How will automation impact on your town planning career?

Written by: Jennifer Jackson
Published On: 5 Dec 2019

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Will robots take your job and what skills will you need to keep up with technological innovation? 

automation

Automation looks set to be one of the biggest fields of the future as its business value impact grows. But are you feeling threatened by uncertainty? Will robots take your job? What skills will you need to keep up with technological innovation? And how is the town planning sector addressing automation and artificial intelligence?

The 2019 Employer Branding Insights Report from Wonderful Workplaces showed that 75% of town planning professionals in fact feel neutral about automation, more so than other sectors. The employer branding agency surveyed 841 candidates across multiple sectors, including 40 in the town planning sector. 

To what extent is the sector embracing AI and automation and how might it affect your career? Planning Jobs spoke to Penguin Recruitment, Drees & Sommer UK and Arcus Global, for their insights.

Understanding the business value of AI

Research released earlier this year revealed that only five per cent of councils have cutting-edge tech projects such as AI and automation underway. While many councils may be taking longer than others to grasp the business value that automation could bring, there is evidence that the tide may be turning, with the help of tech and data firms.

Matt Fraser, team manager - town planning at Penguin Recruitment, attended a presentation from Capita last year at the National Planning Summit about a robot they are developing that would work with local authorities and be able to make decisions on minor applications.

He comments: “The idea is that the robot would save money and allow councils to reallocate resources to more complex cases. This obviously comes with pros and cons - some planners say it could lead to job cuts, whereas others love the thought of getting their teeth stuck into more significant work, so welcome the robots.”

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As recently reported on PlanningResource.co.uk, data firm Agile Datum is working with local authorities, including the London Borough of Redbridge, to develop AI projects. The council says it aims to automate more than 80% of the admin tasks currently carried out by staff through the intelligent application of AI, chatbots and data visualisation. Agile Datum has already used AI techniques to analyse over a million UK planning applications from across 100 councils. 

Kate Warboys
Kate Warboys: “AI reduces the need for planning officers to be dealing with the mundane”

Kate Warboys, head of marketing at Arcus Global - a company that enables the public sector to use cloud computing effectively - concurs regarding the significant business value AI can bring: “It is clear to see the level of efficiencies that can be achieved by automating the planning process, keeping all tasks on track. 

“Through intelligent learning, AI facilitates the gathering of information and knowledge over time, ultimately providing answers and guidance, and reducing the need for planning officers to be dealing with the mundane.”

So...will robots take your job?

Around 1.5 million jobs will be affected by automation over the next few years, according to research from the Office of National Statistics in the UK. Low skilled and routine roles are said to be at the highest risk of becoming redundant through automation, whereas highly skilled specialist roles are at the lowest risk. 

But instead of fearing the advent of artificial intelligence, automation and digitisation, “town planners should instead accept these for what they are; tools to be used by humans for creating places on a level of efficiency and sustainability never before realised”, says Marco Adbullah, head of engineering at Drees & Sommer UK.

He adds: “Popular culture continues to sensationalise and demonise the true nature of AI and machine learning, prophesying programmes that steal our jobs and robots that lose control and revolt against their human creators. But in reality, AI mitigates against human error, streamlines processes across industries and frees up humans to focus on less arduous and mundane tasks.”

Warboys also describes automation in planning as ‘freeing up’ valuable time and resources: “The integration of AI specifically assists with simple planning applications and will free up hard pushed, time-limited planners to focus on the more interesting and complex applications. For those in the industry, this not only reduces stress and that 'up against it’ feeling but it also offers a greater level of job satisfaction and personal development. 
 
“More time for planners creates further learning opportunities and really makes positive impacts on the local community; councils will see greater progress in the industry as a whole, in their local place, and in planners personally.”

What skills will you need to keep up with technological innovation?

According to the CIPD report: ‘People and machines: from hype to reality, ‘AI and automation are not simply another technological innovation, but stand to quite radically change the shape of work tasks and jobs.’ Regardless of how quickly and dramatically automation impacts on your career, it pays to be aware of what skills you will need to make the most of it as an opportunity. 

Marco Abdallah

Marco Abdallah: “People, not programmes, will always retain supervision and will always have the final say.”

Abdallah comments: “Far from depleting planning departments of their human talent, AI and digitisation will inject a range of new disciplines into the fold, ranging from programmers, AI experts, cyber-security experts, as well as the more traditional roles that exist today.

“Town planning will remain a collaborative process between different people with different professions and different backgrounds. People, not programmes, will always retain supervision and will always have the final say.”

Fraser advises: “The more specialist expertise you obtain and the higher the level of thinking your role involves, the more in-demand your skills will be and the less likely it is your job will be under threat of becoming redundant.

“You also need to have the mindset of being ready to adapt, learn and adapt some more, so that when changes happen, you’re always on it or ahead of the curve, and that will help make you indispensable.”

What is the future for AI in town planning?

Connectivity between buildings and between people will become all the more integral to the design process in the coming decades, according to Abdallah. In Berlin, Drees & Sommer is helping to deliver brand new city district, the Quartier Heidestrasse, where an array of sensors shares data between buildings and those who reside within them. This enables residents to benefit from a pool of shared cars and bicycles, with automated processes keeping them informed of where and when the vehicles are available.

Warboys adds: “From a citizen's perspective, AI just fits with the automated world online that they have become used to, dynamically interacting with an organisation the same way they do with their bank, utility provider or retailer. Consumers now expect this online model to be available at every stage of the process – from application right through to assessments and paying for planning applications.”

On the future role of the town planning professional, Fraser concludes: “The role of a town planning officer requires high skill and experience so it’s likely to remain in high demand as long as you future proof yourself by keeping your skills up-to-date. 

“There may be routine aspects of the job that could be automated to save time but the flip side of this is that you then have more time to spend on more interesting tasks and potentially improve the overall quality of your work, which would ultimately lead to greater job satisfaction.”

QUICK READ

  • AI facilitates the gathering of information and knowledge over time, ultimately providing answers and guidance, and reducing the need for planning officers to be dealing with the mundane.
  • More time for planners creates further learning opportunities and makes positive impacts on the local community; councils will see greater progress in the industry as a whole, in their local place, and in planners personally.
  • The role of a town planning officer requires high skill and experience so it’s likely to remain in high demand as long as you future proof yourself by keeping your skills up-to-date. 
  • People, not programmes, will always retain supervision and will always have the final say.

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