The publication in early August of the government consultation on reforming the planning system in England was accompanied by plenty of soundbites on the need for more efficiency and faster decision-making.
Technology, and digital services, were highlighted (once again) as an area which needs improvement: “Reform should be accompanied by a significant enhancement in digital and geospatial capability and capacity across the planning sector to support high-quality new digital Local Plans and digitally enabled decision-making.”
The consultation report goes on to say that “we think the English planning profession has the potential to become an international world-leader in digital planning, capable of exporting world class planning services around the world.”
Running to catch up
Many countries around the world have already made significant investment in digital planning, both technology and skills, and of these, Singapore is often mentioned as a world leader. While the city state’s administrative set-up gives it some advantages over countries with devolved and fragmented systems of regulation and planning powers, there are still lessons to be learned.
A webinar hosted by the Connected Places Catapult last month allowed staff from Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to share its work on plantech, and in particular how data science is embedded in planning processes and long-term strategic planning. The journey they have been on over the last decade suggests that the UK has a long way to go.
The Singapore approach
The URA’s Digital Planning Lab was set up in 2013 to bring together planners and data specialists to use digital tools to improve planning processes and outcomes. The approach is holistic, with different professions working together to combine insights. This contrasts with the UK, where local authority budget cuts have led to an erosion of the skills base.
The mission of the Digital Planning Lab is to act as a catalyst – to incubate skills and ideas, to accelerate insights and transformation, and to inspire, through innovation and partnerships. There is a strong focus on building skills and capabilities within government, with the Lab running a data analytics immersion programme twice a year, to train cohorts of government staff on how data can be used in their work.
One output of the Lab has been their digital planning tool, ePlanner, which applies data science to urban planning processes. The one-stop inhouse geospatial tool is accessible to staff in over 50 government agencies and brings together information and analytics on population and demographics, land use, mobility, housing types, planning approvals, enforcement action, parking and public consultations and feedback. Data and maps are layered to allow deeper analysis of individual topics while protecting individual data. The tool also visualises existing site approvals and restrictions which may exist based on strategic planning documents.
The ePlanner aims to identify information and workflow gaps, and improve interagency working. The data analysis also enables a more flexible approach to strategic planning. While in most countries the evidence used in long-term planning is drawn from sources such as 10-year censuses, and uses surveys to gather people’s preferences, the Singapore tools allow for much more nuanced and responsive policymaking based on actual behaviour. It also recognises the complex factors which shape how communities use their infrastructure.
Plantech creates better places
The goal of plantech in Singapore is explicitly to facilitate data-informed, people-centric planning outcomes. A goal which planning reforms in the UK can only currently aspire to achieve.
While the challenges are recognised (such as the protection of individual and health-related data), the Urban Planning Lab approaches their work from the perspective of asking ‘how can we unlock the value of data’ – providing evidence-based insight on trends without exposing raw data. By mitigating risk, Singapore has been able to unlock the possibilities that modelling and simulation, and artificial intelligence, can bring to urban planning.
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