Finally, I caught up on Property Basecamp founder Tom Courtney’s Ordinary Man: Step-by-Step podcast series as he discusses the highs and lows he is experiencing throughout the founding stages of his proptech company Property Basecamp. In his most recent episode, Tom is open and brutally honest about the daily grind involved, feeling the occasional loss of momentum, the frustration of trying to get people to stick to their earlier commitments and all the while trying to keep the financial pressures at bay. It’s not easy. But the professional highs are what drive us.
The whole idea of being part of a community or industry network is that we help each other out from time to time (and feeling able to ask for help). So, while Tom didn’t ask, I will; I am asking members of this emerging sector to please adopt a ‘pay it forward’ approach and, if possible, help Tom (and other proptech peers) with these early introductions. His company is providing a necessary service to large companies (for the benefit of their employees) in a difficult marketplace so you will be doing the companies a favour too!
The digital future of urban planning
Earlier this month I spoke at an industry summit in Dublin about the digital future of planning and what does the future of planning might look like. To my mind, we need to be looking at a planning system/process/ecosystem that is lean, democratic, data-driven and most importantly, digital. The areas I focused on for this talk were around the role of digital to improve data and democracy/public engagement.
Proptech tools to simplify the planning process
The planning process belongs to everyone in theory only, in reality, it is controlled by few and safeguarded from lay intrusion by an overly-complex regulatory framework*. In Ireland, planning is seen by non-planners across the industry as the chokehold in supply and planners, rightly or wrong, are viewed as the gatekeepers of sort.
[*Under the philosophy of complex systems, Galls Law dictates that a complex system that works is bound to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse is also true, a complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a simple system.]
In England, Urban Intelligence created an interactive platform that collates and digitises all national, regional and local policies – that are publically available but not always accessible, into one place for easy (text-based) online searches. – a Google for planning, if you like!
US platform Flux Metro has built a 3D model that integrates any zoning information with financial algorithms, to evaluate and predict the likely viability of new developments.
If interested in reading further, check out virtualcitySYSTEMS, Atkins planning tool, the URA digital planning laboratory and Mapping Greater Manchester to see how bureaucracy can be streamlined and the whole process made more transparent and engaging publically. Also, Rotterdam recently unveiled a bridge financed by individual contributions, which is thought to be the world’s first crowdsourced public infrastructure.
By using emerging digital tools to collate and then make accessible all relevant data, gives everyone (public planners, private planners, industry organisations and private citizens) true access to the planning process. Similarly, using new ways for private citizens to be notified about proposed changes within their communities, to help them to visualise and comment on future development, is crucial.
At the moment, members of the public are notified of proposed planning by way of a non-descript statutory advert buried in the legal pages of a (strategically) lesser-read newspaper or by those sad, weathered, planning notices tied to the boundary fencing. Neither of these actually invite comment from the public. It is not a coincidence that, generally, the only responses to most planning applications are negative ones – for most citizens, the default mode of engagement in planning is protest.. Actually, I wrote an article on public engagement with the planning process recently for The Journal and you can access that here: ‘Planners are trying to engage with us and we have a duty to join the conversation’
Democratise the public consultation and community engagement process in a meaningful way
The frustrating thing is that the technology needed to improve the planning system already exists, what is coming down the line is even more exciting and offers the potential for truly transformative change; what is needed now is a form of communications bridge between policymakers, practitioners and the public at large to build trust in the technology and to rebuild trust in the Irish planning system.
The best examples of meaningful public consultation and engagement that I have come across are the Plymouth Plan Sofa campaign by Plymouth local authority where policy-makers met with the community, in their community (i.e. using social media, not via the ineffective methods used in Ireland), and the CitySwipe trial in Santa Monica, where local authorities sought public opinion on a wide range of community issues, from the colour and make-up of street furniture and public art, to cycle by way of an app.
There is no ‘opt-out’ when it comes to digital and the planning system is not immune to this. The term ‘Innovation’ is a bit of a catch-all, buzz word so, in my opinion, tangibility and impact are important. Looking across a broad range of proptech innovations, ranging from helpful to wildly disruptive, what we are seeing in planning is more marginal improvements that will have marginal impact- but do not underestimate the power of marginal progress, this falls under the principle of compounding! The greatest challenge I see ahead for the Irish system is the temptation to apply new tools/solutions to old systems.
Interestingly, here in Ireland, the OSI and Land Registry have been preparing for the digital future (albeit unwittingly) for two decades – the Law Society of Ireland have been working on/against (it’s difficult to tell) e-conveyancing for two decades also but that’s another #proptech debate waiting to happen…