John Twitchen, PCSG’s Head of Cities and Communities calls for planners to digitise planning and notes the benefits for all parties involved in the process

Pretty much my whole career has been concerned with communicating infrastructure – that’s over twenty years, and almost every project I’ve been involved with has been complex or controversial – often both! And almost every project I’ve worked on has involved people – I mean real people, the public.

Over that time the Internet has found its feet, and social media was born. Over the same period, trust ratings in politicians and decision makers have nose-dived; true also for pollsters and journalists.

Indeed, Edelman’s annual trust barometer survey made for interesting if alarming reading. I’m sure 2018’s will be even more so. The Guardian reported on Edelman’s survey, noting “the number of people in the UK saying they trusted the media fell from 36% to 24%, while trust in businesses fell from 46% to 33% and charities from 50% to 32%.” It’s worth noting that long-term trackers had trust in ‘high end’ journalists in the high-60% range just twenty years ago.

At the end of last year, Ipsos-Mori and Mumsnet combined forces to delve into the 2016 annual Veracity Index, and “at the end of a year during which we were told (during the Brexit referendum campaign) the public had had enough of experts, 80% say they trust scientists. Economists, who are included in the index for the first time, come in the middle of the table, trusted by 48% – coincidentally exactly the proportion of the electorate that voted ‘Remain’.” Economists are trusted more than trade union officials (43%) and bankers (37%), but less than civil servants (56%) and the ordinary man or woman in the street (65%) and hairdressers (68%).

But why focus on trust in an article about digitising planning?

The reason is that it is more important than ever to make sure information on major projects cuts through to Jo/e Public, information that individuals can make decisions about, and use to inform their views during planning. Jo/e Public is high up the trust curve, and this is critical to the communicators, to developers and decision makers. It’s no longer just a case of ticking a consult box. If ever it was.

The 2008 Planning Act codified consultation and engagement and made ‘good practice’ a requirement. But nothing more – it’s time to move on and adopt better forms of good practice; maybe even aspects of current best practice. Now is the time to seize upon digital information and digital technology, improve engagement and substantially improve outcomes.

Meanwhile, thanks to some brilliant work carried out by Copper, which I commissioned before I left, we know that people really do want to be involved in decisions and the planning process. Face-to-face talks are still a key element of any project. What better way to build trust than to talk to people and give the project a personality. However, we are missing huge swathes of people if we focus on traditional, tried and tested analogue methods.

We know from projects like the North London Heat and Power Project, a DCO, which I led communications on, that we can reach people through digital channels and social media with rich content; we can target people with that content, and we can ensure messages directly reach people. This ensures information reaches people that wouldn’t otherwise be reached by traditional methods, plus the content is much more engaging and interesting.

But we still struggle with genuine engagement, in particular, ‘hard to reach’ people, i.e., most of ‘em! How do we know what they are thinking, without resorting to polling?

Developers struggle to navigate through and around the ‘hard to avoid’ – there’s not a lot you can do to help other than listen; more to the point, some stakeholders don’t want to receive information that challenges how they feel about issues. But it must be remembered just how many dozens, hundreds, or even thousands on a big scheme, do want to find out more but often don’t know how to.

Developers and scheme promoters must try much, much harder to reach more people. And this is where digital can play (and is already beginning to play) an essential role.

But why talk to more people, I hear some of you say? You’re scared of what you might hear, aren’t you? You’re scared of more vitriol, more anger, more negativity.

In my experience and I know the same experience is shared by many others, the wider you reach the more interesting and informed the discussion becomes.

But what’s in it for the developer, the adviser, the decision maker?

Better decisions. Clear evidence of deliverability – for example, underpinning assumptions or assertions made in a socio-economic impact assessment; in turn, leading to vast improvements in socio-economic and environmental benefits and outcomes, a better-explained project and a much higher level of support for a scheme. Clear evidencing, transparent and trusted optioneering. All crucial components in a modern planning context.

Even better still, the developer, increasingly the owner and operator of major schemes, gains shared, valued, data. Data that will prove invaluable during construction/operation. Overall, a faster planning process reaching better, more realistic and more deliverable decisions.

And the planning authority also gains from the data and the process. It is my very strong view that planning authorities are missing a trick and really should be seizing on this issue by ensuring digital information requirements are clearly set out as a fundamental for all major schemes. Over time, they can build a digital model of their authority, which will prove crucial to designing, managing and maintaining public assets in the not too distant future. Plus that data will have an increasing value, to other developers, to service providers, and to the authority itself.

