Careers Advice: Technology in planning today - incorporating data and digital innovation in the planning profession

Written by: Nissa Shahid
Published on: 1 Jun 2018


Amidst the noise around artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and machine learning, it is quite easy to get distracted and at times even dismissive about the role that data analytics and digital innovation can and will have on how we plan and the places we plan for. True, there are aspects of these new and emerging trends that feel far out of reach – but with the speed at which our world is changing, they might not be as far away as they seem.  

Professionals need to begin understanding the key principles of technological innovation now, so they are equipped to respond to change in the future, as it increasingly impacts upon our lives and changes the way we plan and how our cities are run, used and experienced.  

The amount of data that is processed through cities every day is phenomenal and as other sectors and industries adopt and incorporate new digital technologies and data into their day-to-day work, there is a danger that planning could lose out to seemingly unrelated professions. With companies like Google, Facebook, Huawei and others already designing their own versions of cities, it is vital that planners take the reins and learn to make space for technological disruption in the planning system.  

Though the world of data and technology looks daunting, there are so many ways in which planning already has the tools and roots to adopt and implement.  

Don’t be afraid of Data

There is reams and reams of data within planning applications, masterplans and local plans, that if harnessed correctly could be incredibly valuable. In decision making, data that we have historically collected as part of the planning process could now be gathered and analysed to give new insights.   Imagine being able to use one platform to do a simple site appraisal, where the platform links to all the different sources of data that could help determine a site. Even better, a machine that eventually learns from experience and data and is able to pick out sites based on a predefined set of criteria, that might not emerge from a call for sites.  

Try out new technology available and find new ways to use it

Don’t be afraid of trying out new technology. Some of it may be gimmicky, but there will be lots of different ways of using one technology across multiple problems or scenarios. Take Virtual Reality for example, which can be used through the planning process, from proposal development and scenario modelling, through to community engagement and even for drawing inspection prior to construction. Then there are even simpler technological trends, such as tech totems that could be used for data gathering and disseminating. Digital street furniture is making its way into our public realms and planners need to understand that the experience of the city will eventually be seen from an additional ‘sixth sense’ - the ‘virtual’ - augmented reality shows us this every day.

But what should I do?
Do you need to learn how to code? Should you be able to navigate your way around GitHub? Should you be able to do your own data visualisations? Should you get to know BIM? Do you need to know how to develop a software application?    

The advice to many training professionals in recent years has been to do these things. However, planning professionals need to understand that they already have most of the skills to adopt and implement technological trends and digital innovation into their field.    

Yes a simple coding class won’t hurt (see it the same way as 10-15 years ago everyone had to gain basic knowledge in using word or excel). However, the most important skill is to be inquisitive;  to read about technology works and to learn about how other people go about their jobs. One of the most interesting things about working at the Future Cities Catapult is learning about how user researchers approach a question differently from data scientists, who approach it differently from a user interface designer and so on.  

In learning from others not only may you identify areas for improvement in the planning profession but you may learn how to do it yourself, perhaps a  simple hack in data processing, a new visualisation technique or even automating a repetitive part of their job.

Nissa Shahid is at urbanist at Future Cities Catapult