Digitalisation of the planning industry

Man in a virtual reality headset stands over a 3D augmented reality city scape



In an era where digital is taking the world by storm, it comes as no surprise that the planning industry is also undergoing a significant shift towards digitalisation. The transformation is not only reshaping existing processes, but also promising increased efficiency, reduced costs, and greater levels of citizen engagement.

Driving towards digitalisation

Requirements for more efficient processes, cost reductions, and the desire for greater collaboration sparked the initial drive. Yet, this was accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic through the necessitation of remote work and digital collaboration.

In response, the UK Government has launched several digital initiatives to improve the planning process. Amongst the key measures, is the commitment to digitalise planning in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill which looks to achieve a ‘full digitalisation of the system.’ This ambition appears to be embodied in the £3.25 million PropTech Engagement Fund launched by the Department of Levelling-up, Housing, and Communities (DLUHC) to pilot the use of new digital tools.

Enhancing Productivity and Efficiency

Digitalisation is enabling the UK planning industry to process more applications in less time. The use of technologies such as machine learning and AI have the ability, once trained, to interpret vast swaths of data to recognise patterns more quickly and, potentially, more accurately than through human interpretation. These technologies can help us gain a better understanding of land use and enable more efficient and effective decision-making.

Further, the greater integration of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and location-data in planning processes is promoting greater spatial understanding, as well as enabling planners to assess and analyse data visually. Notably, the increased use of Earth Observation (EO) is transforming how spatial data can be collected. A growing portion of the UK being imaged several times a day: this temporal element enables stakeholders to see how land use changes over time, helping planners make more informed decisions.

A satellite view of London and the coast

Improve Transparency and Collaboration

Online consultations and digital public meetings are becoming commonplace, helping ensure a more democratic and inclusive planning process. Open access encourages public participation in the planning process along with helping foster a culture of collaboration across stakeholders.

These benefits are not limited to planning decision-makers such as local authorities, public bodies, private companies, landowners, central government, and citizens, but also extends to links between policymakers, analysts, academia, and practitioners. This has the potential to bring about increased transparency in the planning process, as evidence-based decisions will be readily available online.

The Challenges of Digitalisation

Despite numerous benefits, digitalisation of the planning industry is not without its challenges which span data collection, democratic deficit, and implementation. Data collection proves to be a challenge as not all processes have undergone digitisation and many data sources remain siloed. There is a pervasive risk of democratic deficit through community engagement challenges which are exacerbated by broader issues such as the digital divide. Finally, implementation can be a struggle with ongoing cybersecurity and data privacy concerns as well as organisational skills and capabilities gaps.

The Future of Digital Planning

As digital technologies continue to evolve, the future of the planning industry promises even greater efficiency and collaboration. The rise of technologies like 3D modelling, virtual reality, and predictive analytics could revolutionise the planning process, offering a more detailed and accurate understanding of proposed developments. Even technologies such as blockchain could provide a secure and transparent way of recording planning decisions and land ownership information, leading to further improvements in efficiency and transparency.

To conclude, the digitalisation of the UK planning industry represents a significant shift in how planning processes are conducted. It offers the potential to increase efficiency, improve transparency, and foster greater collaboration. However, it is crucial that the industry addresses the associated challenges effectively to fully harness the potential of this digital transformation. As we look to the future, it is clear that digitalisation will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the UK planning industry.

Bryn Medd-Sygrove
Innovation Researcher

Positive Impact Panel: 7 June 2023

We’re exploring the topic in more detail in our upcoming Positive Impact Panel: Digital Planning for sustainable towns and cities.

Our panel of experts will discuss the opportunities and challenges of using digital tools to create more sustainable and resilient cities, as well as the most exciting areas of innovation in the field.

Our panellists include:

  • Bridget Wilkins: Head of Digital Engagement at DLUHC
  • Dr Wei Yang: CEO of Digital Task Force for Planning at the Digital Task Force for Planning
  • Euan Mills: Founder of Blocktype
  • Richard Limbrick: Planning Manager of the London Borough of Camden