the number of homes we need or the types of places we want to live in.

“Our Future of Planning programme focuses primarily on how we plan, rather than what we plan for, and creates critical space to experiment; allowing those involved in the planning system to think how it could be done differently.”


The winners:

  • HACT/OCSI: neighbourhood insight web-tool aggregating government open data and other data within neighbourhood planning boundaries.
  • PlaceChangers: making it easier for local councils to compile, update, and coordinate their development land portfolio with other stakeholders.  
  • The Behaviouralist: applying machine learning and satellite image recognition to identify opportunities for green infrastructure.
  • A London local authority: mapping and analytics tool to bring together housing and social infrastructure data on one spatial platform.
  • Toolz: custom-made 3D interface that would allow planning officers to assess development proposals within a live 3D model of the city.
  • Wikihouse + Southwark Planning Division: online tool to improve and automate aspects of householder planning applications.
  • Linknode Ltd: augmented reality to visualise un-built development proposals at public consultation.
  • Create Streets: online tool permitting users to measure the quality of a place, and analyse correlations between urban form and well-being, health, happiness and value.
  • ODI Leeds: Two projects – 1. Real-time, cloud-based updating of common planning documents; 2. Aggregating open data for planning applications and housing analysis.

The programme for the RTPI Convention can be found here.

Image | iStock