Digitising planning to benefit people and the built environment

The aim of this project is to create an environment in which a seamless, end-to-end digitised development process can operate and flourish. Our purpose is to demonstrate in a very real and everyday context how data can be made fair and open to the widest range of uses and users, while delivering a wealth of benefits, as a result of a digitised planning process, that are both immediate and long-lasting.

The idea behind this concept is not to develop a single digital planning product. This project can generate more benefit by remaining open and accessible to a range of collaborators. Nor is our aim to start from scratch or reinvent the wheel - we are using the data that is already created through the use of BIM, and existing formats for sharing it.

The planning process in the UK touches all of our lives. It is integral to the way in which the built environment develops around us; affecting where we live, where we work, where we eat, shop and play, how we walk, cycle and drive, how we produce, manufacture, generate, store, dispose and recycle. And yet the system we use has not changed since the 1940s. It is arcane, complex, fragmented and hard to access and navigate – especially for the public who are, ultimately, its most important stakeholder. It has not even adopted technology that is virtually standard in other areas.

As such, planning is an excellent example of a process ready for digitisation. Many elements could be digitised and therefore automated, reducing friction (which causes delay and cost) and streamlining activity from project design through consultation, to planning approval and construction. Modernising the planning process in this way would drive efficiency, enhance quality and benefit everyone involved, directly and indirectly.

This project has concrete and practical deliverables, therefore, but will also make a significant contribution towards a digitally enabled development industry. A key principle for us is collaboration and engagement with others in the field.

This project has been a collaboration between the London Borough of Southwark, the Centre for Digital Built Britain, Bryden Wood and 3DRepo.

Benefits of a digitised planning process

The benefits of a seamless end-to-end digital planning process will be many and wide-reaching. They include:

  • Removing the planning bottleneck: there has been significant progress in digitisation for design and construction, but planning, which sits in the middle, is lagging behind and causing delays. The UK has huge construction requirements in multiple sectors – the planning process should be an enabler, not a barrier.
  • Considering how much impact planning has on our lives, it is not as present or discoverable as many other aspects of contemporary living. The laminated notices on lamp posts which inform the public of local planning applications can easily be missed or ignored, and are often hard to understand. We do not have the levels of informed, accessible, public engagement with planning that would benefit the process and the built environment. Digitisation would open up new ways to engage the wider public at all stages of the planning process.
  • The increasing digitisation of relevant information and data, and our ability to import that data into the planning process in meaningful ways will further help engagement. Well constructed visual representations make raw data accessible to a wide audience. This will allow people to consider individual planning applications in broader contexts – of sustainability or social mobility, say – or understand the trade-offs and implications inherent in making changes to part of a development. Overall, it will mean the public can form and offer opinions based on rich and contextualised information, rather than on inaccessible and indigestible data and projects in isolation.

In other words, it will allow more people to engage in the right way at the right point in the planning process, accessing the right information and able to give the right kind of opinion.

  • Further, this will enable a holistic view; the ability to consider planning applications in relation to each other, in terms of design etc. but also in terms of development and other targets, at borough, city, county, or national level.
  • This is about understanding how to take information about one stage of an asset, and make it usable for another stage. Our approach will generate a density of information that we can make use of throughout the design and build process (including planning) – and then beyond construction, into the operation of buildings and ultimately their end of life. Standardised data will vastly improve transparency and efficiency, and open up opportunities for future innovation.
    • Enabling planning as a data-led process will unlock the value of related modern methods of construction, enabling connections with related applications such as the PRiSM app for housing.
    • Making processes more efficient and transparent will force the hand of the regulatory environment – as we have seen in other sectors, better technology drives the modernisation of regulations.
  • And, of course, the lessons learned from this project can be applied beyond planning. This sort of project helps create the environment for people – public and professionals – to engage with digital in the public realm. This will be an exemplar of how applying technology creates a proliferation of benefits.

How to create a digital environment for planning

In order to enable a digitised planning process, the core requirement is to:

  • Standardise and digitise (as far as possible and/or desirable) the rules under which designs are - by different parties - created, submitted, assessed, consulted on, amended, approved and ultimately built.
  • Agree the interoperable standard datasets that will enable this, and how to generate and use them. 

As already said, the aim of this project is not to create a single solution for this process; we do not believe a single solution is in anyone’s best interests. We are interested in realising the environment within which one or multiple solutions can be developed and operate together.

To date we have focused on scoping each stage of the process and developing a demo version of how a digital planning process would operate. The demo version is a series of dashboards showing how sets of interoperable data will enable the planning process at its various stages; which elements can be automated and which will require human intervention; and where we can connect with existing solutions.

