Is the planning profession ready for the future?

Is the planning profession ready for the future?
This question was asked at the New Zealand Planning Institute’s event in Wellington on 21 June where panel speakers engaged with members and the institute’s board about future technology and urban planning.

From the discussion it was clear that future technology will change the profession. Graeme McCarrison, Environment and Engagement Manager at Spark, opened with how Spark is rolling out its 5G communication network which will allow more varied, constant and reliable uses of the internet and data.

Using this technology planners will be able to collect more data on a wider variety of measures through sensors in the environment, have faster access to environmental data, and become ubiquitous with the ability to make decisions and engage with more diverse communities through online channels. However, to utilize these new abilities planners may have to become more tech-savvy to understand the technologies’ decision-making processes so they can interpret data and identify the bugs in the process to then apply it to a planning context, like what planners currently do with legalization.    

Why planning needs to keep up with new technology
Representing Smart Cities Emerging Innovators, I highlighted that technology will have the greatest effect on our cities' 'operating systems.' These operating systems include communication and transportation networks, but also planning processes like district plans and consenting. Current planning processes risk becoming outdated as technology enables new ways to capture, measure, and manage our environment. Social media, sensors and APIs provide planners ways to improve their engagement and understanding faster and cheaper than expert-sourced reports by adopting non-traditional data sets. For example, mobile phones' GPS could inform traffic assessments, like it currently does to inform Google Traffic.

The challenge for the planning profession is how, when and where to use this new data, albeit sometimes from incomplete data sets, in their decisions and whether this data will complement or replace existing sources.   

Sean Audain, Innovation Officer at Wellington City Council, showcased the cross-disciplinary projects that the council is undertaking in collaboration with technology services company NEC. These projects include sensors which monitor the social and environmental effects of late night bars, such as public disorder and broken glass. He explained how the city can capture accurate evidence of where, when, and how liquor licenses effect these behaviors as they link the behavior of the patrons to the establishments and understand the causes and context of behavior. It can then inform the council's decision of whether to re-issue a bar's liquor license and how to design safe public spaces.

In the future planners may have the ability to use sensors and cameras to understand social behaviors within environments and to adjust them accordingly. This will surely generate questions around privacy and control. 

Michael Cameron, lawyer and author of 'Realising the Potential of Driverless Vehicles,' discussed how targeted reform is required to enable society to benefit from driverless cars. Possible reform includes reducing the required dimensions for carparks in the case of cars being able to park themselves, as no space would be required for opening doors or human maneuvering error. If such cars come to pass, there will have to be a decision on whether unused parking spaces and transport corridors are reallocated as public space or for private development. Further clarification is also required around the liability for injury and insurance regarding driverless cars to ensure that the market can confidently adopt the technology.

Is the planning profession ready for the future? I optimistically say yes. However, planners may have to operate as data scientists to adequately manage the data-laden cities of the future.

David Batchelor is a planner in Wellington, New Zealand and a member of Smart Cities Council Emerging Innovators.