What is the future of planning? Tonight I’ll be speaking at an event with long-time client, Freeths, to an audience of developers and property professionals about the future of planning. Here’s a version of what I will say.
Late last year I had the pleasure of interviewing some of the leading lights in the property sector, both residential and commercial. Some of the results went into a report for Hyperoptic on the future of residential broadband. The rest is likely to be released over coming months.
Two themes really stuck out for me. The first was about sustainability, though not in the usual sense. The second was about diversity.
- The CEO of a large developer told me that one of the biggest challenges when building something new is knowing what the user’s needs will be in five, ten, or twenty years. How can you construct something today that will have longevity when technology, culture, and working practices are changing so fast?
- The CEO of a large housing association told me about the challenges of diversity. In the past, they might have been housing communities with similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds together. Now their tenants largely have poverty in common. They share challenges around literacy and mental health. But they differ in many other respects. Building communities in this context is challenging, especially with public services being withdrawn, and with the pressures on land prices pushing developments increasingly vertical.
- The director of a serviced office and shared workspace business told me about how diverse the users of his buildings were, in terms of the types of companies, sizes and styles of working. Even the different ways they travelled to the building.
These challenges, of change and diversity, come on top of what is already a tough planning environment. We have huge demand for housing, many town and city centres are being cored out by the collapse of retail, and we have growing challenges around pollution and climate change
So, what do we do? What is the future of planning?
Future of planning: design, engineering, information
The answer comes in three parts: design, engineering, and information. Each is influenced by a principle for better strategy that is being adopted across business and I think has a strong role to play in government as well. This principle is simply that adaptation trumps optimisation as a predictor of sustainable success.
Businesses across the world are faced with these dual trends for unpredictable change and increasing diversity. Their response is to shift focus from maximising profits in the short term to greater investment in the long term. What that looks like in practice is three things:
- More time spent on foresight and examining the future
- Better use of data and analysis to accelerate reaction times and get closer to markets and customers
- Changing shape and structure to enable more rapid and low-cost adaptation to changing demands and trends
How does this translate in a planning context?
Foresight and flexible design
Certainly, there is the potential for the greater use of foresight tools to inform planning decisions at a local authority level. But in the current financial climate it seems unlikely that these exercises will be frequent. While businesses are implementing more frequent, short range exercises (looking 2-5 years ahead) alongside the (very) occasional long-range exercises (20-30 years ahead), local government will likely be paring back such investment.
But developers may be able to employ these tools to inform their decisions and enhance their arguments for particular developments. Given the high risk and high costs inherent in many developments, a little more foresight can’t hurt.
The most obvious impact of these exercises will be on design. While they will provide some guidance as to what comes next, what they will likely make most clear is the range of possibilities that we face. Predicting the future is hard. We can often see what will happen. But seeing when it will happen is incredibly challenging. While the former is often the result of core and consistent human and economic drivers (comfort, safety, profit), the latter is subject to many uncertainties (scientific progress, cultural shifts, legislator agenda).
What feeds foresight processes is good data, and there is a huge opportunity in the future for developers and local authorities to better inform their decisions with good data. This starts with geospatial data. I am one of the judges of the PlaceTech prize for innovation and in the last few years we have seen a number of companies like LandTech aggregating multiple data sources into incredibly powerful resources for developers. But we can go much further.
What current data sources tell us about is space. But they don’t tell us a lot about people. In the next decade we make the shift from handsets to headsets as our primary means of interaction with the digital world. These devices will capture a lot more information about us, including our emotions. Current technology pairs basic sensors with machine learning to understand things like tiredness, mood or emotional reaction to experiences with incredible accuracy. In a few years this will be a standard feature of our smart devices. Personal AIs will know a lot about what, and where, we enjoy, and what we don’t.
This data resource will be incredibly powerful for developers. Some researchers have already started experimenting with it. At the Manchester School of Architecture, they have started blending sentiment data from social media with geospatial data to start to understand how people feel about places and examine whether there are design implications.
Clearly, there are privacy issues, as we have seen recently with debates about facial recognition used by both the state and by private developers. But I think we will find a way in the future to broker access to anonymised emotional response data in a way that maximises value without too much intrusion into people’s privacy.
Engineering for adaptation
So, we can leverage foresight tools and better data to drive design decisions, and even design more flexibly. But what do we do when the demands on a building change in the middle of its lifespan? One of the things we have to consider when we are thinking about the future of planning is that the future building may itself be much more adaptable than those in the past.
I mentioned that in a business context, leaders are increasingly restructuring their companies so that they are better prepared for future change. What this looks like is a kind of modularity. Instead of building a deeply-integrated monolith, optimised only for today’s business, they are assembling networks of components that can be rapidly reassembled to meet new challenges.
I believe buildings will go the same way, supported by an array of new technologies. The first is simply steel. Steel manufacturers like ArcelorMittal, who I interviewed last year, are working towards construction systems that instead of being recycled, can be re-used. Meccano-like frames with minimal bespoke components that can be thrown up and torn down, or even better, adapted as the life of the building goes on.
The second is robotics. Replicating human dexterity and adaptability remains difficult and expensive. But buildings are limited and well-defined environments, inside which we can create ideal conditions for robotics that can automatically transform buildings based on changing needs.
Future of Planning 2040
So, bring all this together and imagine planning in 2040. The design process is informed by rich data that combines geospatial, demographic, economic, and emotional data that assembles a business case and a design brief in a semi-automated fashion. The design itself is created with flexibility in mind, aware of imminent trends but also adaptable to those beyond the range of reasonable foresight. And the building itself is constructed with adaptability in mind, from re-usable, modular materials that allow its easy transformation and adaptation, or in the worst case, lower cost reclamation and re-use. Robots integrated into the construction manipulate interior components to consistently resize and re-purpose the layout to suit changing needs.