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I want to be an astronaut

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ It’s the perennial question that all youngsters are asked at some stage by well-meaning relatives, says Louise Brooke-Smith

These days I’d like to think that we don’t automatically think of gender stereotyping. So when little Oliver wants to be a nurse and Olivia wants to be a firefighter we shout hurrah in unison.

But it’s a little odd to think that someone’s chosen career path will lead to 30 years with the same organisation followed by a gold watch. Today’s career paths are so different. While little Helena might be good at maths and Jonny might like animals at age seven, does this have any bearing on how they will eventually earn a living?

Kids excel at what they enjoy and in our exam-driven culture it used to be the case that our profession was full of people who in their teens had shown some interest in human geography. But while there is some correlation, do the best planners really need to know their Abercrombies from their Von Thunans?

Some of the best planners I know started life in very different arenas and excelled because roles have changed and they happen to have the right aptitude rather than an encyclopedic knowledge. And in any event, the idea of ‘good planning’ is tricky to define.

Sadly, the public and political perception is that it’s a means to an end rather than a tool to improve our environment. As such, the skills of a ‘successful’ planner have changed. They must have a mix of project management and PR skills at their core, balancing different strands of activity, working to fixed deadlines under increasing pressure, diminishing budgets, and draconian performance targets and then ensuring different stakeholders are all kept relatively happy. Understanding and applying the current rules and regs is something of a secondary level of knowledge.

“Three years in the same place is commonly seen as more than enough”

A successful planner has to add financial acumen, design empathy and a full understanding of the economics of the development industry. Passing those land use theory and law exams years ago was just a means to an end as today’s digital innovation allows much of the technical and legal side to be accessed by an app or Google search.

So perhaps we should be looking beyond Oliver and Olivia’s interests and concentrate on their soft skills, their interaction with others, how they react to rules and how they solve challenges to achieve their goals. And when they get what they want, what do they do next? Inevitably they move on to completely new targets – much like the career pattern they will follow later.

Few people stand still and three years in the same place is commonly seen as more than enough. There is also an acceptance that if your environment isn’t conducive to your goals then you can and should do something about it. That can involve changing things from the inside and risking retribution from those who don’t recognise why organisations have to change to be relevant, to simply upping sticks and moving on. Skills and experience seem to be acquired far quicker these days and can be used as stepping stones to the next stage of any career. Is planning a flexible career choice to accommodate all the categories of bright young things? Could we see planning as a far broader ‘land use’ profession and present it in a different way to make use of those soft skills that can differentiate between a nine-to-fiver and someone with passion and effectiveness? We can all accept the benefits of digital innovation and it’s a no-brainer to be inclusive when staffing our ranks. But perhaps we should also think about the soft skills that make the difference between a planner and a great planner to ensure that the profession stays relevant to them.

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director

Illustration credit | Zara Picken


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