Current online engagement platforms aren’t really cutting the mustard (they are too 2-D and cumbersome). Digital engagement needs to grasp hold of gaming technology, utilise the vast quantities of data, adopt Building Information Modelling (BIM) much earlier on in the process and use this to organise, invite, collate and respond to input from stakeholders; be they statutory, other interested parties, people ‘in the vicinity’, collaborators, the supply chain or future customers.

Mott Macdonald’s work on Crossrail involved the creation of high-quality 3D models which were credited with helping construction stay on track; meanwhile, gaming technology has been used to engage with stakeholders, for example, emergency services, in checking the design of assets such as stations. This is hugely valuable and time-saving. But also for punters, customers, people: it’s a brilliant way of gaining trust, creating better understanding, improving designs and generating support.

We must utilise this approach as a new standard practice for engagement and consultation on major schemes at the pre-planning stage, and industry must ensure it has the data and the documents organised properly to do so. In time-saving alone, the benefits are potentially immense. PCSG’s chairman Mark Bew leads the government’s Digital Built Britain programme, and whilst the current focus is on Level 2 adoption by all major government projects, the real power of digital information management, in my view, is not just in construction and (with Level 3) operation, but in planning for assets and how they connect with the natural environment, the built environment and with people, and extend the level 2 Capex/Opex savings component to a whole life process.

PCSG has just launched GeoConnect+, and this could help developers to present and planners to interrogate the all-important context of a development – its connections with the surrounding environment and interactions with other factors, through data and digital information.

Just from a viability and planning perspective, the tool, developed in conjunction with Ordnance Survey (OS) and Business Collaborator (BC), is made easier by connecting 2D and 3D design data with geospatial data about the surrounding natural and built environment.  It promises:

·         Better understanding of demographics, and of community and social impact;

·         Faster feasibility and optioneering;

·         Reduced planning time (for smaller schemes, from months to weeks;

·         Better understanding of site constraints and boundaries.

There is huge potential in using information in this way to engage stakeholders, and I’m really excited about the prospects as are our colleagues at OS and BC.

There is a real opportunity, and, critically, a real reason to digitise planning.

Some of you might be thinking that this is all too much:

• Digital everything;

• Engaging everyone;

• Running before we can walk.

But my challenge to you, today, is to take with you a digital mindset. That doesn’t mean pulling on a t-shirt and trainers. But it is us who present the barrier to improving engagement and grasping the digital opportunity.

Why do I say this?

Here’s an anecdote from a New York Times article about Minecraft – a clunky Swedish game teaching millions to master the digital world:

“Jordan built a variety of obstacles, including a deluge of water and walls that collapsed inward, Indiana Jones-style. But what he really wanted was a trap that behaved unpredictably. That would really throw his friends off guard. How to do it, though? He obsessed over the problem.

“Then it hit him: the animals! Minecraft contains a menagerie of virtual creatures, some of which players can kill and eat (or tame, if they want pets). One, a red-and-white cow-like critter called a mooshroom, is known for moseying about aimlessly. Jordan realised he could harness the animal’s movement to produce randomness. He built a pen out of grey stones and installed “pressure plates” on the floor that triggered a trap inside the maze. He stuck the mooshroom inside, where it would totter on and off the plates in an irregular pattern.

“Hey presto: Jordan had used the cow’s weird behaviour to create, in effect, a random- number generator inside Minecraft. It was an ingenious bit of problem-solving, something most computer engineers would regard as a great hack – a way of coaxing a computer system to do something new and clever.”

My kids play Minecraft endlessly. They also watch a lot of YouTube about Minecraft, learning how to create great content (by the way, YouTube is well beyond ‘just’ social media now, it’s huge and mainstream and incredibly is the second largest search engine after Google). The point is, we’re missing a bunch of people, younger people – exactly those we targeted and reached in North London. Let’s take that to the next level.

We’re miles behind, but we can catch up!

So in summary – the future really is digital, and it’s now.

Digital documents; digital engagement; digital modelling. The outcome: digital planning, vastly improved communication, another level of engagement and, crucially, much better decisions.

Remember the adage – infrastructure should be done for people, not to people. At the end of the day, all of this is still about people. Digital can significantly help improve the people part and help to rebuild the trust that was hard-won but too easily lost. ■

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John Twitchen

Head of Cities and Communities


Twitter @PCSG_World

Twitter @johntwitchen