Lets Talk Tech: Technology and its role in Planning's Future

On January 1st, few of us could have predicted what was about to unfold. Now, halfway through 2022, let’s evaluate the trends the global pandemic accelerated, and peek into how these trends impacts the future of cities and local government. Many of these trends relate to technology and how it is changing the ways we interact, listen, and communicate across the built environment. As we settle into our new normal, we are redefining our future. What better time than now to examine what planning technology trends accelerated this year.

The Current State of Technology in Planning
Every few years, Urban Insights publishes a report examining the technology trends occurring in city planning. The 2019 benchmarking report uses 15 indicators, include five looking at emerging technology trends: open data, short-term rentals, transportation network companies, autonomous vehicle policies, and transportation routing networks. The reports’ findings are unlikely to surprise you, but there are a few items to highlight.
Most planning agencies use technology for basic outreach (i.e. a website). While that is to be expected, a website’s capabilities can signal the agency’s readiness for a tech-forward future. Planning departments are increasing their use of responsive websites, meaning the site’s appearance is tailored to the size of the user’s screen. Most websites are maintained with a backend content management system and utilize the html format. This readiness enables an agency to embed more interactive visualizations, such as a Story Map, indicators, dashboards, etc. to demonstrate complex or abstract planning information.

Smart phone technology created built environment market opportunities for technology platforms, like Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft. Technology advances faster than policy, and platforms like Airbnb and Uber met with a consumer’s appetite for more integrated technology into all aspects of the built environment. The current state of technology in city planning, though, indicates slow progress integrating technology into current planning services.

Within the realm of land use planning, nearly every city has their zoning code online – self-published or through a 3rd party like enCodePlus and Municode. Nine in 10 comprehensive plans are available online, according to the Urban Insights research. GIS tools make it easier to analyze important property data; yet, less than 60% of local governments use an online GIS platform. Less than half of these agencies use an online permitting system. This creates a large gap between what technology is available and what’s being deployed at the local planning level.


2020: A Pivotal Year for Planning Technology
Technology makes key areas of planning better. It is clear that our relationship with technology is never more vital. We need it to learn, to watch, to listen, and to communicate. A better public realm requires listening and communicating; technology improves these two activities. The pandemic has highlighted how difficult it is to switch public meetings and community engagement to an online format to achieve effective and desired results, but it has never been easier to use technology to analyze complex data. Any planning task that’s simple or routine in nature can be automated. The technology exists and is deployed around the world.
Many of the day to day tasks in planning, particularly in zoning and current planning offices, can be automated. Private sector companies sell platforms that automate a rezoning request or the permitting process. When someone submits a rezoning request for a specific parcel, the technology platforms use artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze the request against the zoning code. This analysis indicates compliance or noncompliance, issues, and can draft nearly every (or all) components in a staff report. This practice is accelerating outside the United States, especially in Australia. That country has a National e-Planning Strategy.
If surveyed, the majority of planners in the United States would say Geographic Information Systems and mapping software are the most commonly used for technology in city planning. Esri’s ArcMap is the dominant platform. Competing companies have built their own GIS platforms that enhance planning tasks such as data monitoring and scenario planning with moderate success however ArcGIS as a platform remains the true force behind advancing the goals of GIS technology into day to day workflows related to Planning.


Scenario Planning Requires Better Technology
The pandemic was not part of any commonly accepted forecast, but we are doing better at predicting certain collective events in our future. We already know many of the issues that determine where we live and work. Scenario planning is an emerging technique that analyzes key events and trends to identify multiple futures. These scenarios model the impacts of known issues, such as climate change, migration, population trends, investments, etc.
Scenario planning is strongly encouraged during the development of long-range land use and transportation plans. Technology exists to combine existing data, demographic projections, planned investments, and potential impacts of large events (i.e. natural disaster). This allows planners and decision makers to visualize how the built environment can look ten or twenty years into the future. An area like Miami utilizes scenario planning to identify how climate change can impact where people live, commute, and work.
Planning agencies need software that combines data analysis and visualizations. The growing planning technology market offers choices. ESRI launched ArcGIS Urban in summer 2019. This unique scenario planning software is a precursor to digital twins. ArcGIS Urban creates three-dimensional models that holistically present the future. Cities can visualize the impact of complex land use regulations as implemented. Decisions makers within local government can identify how disparate policies connect or don’t. Does an affordable housing policy and a placemaking strategy work together? Urban helps identify inconsistences, enabling a local government to align policies and incentives prior to making a big decision.

Community engagement is likely to emerge on the other side of this pandemic fundamentally changed. Zoom public meetings may or may not be here to stay, but platforms that enhance the public meeting format are increasing in use. The rigidity of public hearings and workshops goes away in a virtual format. Some community focused technology platforms are already in use. These platforms work with scenario planning software to engage residents and stakeholders. For example, Neighborland is an interactive platform allowing individuals to vote, comment, and share scenarios (i.e. outputs from a scenario planning software). It is used to solicit feedback on possible designs for parks, neighborhoods, streets, community initiatives, etc.

What’s Emerging
Prior to the pandemic, thought leaders in the planning technology field identified certain approaches that could improve how planning is conducted. Just last year, these would be considered wish list items. Potentially, they would become a planning technology trend that starts in a decade or so. Now, that timeline is sped up. Expect to see lots more discussion about Digital Twins, a concept that has yet to emerge in the United States.

A digital twin is a model of a real-life object, process, or system. It requires both historical and live sensor data. Cities in France, Finland, and Singapore are currently developing Digital Twins to analyze changes in the built environment as a result of a policy change, investment, or movement. Data formatting is one of the speed bumps in the advance of Digital Twins. It needs to be in both 3D and 4D format to create these virtual realities, yet most available data are only in the 2D format.

Technology changes how we interact, conduct our jobs, and create better environments. By its very nature, it causes disruption. The broader question for the planning profession: how can city planning advance the existing technology trends to make better for each person?

Unstoppable market forces require us to ask this tough question. We know some potential solutions. In community engagement, platforms allow for more discourse, more learning, and better communications. In land use, services, more and more tasks will be automated.

GIS and its integration into a platform like ArcGIS Urban let us use an advanced scenario planning approach to overlay all of these questions, identifying all the paths that lead to better planning outcomes. Understanding technology’s evolution within cities is a necessary step towards planning better cities. Watch tutorials, read case studies, and learn more about ArcGIS Urban at ESRI’s website. In our next blog post, we will demonstrate the ArcGIS Urban platform, applying its technology to a real-world planning scenario.

Suhag Kansara,
GIS Lead
APAC3 2020