Transforming systems through data and digital twins


The Planning London Datahub harnesses digital twin technology to make close to real-time planning information accessible to all 36 Greater London planning authorities. Will Squires, associate director of digital at Atkins, explains its development and the endless possibilities it could open up

In a world where data is open and connected, systems are integrated and problems and solutions can be analysed in real-time – imagine the possibilities. We could model a more equal provision of infrastructure across a city.

We could build pocket parks in the locations where they are needed most, replicating their design to deliver them faster to disadvantaged communities. And we could take old systems, like the UK’s planning system, and transform them into automated decision-making hubs that enable more efficient delivery of critical infrastructure like housing.

Connecting data

At Atkins, we have been working with the GLA to start making this dream a reality through the creation of the Planning London Datahub, which provides near real-time planning data that is open and accessible to the 36 planning authorities in Greater London.

Connecting data in this way will allows us to make better decisions because the burden of collecting evidence is much lower. We can spend more of our time thinking about good things to do – like the delivery of affordable housing – as opposed to spending most of our time acquiring and verifying the data needed to make it happen.

The burden on public bodies to process information and dig through documents, particularly with regards to planning, is huge. It’s no wonder really that those decisions come under scrutiny for their accuracy and the time they take.

In some ways, planning data, and housing especially, can be hard to quantify. You can read it in any UK newspaper – we’re meant to deliver X number of homes, yet we only deliver Y. Understanding why this is happening and where the pinch points are is hugely complex.

Automated planning hubs like the GLA’s can help us simplify this process and understand the bigger picture. Used in the right way, the Datahub is a real opportunity to speed up the supply of housing and reduce the cost of providing monitoring information.

It recognises that a new housing development does not exist in isolation from the towns it serves and the other buildings that sit around it. That includes everything from the power it will draw from the network to the new businesses that will emerge around it.

Asking these sorts of complex system problems requires open, interoperable, accessible and rich data – exactly the sort that the PLD provides. The opportunity to ask the questions between the gaps allows us to start answering the sort of societal and economic questions that often as engineers we don’t consider but are crucial to successful infrastructure delivery.

Driving new technology

The Datahub is a critical first step in driving new technology into the planning sector but also underpins the drive for a National Digital Twin. By creating a ‘single source of truth’ for development data in the city, it starts London on a path towards a digital twin of the planning system. And if we think of the planning system as the change control process for the built environment, we must have a digital version of that. The information we get from a digital twin of the planning system allows us to plan a better city, a better country, and thoroughly consider the cumulative impacts of this.

As it develops, the GLA’s Datahub will collect a wider range of information from development applications, including environmental information, floor area, infrastructure requirements and ownership information. This will help the GLA understand how the city is changing, as well as the wider environmental impact, and help plan for future needs more effectively and reduce disruption caused by development.

However, it’s the next steps for the Datahub that really excite me. When we gather, collect and aggregate disparate datasets into one place where they can be interrogated and analysed in different ways by different people, the possibilities are endless. When the Planning DataHub opens to the broader public, that will include disruptive tech providers and university students – clever people who can use the information in ways we hadn’t thought of, to solve problems we didn’t know we had.

We can see that the digitalisation of the built environment is gaining momentum in a tangible way now. Projects like the Datahub and the National Underground Asset Register, which seeks to connect all of the underground asset networks of the country together, will change the way we work for the better.

This is where the impact of digital twins comes into its own, shedding a light on how it can truly affect the world of today by taking new technology and connected ecosystems into processes that have existed for decades.



Will Squires

Associate director of digital

Twitter: @atkinsglobal

LinkedIn: atkins

Instagram: insideatkins


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