I recently attended a panel discussion hosted by ‘New London Architecture’, about making the planning system work for the 21st Century. The discussions were around the key issues that need to be addressed through modernizing the planning system, to engage more people in the capital’s planning proposals.

It became apparent through some of the issues raised in the discussions that the current planning system needs dramatically updating and modernising, one thing that many of us will agree on. Because while the tools for planning haven’t changed much in almost 70 years, the world has.

The planning system appears to be closed off to the everyday person and only accessible and understandable for people with knowledge or experience of planning.  This is holding communities back from getting involved and excited about the benefits of redevelopments taking shape in their local areas, and instinctively makes people feel as if their voices will have little or no impact.

Ultimately, they will see the negative impacts of a redevelopment, and not the benefits to the local community. It should not surprise us that the result is conflict, and the default mode of engagement in planning is protest. Digital planning systems might allow citizens to engage more directly in actual decision-making – turning NIMBYism into YIMBYism.

However, is digitalisation the answer to improve the user experience for residents and communities and even for planners and developers?

Stefan Webb from Future Cities Catapult discussed a workshop they carried out with people from the public, private and civic sectors, in order to address specifically what digitalisation might mean for its future. They instinctively rejected the idea that digital technology is some kind of magic bullet, but also recognised that digitisation presents tangible challenges and opportunities to transform how complex systems work. Discovering there is room to explore new web applications and new ways for citizens to be notified, to visualise and comment on development plans.

However, this doesn’t just mean scanning in documents, it means making digital documents that are live-viewable, collaboratively editable and machine-readable on the web. Currently, the lonely piece of A4 paper tied to a lamp-post is not doing plans the visual justice they deserve, or allowing for the flexibility of evolving plans. These need to be able to react to real time events, which are changing constantly.

Taking a step towards digitalisation could lead to further enhancements, allowing for easier access to information and innovation for representing planning information. For example 3D maps of towns showing planning proposals. This type of advancement would not only allow for further community engagement but also help developers, architects and planners.

So, with new research being carried out exploring digitalisation advancements for the planning system the future looks bright for increased public engagement and support.