Digital and the changing role of planners

Hello all,

It’s been a while… It is ironic to say so but as I moved house again, the trials and tribulations of getting a reliable and useful internet connection have presented themselves again. I am now running on my third month without internet on my laptop, which does show that a life without connectivity is possible, although it isn’t much fun or very productive!

I take this opportunity at the end of a long week to report back on my recent keynote speech at the International Urban Design Conference this past monday. I am not sure why it is called ‘international’, I didn’t seem to meet any foreigners, apart form a lovely and very interesting person from the University of Auckland. I suppose that qualifies!

I haven’t spoken much at conferences before. The panel discussion I was a part of at Green Cities 2013 with Siobhan Toohill now Head of Sustainability and Community at Westpac, Shauna Coffey, Director at Deloitte and Rachel Dixon of Viacorp was my only previous cameo experience and I reckon Siobhan, Rachel and Shauna helped me out a lot. For those interested in revisiting that moment and our conversation about digital disruption and its impacts on the property market, have a look below:

The International Urban Design Conference (for full program see: was at Sydney Olympic Park, which ironically is probably the worst example of a place created from scratch. I was intrigued to see how few people get out there to work and how hard it is to access from Central Station.

Having said that, the whole experience made me realise how much can be done to improve conference experiences. The content is not to blame, but rather the format and specifically within that, the opportunities for interaction around high quality content.

The plenaries are not the place to start debates or to ask questions for that matter, and the sessions are too short to really enable a substantial outcome. I’ll be interested in seeing how these type of business events evolve with the development of the new Sydney Convention Centre (otherwise known as SICEEP).

In terms of my contribution to all this, I wanted to share my keynote speech here and get some input from some of you…

“Today’s conversations is not about technology itself. It is about changes in our role as planners and designers in response to what technology enables.

I started my career in planning, learning about planning systems in the UK, in the USA and here in Australia. I studied how these frameworks are tools intended to deliver better built and human outcomes and shape safer cities. I saw how planning instruments are designed to save historic fabric, to limit building heights,  and to preserve street frontages.

Whilst all these elements are important, and do contribute to shaping better cities over time, I have come here to argue that the role of the planner, the role of the urban designer needs to change. No longer can we be content with the ambition of towing every city shaping idea into the fold, of making great urban experiences compliant, of making bottom-up, tactical urbanism ‘difficult’ just because it falls outside of what we consider the rules.

I argue that we can no longer practice under the pretense of significantly shaping better cities if we’re not willing to engage with the disruptive impact of digital technology and digital mindsets. The same way we have started to incorporate sustainability into every facet of what we do, so too will we have to think of digital as a common thread through multiple areas of practice, rather than an additional silo to deal with.

Digital is not only about tools, or about technology per se. Digital is about a networked, productive and lean mindset that has created new businesses, new products, new relationships and new places. And funnily enough, the business of city shapers like us, is to design cities that leverage the businesses, products, places and people of cities.

To tackle digital disruption or convergence, the onus is on us, city shapers practicing in the built environment professions to engage in strategic thinking, to educate clients, to harness the energy of willing and able citizens to shape the city that suits them, not the city that fits all codes. No longer can we be guardians of the status quo, we must become agents of change.

Change. Change is the unwavering condition of our contemporary world. I am not the first to tell you that the world is changing at a faster pace than it ever has before and this is in part due to the ever expanding adoption of digital mindsets to conduct business, to learn, to share family memories, to buy groceries. There is not one aspect of human endeavour that is not radically disrupted by the internet.

How much longer can we ignore that digital is shaping our practice? How much longer can we still keep hiding behind the futuristic mantra of ‘smart cities’ to avoid having to admit that change is now for us? I argue that this change comes in three fundamental shifts that I will share with you today.

The first ‘digital’ shift is to put users at the centre of the city design process and to do this well, I argue that we must learn from the emerging field of service design to understand how to deliver an experience rather than a built outcome alone. Long gone are the days of ‘build it and they will come’: shifting user expectations must be accounted for in the way we design our cities. Our role extends beyond the delivery of hard infrastructure and will increasingly includes a programmatic and curation component on which the success of projects actually hinges.