Standardising and digitising the rules and datasets will enable us to move from demo to reality. 

As said earlier, this is not a question of starting from scratch (or reinventing the wheel): the data already generated through the use of BIM and 3D modelling will form the basis of this process. Established formats such as BCF already allow for rich data sharing (although they are not always used to achieve this). The task that lies ahead – and the project that will fundamentally reshape the landscape – is to define shared underlying rules that will allow the existing parts to connect, and facilitate the creation of new applications to plug the gaps and create onward connections.

Impact on key planning roles

A digitised planning process will not replace humans with computers. Creating standardised data or the means of standardising existing data across the planning process will enable us to automate those elements which are machine-readable (eg to assess whether standard information supplied by the architect/designer is complete and compliant), and then transparent decision-making by planners. (And by extension – this can encompass building control, health and safety and other types of compliance checking.)

This degree of automation will not remove the requirement for human judgement and discretion in planning decisions. The purpose of digitisation is to facilitate the process by reducing the burden on those people of large amounts of admin and tedious, repetitive tasks that can be done better by machines than humans.

Benefits for architects:

A digitised planning process will involve a change in the way architects are required to produce some information on their designs, and it will enforce a rigour and consistency in the technical elements of designs (which does not imply or require any constraint on creativity). This is not a huge departure, however: rigour in approach is good practice, and the information required is already largely included in BIM models. 

The most significant change for architects will be to free up large chunks of their time to devote to the creative part of their work, which is where they can add the most value (and which is why they became architects in the first place).

Better information for planning officers:

As for architects, digitisation is about giving them access to more and better information on which to base their decisions, and creating more time in which to make them. Making these decisions is why people become planners in the first place.

If architects are using 3D models, why would planners use 2D drawings and not those models? When daylight tracking is measurable and predictable (if complex), why would planners be checking the architects’ sums, armed with a calculator, when a ‘digital app’ could do this more efficiently? Why are planners (and the public) expected to engage with idealised and unrealistic CGI images of proposed developments that they cannot adjust, interrogate or control? Digitisation would make it possible to view proposed developments in their context, that any user could control and view from any angle.

Planning applications and the public:

The more accessible a planning application can be made, the easier it can be interpreted. By making it more understandable it will enable greater levels of public engagement. In turn, it is hoped that this will result in a better decision making process and one that is more reflective of the community it will affect. 

Planning, developers and bureaucracy:

It is worth noting that complex analogue processes tend to create work for people who specialise in navigating them and this, in turn, raises the barrier of entry to the uninitiated. This impacts both the small scale developer who finds it too costly to engage with the planning process; and the domestic developer who may require a number of expensive professional consultants to extend their kitchen.

Challenges/blockers/barriers to a digital planning process

Clearly, there are technological challenges to a project such as this, but they are far from insurmountable. As with all change, the principle barriers will be the cultural shift required. 

However, because we are not seeking to apply a single solution to the entire process, we will not be seeking to change the entire process at the same time. Once the core parameters and rules are in place and the environment is enabled, the overall project can advance incrementally, demonstrating benefits and value as it goes. 

As with many instances of progress, there may be vested interests that might object to aspects of this project from a position of self-interest. We cannot deal with them here. This project will shine a light on what is possible.

Further applications: the benefits to government and local plans

The solutions may be different, but the principles we are exploring here have very positive ramifications for other areas.

Local/central government: the principle of making information interoperable and shareable, or policies more machine-readable and rules-based, while smoothing flow of information ‘before use’, is applicable in many areas: domestic planning, perhaps, where we could unblock permitted development and focus more on sustainable development; or major infrastructure projects where incompatible information systems breed wasted time and resources.

Local plans: are all based on evidence, which is all based on data. Data fixed in time is by definition out of date, while digitisation in the holistic context – as this project is demonstrating – gives us the opportunity to keep data and evidence current, informing and improving engagement and decision-making. 

Next steps: collaboration to foster continuous improvement

There are others operating in this space. This project has the potential to enable effective and creative collaboration between all of them, providing the shared basis on which other projects can connect, operate and develop. Involving more people and projects to test the process and demonstrate value would also be a good thing. 

Given the potential scale of this project and its broader applications, we would seek to connect with MHCLG, both in terms of technical development, and to benefit from their convening power.

The more connections we enable, the stronger those connections become and the more benefits arise from them. A key principle of this project and the thinking within it is actively and consciously to reinvest the positive impact and learnings of the project for the people involved, to create a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement and progress.

 

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