Academy Fellows driving innovation through new Digital Task Force for Planning

Back in February this year Academy Fellows Dr Wei Yang FAcSS and Professor Michael Batty FAcSS established a new Digital Task Force for Planning. In this piece they update on their aspirations for the Task Force and its progress so far.

In the Sixth GreenBiz Group’s ‘State of the Profession 2020 Report‘, Architecture and Planning came second in a top ten list of professions designated as most important for sustainability. This recognition closely aligns to the sector’s stated purpose to transform and improve the places where people work, live and play.

In February 2021, Academy Fellows Dr Wei Yang FAcSS, President of the Royal Town Planning Institute for 2021, and Professor Michael Batty FAcSS, Chairman of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), University College London, established a new Digital Task Force for Planning. Its mission is to unlock the full potential of the planning profession and to harness opportunities arising from the digital revolution to tackle the grand challenges of the modern world.

The Digital Task Force is comprised of a distinguished interdisciplinary panel of experts drawn from a wide range of higher education, research and professional institutions. Five members of the Task Force panel are also Fellows of the Academy of Social Sciences.

Since its inception, Co-chairs Professor Batty and Dr Yang have worked to get the Task Force off the ground. Their vision for an integrated, digitally informed approach to spatial planning is tied to aspirations where Town Planners are pivotal to the realisation of universal common goals.

Dr Yang says: ’Planning is people-centric and is about the future; it’s a subject that relates to everyone’s life. The fundamental objective of the planning profession is to create a balanced system for people, nature and society to co-exist in harmony. As an applied social, environmental and behavioural science, it synthesises a variety of perspectives and approaches and is the glue that binds built and natural environment expertise together to create a better future for public interest.”

The Task Force is keen to lead and implement a ‘new Place-Based Methodology’ that will intelligently and systematically tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, social inequality and the public health crisis.

As a means to this end, Professor Batty and Dr Yang have devised and led a far-reaching engagement strategy to inspire relevant and influential stakeholders at all levels of society to get on board.

Dr Yang explains: “Since the launch of the Task Force we’ve held more than 100 meetings with over 400 stakeholders across a range of government departments, agencies, thinktanks, academia, business, tech and relevant expert groups. A place-based systems approach to spatial planning necessitates multidisciplinary joined-up working and data sharing.”

Key to realising this goal is building digital skills across the sector and this can only happen through a shift in education for students and early career planners.

Professor Batty says: “We’re advocating for a change in training and practice that will enable the profession to embrace new digital technologies. We’ve seen this being done across the engineering and physical sciences, and the social sciences have made a start on this. We want to do the same for spatial planning. We’re not expecting planners to become data scientists, but as we see increasing automation and other complex challenges facing our world, it’s important for planners to be equipped with the right digital skills.”

So what kind of knowledge and skills should be incorporated into education for planners in future? With the advent of big data and other important large data sets generated by national bodies like the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there is now greater potential to break down silo working and promote seamless knowledge and data exchange across all relevant authorities and actors. Planners should be trained to work with tools offered by new technologies.

Professor Batty says: “The curriculum should teach planners about the latest software, how to use it, and how it is evolving. Statistical analysis and data science skills should be introduced to enable better decision-making. Digitalisation can support sustainability through, for example, generating large datasets more quickly which give a more accurate view of demographics and populations with special needs. At the moment there is variability in teaching at planning schools. A handful are leading the way, but there is still a long way to go before digital awareness and the many tools that are now available to think about how to plan cities are incorporated as standard practice in all planning schools.”

Find out more about the Digital Task Force for Planning and its roadmap for the future of planning in the digital domain within its initial one-year timescale.