Digital innovation increasingly viewed as a tool to improve efficiency in the planning process

Digital innovation, particularly artificial intelligence (AI) has been a subject of considerable speculation and debate throughout much of the 21st century. Indeed, recent progression in the capabilities of AI are already changing the way in which we work.

An interactive online tool produced by the BBC in 2015 calculated the risk of professions being replaced by AI. Fortunately for planners, the complex situations we manage on a daily basis mean that the risk of being replaced by AI is relatively low. However, AI can provide considerable improvements to the efficiency of the planning process.

For example, the level of administration required to validate each application submitted to a local authority is a time consuming, labour intensive process. AI systems are capable of reviewing all documents submitted against validation requirements in a fraction of the time required by humans. It is thought that AI can even be taught to assess sites submitted as part of the call for sites in an emerging Local Plan. Removing such tasks from the remits of local authority planners would free up more time for dealing with the human side of planning; interpretation, engagement, strategic thinking and decision making.

A number of Councils are beginning to incorporate innovative digital enhancements into their planning systems, paving the way for its widespread uptake. Additionally, the Government are working in partnership within Future Cities Catapult (a not-for-profit organisation, part of the ‘Catapult Programme’, specialising in developing products to meet the changing needs of cities) and other initiatives to “digitise” the planning system.

It is hoped that these tools will enhance the planning profession, addressing the inadequacies of the system which in recent history has consistently failed to deliver the necessary levels of development. Any such enhancements are likely to be welcomed by both the public and private sector, however the considerable investment required at the outset is likely to create hesitation in the public sector, where budgets are more tightly controlled. It is considered that pro-active engagement from the highest level of governance is required to ensure the delivery of digital innovation in the public sector so that all planners can appreciate the benefits of a more efficient, technologically driven planning system.

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