The second ‘digital’ shift is to become change facilitators and develop the leadership of others. We must use our position at the centre of networks of decision-makers and project managers to become more agile as thought leaders and catalysts of change. We must leverage the toolkit of leadership development and organizational change to lead and guide our clients through digital disruption.

The third digital shift is that we need to become advocates and promoters of digital literacy. By digital literacy, I do not mean the skills needed to type on a computer or lodge your tax return online, I mean a deep and strategic engagement with the power of data and its impact on the way people organize themselves to socialize, to trade, to celebrate and to make decisions. Digital is a core enabling force of change and we need to get serious about understanding its strategic value in the process of city shaping.

Act One: urban design as service design

‘The city is never finished, it is an ongoing event’
– Paul West, Imagination

Move over Design Thinking and spatial intelligence your replacement has arrived: we are no longer all obsessed by becoming design thinkers and spatial philosophers, but rather service designers. Service design is an emerging lens through which we are starting to view the city. Service design places the user and his/her experience at the centre of the design process. The same way you might expect a customer service process to be designed with customers in mind, so too might you imagine designing a city with its users in mind.

Radical mindset shift for some, bleeding obvious for others. But before we rest too comfortably in the belief that we could never possibly design the city with anyone else but its users in mind, I ask you to kindly consider what the past decades of car-centric urbanisation has done to our cities.

People, customers, citizens: these are the patrons and shapers of our cities and yet so often do they remain misunderstood. Convergence with the internet is helping us develop  insights into changing expectations: no longer are we trading on the concept of placemaking which suggests a more static, durable approach to designing places. More than ever, we are trading on fleeting experiences and renewable landscapes.

Without wanting to suggest that our cities now need to become the stage for an endless string of events, I do want to emphasize that our delivery of place is focused on the delivery of its hard infrastructure only. Once delivered, the expectation is that this infrastructure will perform, as if able to do so without any human intervention or curation.

Using the lens of service design to understand how we expect the built environment to perform starts to suggest that rather than this dogged focus on the delivery of hard infrastructure, and therefore on capital expenditure, operational expenditure is really where the hard infrastructure can be leveraged in a more meaningful way through programming, content creation, digital storytelling and the development of new urban services.

A couple of years ago, my team was involved in the design of a new city block in Finland, called Low2No. Arup was involved in most engineering disciplines but my team worked with Experientia, a Milan based ‘experience design’ firm to develop a series of urban products and services that would embed lower resource use in the behaviours of people in the precinct. The unique positioning of the precinct we were designing was that sustainability and awareness of it would be a lifestyle statement. Therefore the built and soft infrastructure of the site needed to be infused with these values.

These sketches show you how our process led us from understanding user journeys, their intersection with space and then plot information flows, services and places against these flows to deliver not only a set of buildings, but to deliver the information and interaction amenity necessary to make the precinct perform as a low to no carbon precinct.

As planners, urban designers and built environment professionals, this also suggests that we have an on-going role to play in the curation and programming of a place in order to deliver the experience as it was designed. This emerging stewardship role is one that facilities managers and operations teams are not trained to deliver and is a niche for us to continue to shape the city in occupation.

As success starts to be measured not only by the ability to deliver something for day one but throughout the life of an asset whether a building or a public space, behavioural data obtained through the sensing of activity in a space becomes highly tradable and valuable.

This type of data is already being collected and used in retail environments where footfall and eyeballs are the currency of trade. Its use in a wider urban context enables a post occupancy understanding that could not otherwise scientifically and statistically be established. Whether it is digital traces, use of resources or use of common infrastructure, we can capture these valuable insights and shift the design process from a predictive tool to an adaptive tool that evolves over time.

Digital applications in public space also enables a layered and textured understanding and engagement with place. Of increasing appeal to developers is the ability to deliver the basic infrastructure that allows plug and play applications to be added into the space. Long gone are the days of statues and multi-colored pavings: place is a dynamic and fluid concept that needs to evolve and renew quickly.

Digital placemaking, as it is starting to be called, uses a variety of technology platform but what is important to emphasize is that the content is king, not the technology itself. And therefore the process of designing interventions must start with the stories and content that will be shared, rather than a focus on technology for technology’s sake.

Candy Chang is a US-based artist who focuses on the content and uses low-tech means to share urban stories. Her ‘I wish this was’ campaign was a bottom up, or tactical urbanism campaign that engaged people in designing their own city by relabeling it.

