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Why planners should embrace 'Proptech'

Planning is ripe for technological transformation, argues Daniel Mohamed - and planners have nothing to fear.

I can remember in 1998 (aged 8) playing SimCity 3000, a computer game where the player builds a virtual city and responds to ‘real-time’ needs such as homelessness, poverty and traffic congestion. I assumed then, and later as a planning student, that datasets in the game would have equivalents in life. I was surprised on entering the profession how primitive the technology was.

Having seen the emergence of Google Earth as a teenager and used Edina’s Digimap at university, it seemed natural that technology would be part of professional life. We are used to seeing Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ in action.

Remember Blockbuster Video? Now we use Net-flix. Woolworths? Amazon. 

But the planning system hasn’t really changed since the 1940s, while other industries such as finance have been transformed. Given that planning is so data-driven, I figured I’d do something about it.

So far, the smart cities agenda has focused on the ‘Internet of Things (hardware with sensors that supply ‘big’ data) and open datasets from government. Now firms such as mine are looking to make sense of new data sources to enable wiser decision-making and improve productivity.

“The planning system hasn’t really changed since the 1940s, while other industries such as finance have been transformed”

Bodies such as the Future Cities Catapult and investors such as Pi Labs who are looking at ‘Proptech’ following the success of Zoopla support our thinking.

What would technological transformation mean for planners? Much of our industry is susceptible to automation – we can expect consumers to cut out the middleman as data becomes readily available, and traditional business models may require change to meet this.

Tech will also be a leveller between large and small consultancies. Groups that should fear technology are those that benefit from bureaucracy, information asymmetry and data monopolies.

But I think we will all benefit. Computers can process information quickly, but humans have the advantage of artistic expression and empathy. My advice to firms would be to use data to get unique insights, and focus on adding ‘human value’ through creativity and customer relations.

Learn to code; programmers are in short supply and your knowledge of space and property will make you valuable.

Development should happen faster, in more sustainable places, based on more scientific approaches. Design will improve as new tools visualise future city scenarios. We became planners to understand cities and create better places. Technology will enable us to do this while eliminating waste and bureaucracy. Let’s welcome Proptech.

Daniel Mohamed is founder and director of Urban Intelligence


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