Hi, I’m Stefan Webb, the new planning director at FutureGov.

Just before the world did that massive changing thing that it keeps doing after I left the good people at the Connected Places Catapult and before I joined FutureGov, I received a gift.

The Secretary of State for MHCLG said the words “digital planning” in parliament.

Some five years earlier I’d started pushing the notion of a designed, data-informed and digitally-enabled planning system at the (then) Future Cities Catapult. Initially, this was met with scepticism but with the help of some ‘weirdos’ in the Catapult, support from companies like FutureGov and critically, some like-minded people in local and national government, a movement was born which led to that statement in parliament.

Shaping places, shaping lives

Planning is one of the key functions of government that shapes the places we experience, the opportunities available to us and the impact of human activity on the environment. Local governments set out plans and policies that affect where new development can take place, be it workplaces, homes or green space, and the form and nature of that development. Perhaps on your daily exercise, you’ve noticed the tattered, laminated A4 planning notice or plans for a new development, as it’s easier to notice these things in the physical world rather than the digital.

The current emergency we’re all experiencing is bringing to light the fragility of the planning system. From operating core software remotely to amending regulation that allows digital documents or conducting planning committee meetings virtually, it’s clear the planning system was never designed with users in mind, let alone internet-era ways of working.

Designing a planning system

User research and service design have changed how we design products and services for the good. Whilst planning was always ‘designed’ to the extent that people thought about the need to adhere to regulation, they rarely thought about the impact of that design on people.

When looking to understand how to design a better planning system, user research helped uncover many fundamental problems with the planning system. At the core of these challenges were an absence of design, a negligent approach to data and outdated software systems. Yet despite the wider rise of GDS and digital transformation in local and national governments, planning was not perceived, let alone prioritised, for digital transformation.

Many suggested that we already have a digital planning system, with a range of software from the Planning Portal to submit applications, GIS systems to map data, to ‘back-office systems’ supporting workflows to manage planning applications. But, these are all broken. All have poor user experience, all shuffle around documents, not data. There is no interoperability and it’s near impossible to migrate to alternatives. Yet, those involved in the planning system were either satisfied or could not perceive an alternative.

Changing places

People can only conceive of processes and systems that they’re already part of. Not what could exist. We could, until oh so very recently, only see incremental improvements. Not radical step changes. That’s especially true for ‘users’. Planners (as with all users) have their prejudices and preconceptions; professionals trained to deliver a planning service in the same way it was taught at university and by predecessors. This makes achieving digital disruption challenging.

Setting out a vision, bringing people together and starting to prototype new products and services, allowing people working in planning to conceive of alternative (and cheaper, faster, more transparent) ways of doing things. And momentum is building. Today we have organisations like Lambeth, working with Open Systems Lab on new ways to submit planning applications. Or Southwark, working with Unboxed to create a more open back-office system. And the GLA, Southwark and Tower Hamlets working with FutureGov to design more transparent ways of understanding viability assessments.

Yet, change is geographically patchy, in some cases quite shallow and generally happening without much corporate buy-in.

Over the coming weeks and months perhaps we’ll be more aware of how the designs of our buildings, public open spaces and network of formal and informal community spaces impact our health and wellbeing. Perhaps we’ll no longer take for granted the invisible hand, not of the market, but of local public services and regulation in shaping the types of communities and economies we want.

We’re already seeing what dedicated, motivated local public servants can achieve in the face of herculean challenges when forced to think differently.

This is why I’ve joined FutureGov. To understand how to design change, transform organisations and most importantly, to help embed the capability and capacity to think differently about our places, our climate and our communities in public bodies.

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