Higher tech examples of this include The Museum of the Phantom City, an app that uses augmented reality to show unrealized proposals for the city in situ. It allows you to travel through NYC viewing the city as one of the many potential development scenarios that could have occurred.

But the voice of would-be urban curators is not the only one to be heard. The city is under constant review and commentary from its users. Foursquare and Broadcastr are some of the better known platforms that allow users to leave geolocated and real-time traces of their experience of the city. This many-to-many communication is the baseline of the future and will continue to be used by the public to shape the city they live in.

So service design, curation and programming are emerging as essential methodologies for us as planners and urban designers to continue to design space in occupation. And digital is a key enabler of this shift.

Act Two: Strategic design as leadership development

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
– Henry Ford

The more work I do in the field of digital innovation and how it intersects with our built environment, the more convinced I become of the unparalleled value of leadership. At the risk of sounding like a management consultant, it is leadership that will guide client organizations through the disruption and change their business is going through. And that is valid in the public and private sector.

It starts with the understanding and recognition that change is needed, and that a new direction needs to be charted.

Too often as planners and urban designers, we are not at the source of the strategic conversations. We enter the stage when distinct parameters for a project have been set and a brief established. We respond to tenders to respond to the problems other people have set.

Problem definition and brief setting, are, in my view, the most formative phases of a project, and yet, we are rarely involved in these. We aren’t always part of the discussion when priorities and objectives are being set by clients.

These upstream design decisions lay squarely in the field of what I call, and others call, strategic design: the unique positioning and framing of the problem to solve, the questioning of assumptions and the establishment of the framework to measure success. And this thought process is, inherently digital.

Strategic design does not only make sense as good practice, but it is also one of the main platforms through which to grow capability and strategic understanding of a project within a client organizations. With regards to digital, it is fair to say that many client organisations, whether public or private, have yet to fully understand the implication of convergence.

For the most part, it is a project management, task and deliverable led approach to delivery that leads the framing and structure of projects. And digital then becomes synonymous with technology: what screen are we going to put there? What will give us the biggest novelty effect? Instead, I argue that digital needs to be built into the project framing conversation in order to determine what the project is for and the how digital is going to help achieve those aims.

As Cedric Price, the British architect that inspired the innovative architecture of the Pompidou centre in Paris: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”

My team recently completed a project for the Arts Centre Melbourne, an internationally recognized venue which comprises of the State Theatre and Hamer Hall in Southbank, Melbourne.  The team at the Arts Centre came to us with a specific brief around the use of broadcasting technology. They had invested some money into developing a state of the art broadcasting suite but did not have the organisational design, the legal frameworks, and more importantly, the content to put this technology to best use.

As we worked with them, we refocused the question they were asking on digital disruption and what the implications of that on a venue were: we discovered that digital disruption gave the arts centre an opportunity to reposition itself from being a venue to being a content provider, its own media outlet. This meant a recalibration of their organisation, leveraging of in-house skills in a new way to deliver original content that could not be delivered anywhere else.

The Tate in Britain has progressed along this thinking and developed unique content in house and has managed to make digital a cross-cutting theme in their activities, not a silo on the side. Their blogs and video page is a symbol of this shift.

Back to the the arts centre:In essence, we were helping the Arts Centre Melbourne rethink their organisation to deliver on this agenda but we couldn’t deliver on it for them. We used the work of Kotter from Harvard to help them visualize how their digital coalition could sit alongside the established hierarchy and outlined a process for them to develop their own leadership on this space.

This example shows you how important our role can be in developing the leadership of others and to do so, we must comfortably borrow frameworks and approaches from the field of leadership development and organizational change.

Our role in the early stages of Tonsley Park, a 60 hectare redevelopment of a former Mitsubishi production line into a mixed use precinct, had a similar flavor to it: we also used leadership development frameworks but this time to design the holistic experience of brand Tonsley. The Brand strategy we did developed with the Department of Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade, Resources and Energy was not aimed at developing a logo or a look and feel: it was a strategic brand designed to express a consistent set of concepts for Tonsley and to design all levels of interface with the brand: human, physical and digital. To deliver on this ambition, we used brand and culture archetypes to define what the investor, client and tenant experience of dealing with Tonsley should be in order to fulfill its ambition to become the home of advanced manufacturing in South Australia.

These examples demonstrate that our value proposition is shifting: we are no longer designing on behalf of clients, we are coaching them and supporting them to innovate. We are no longer offering advice, we are training them to become leaders and catalyse change.

And as a result, it is clear that our toolkit needs to shift away from standardized methodologies and deliverables and start to include behaviour change and leadership development frameworks to equip clients and their organisations to act their way through a new way of thinking. We must no longer advise and step away, we must become coaches.

Act Three: Digital literacy as data education

“in a modern city, almost anything you encounter, from underwear to skyscrapers, is inscribed with a name, identification number, brand, descriptive label, warning or instruction for use. (…) So the vast web of intertextual relationships we continuously navigate in our intellectual and cultural lives is inextricably interwoven with the physical objects and spatial relationships that constitute the city.(…) (…) Digital networks now form a vast, growing, indispensable backdrop to our everyday lives…”
William J. Mitchell

I think this quote lays it out clearly: the future of digital and computing is inextricably linked to the future of our cities. It also establishes that our ability to interact and leverage the value of our cities will depend on our ability to build capacity and understanding of the value of digital literacy.

Digital literacy is most commonly described as the skills needed to engage with computerized or online activities. But as our built environment takes on the characteristics and affordances of digital products and systems, it will increasingly become central to an effective and fulfilling engagement with cities.

Digital literacy, I argue, is education about data. Many don’t know what urban data is, what its value is and how it can play a role in designing our own cities.

Data is where where I started my career. While studying at Columbia I also taught and worked at the Spatial Information Design Lab, a small research unit within the architecture and planning school. At the time, the power of data was only starting to be understood: new data sets were being created, and through these, new readings of the city became possible. Readings that pertained to the invisible, intangible aspects of a city, not just the bricks and mortar that we can easily sense and understand.

Over time, the understanding that the spatial analysis of data could be a useful tool for policy making and decision making grew stronger and so did the demand for localized data sets collected and shared through local government, otherwise known as the open data movement. As Digital Placemaking, a US based practice says: “Data is the infrastructure of the online world, and the better the infrastructure, the better the online world becomes.”

Governments are starting to gear up to this: slowly, freely available data sets are being shared online in the hope that clever kids will find applications for them. Queensland’s premier has recently launched his very own datastore. But Australia still lags behind in terms of the quality of data that is being collected: the data is still too coarse, or inconsistent, thus limiting the potential for comparison of data sets and analysis.

But government does not have the monopoly on data collection: individuals and companies can also create data sets that reflect their agenda and their interests and use it to deploy tactical urbanism initiatives or to make a political statement.

The Guardian in the UK has actually embraced data journalism as a distinct brand of journalism that uses raw data as its primary source. Its data store is a repository of data sets compiled and developed to supplement story-based journalism. They’ve embrace visualisation and interactive features as key navigation mechanisms. This is an example of how the guardian used data gathered from twitter to understand how and where rumors about zoo animals being released into the city during the 2011 London riots were spreading and dying down.

Closer to home, Park Patrol is an application that enables users to monitor the movements of parking rangers to avoid fines. The application is the platform for crowdsourced information to come together and alert users when rangers have been sighted close to their vehicle.

These are two of the many examples that show that the strategic use of data is enabling new readings and uses of the city. It highlights that understanding data is actually synonymous to understanding the city and therefore as city shapers and designers, we must take this on as part of our repertoire.

To sum up, we’ve travelled together through the waves of digital disruption on our industry and the built environment professions. We’ve uncovered service design as a new lens through which to view the act of designing cities as urban experiences that span both tangible and intangible components, we’ve repositioned ourselves as coaches that must lead and guide our clients through the organizational and urban impacts of digital disruptions using leadership development and organizational change as our tools, and we’ve established that our role must also encompass education about the value of data as a key ingredient to city making.

A trusted mentor once told me to write a keynote speech as if it were a manifesto. Hopefully these thoughts about our shifting role and toolkit as city shapers as a result of digital disruption have been a manifesto for change and sparked the need revisit assumptions and chart a new course ahead for planning and urban design.”

I have to admit that I got a good response for those who could vocalise one, I was otherwise met with a stumped room! Comments and conversation welcome…


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