Graeme McCarrison, Spark’s Engagement & Planning Manager and former NZPI / Te Kokiringa Taumata board member shares his recent experience as MC of our Digital Futures event. Here he lays down a digital challenge for NZPI and planning practitioners across Aotearoa.

I had the absolute pleasure to MC the NZPI Digital Future event on 1 September. The event pulled together an international line up of those leading and shaping digital planning around the western world (NZ, UK, USA and Australia) thanks to David Curtis, Christine Coste and Vanessa White. Our focus for the event was to vision on how planning needs to respond to the digital future. My personal experience of the event can be wrapped up in the following key messages:

  • NZPI must lead, inspire, advocate and facilitate education in the digital planning space.
  • As a priority, we must prepare an Aotearoa Digital Spatial Planning strategy and implement this plan.
  • PlanTech is a global network of planners sharing expertise. It’s open to collaboration and supporting the planning communities.
  • We all need to prioritise (and protect) time to learn
  • Get curious. Become ‘digitally literate’ – get surprised as to how much fun and rewarding it can be. Open your eyes to a new world and try Dall-E
  • Reimagine who qualifies for NZPI membership and embrace a diversity of professions/experts that are part of shaping our natural and built spatial environments. We are a digital profession, even if it means that we are not doing the coding and software development ourselves. Enable digital professionals, particularly service designers, software developers, geospatial & BIM professionals and digital engagement professionals (to name a few) to have a pathway to a form of NZPI membership. “I’m happy to debate this point.”
  • Digital evolution is happening now, and pace of technological innovation is accelerating. It’s our choice to embrace the opportunities or risk being pushed aside and replaced by other professions.
  • Understanding our Māori and western worlds is essential for us to move forward in a digital planning environment using data and technology to support data-driven policymaking.

Digitalisation of planning is only one of what feels like a tsunami of challenges and change reshaping the role of planning. The changes I see in our immediate future include:

  • New environmental regime of the SPA, NBA and potentially CAA and more centralised national direction.
  • Accelerating pace of the effects of climate change
  • Global economic and social crisis’s
  • More significant natural hazard events disrupting the location of existing communities.
  • Political and public voices loudly articulating the ‘failure of planners’ to address significant issues i.e., housing supply, a well-functioning urban environment, degraded natural habitat and eco-systems, lack of data and monitoring and total failure to respond with agility to these challenges
  • Digital tools and data analytics. We need to think about how we as a profession utilise and deploy the opportunities of this technology that has the potential, in my opinion, to make or break the traditional role of planners as the lead facilitators. Rising to the modern version of this role requires us to be excellent data communicators.
  • By utilising data we can ensure that the services and policy we create is informed by real-time and accurate information, decisions and actions. Digital Twins technology is important for envisioning future scenarios, enabling planners to test options using agile processes in a digital environment.

Let me Explain in More Depth

  • We as planners are the experts in spatial and environmental planning, and digital tools will significantly improve our value as experts important to supporting Aotearoa. Spatial planning is not generally the driver for technology but the decisions being made from the outputs will influence spatial decision making. We cannot rely on other professions or central government, especially the technology developers, to understand the impacts or opportunities that digital outputs have on spatial and environmental planning. NZPI needs to lead and facilitate the digital conversation including the development of a Digital Strategy and a Digital Taskforce for implementation.

We’re all busy and it’s easy to defer to an IT expert in your organisation to advise you on the digital options/tools for a project. I think this is a “total cop out”. Take the time to learn and understand the digital opportunities. That way you can ensure the right digital tools or parameters are applied to each project.

Curiosity for new tools/learning opportunities is an essential element to being a successful professional planner. Time to open your mind, your heart to exploring a digital future. Remember NZ is world leading in a lot of the digital world, it feels good to promote and use kiwi experts/initiatives/products.

Too time poor to be curious and learn – probably. This is a significant challenge; we are experimenting with different initiatives at Spark but what I observe is if I don’t personally make time and protect that space for learning it will never happen. ‘Prioritise and Plan time for learning’ into your work week, it will enhance your productivity, passion for planning, energise and increase you value to your clients and employer. Be brave and try it out – let me know how it worked for you

Legislation and National Strategies increasingly promote and direct use digital technology. A few examples close to our hearts:National Planning Framework under the Natural and Built Environment Act

  • National Infrastructure Strategy
  • National Adaption Plan for Climate Change
  • Digital Strategy for Aotearoa

The reality is that digital tools and skill are required if we are going to successfully navigate the challenges on the role of ‘digital’ in supporting or aiding decision making about the environment.

Digital Heroes in the Planning Space

NZ planning has a few digital heroes working at the cutting edge of PlanTech, these include:

  • Sean Audain is Wellington City’s Strategic Planning Manager. He’s showing leadership in digital transformation, innovation to support Wellington to be curious and grow digital capability across the organisation. Wellington Digital Twin is world class and promoted by MfE as an example of potential for using digital to understand and modelling where it’s needed now, e.g. climate change etc
  • Christine Coste leads PlanTechNZ. She’s a digital educator for planners via NZPI and planning digital expert.
  • Jon Richards is co-owner and developer of Isovist e-planning software.
  • Nick Williamson is a futurist and digital innovator. Nick has long used a digital mindset to develop innovative approaches to help solve planning problems. He uses digital to involve communities in planning processes, then takes it a step further organising digital hackathons.

Actions for Planners!

We have 3,000 NZPI members and only a few digital PlanTech warriors. I think it’s time for the membership to take responsibility to add digital literacy to your planning toolbox of skills and knowledge. Aotearoa planning will thank you for embracing and leading our digital future to support your communities navigate change and prepare for the future. Maybe start with:

I’m going to leave you with an essential reading list:

  • Digital Task Force and report by Wei Yang and Michael Batty “A digital Future for Planning: Spatial Planning Reimagined”
  • Scotland is underpinning its transformation of the planning system by making digital planning a foundation to the new planning system and ways of work to facilitate a planning system that is more inclusive, efficient and which supports sustainable economic development both locally and across Scotland.  Digital transformation in the NZ RM reforms feels more like an after-thought rather than core to the new system.
  • American Planning Association recognises that the profession must adjust and reinvent itself to ensure that planners continue to help communities navigate spatial and environmental change. 

I personally have chosen the digital innovative pathway as core to supporting better planning decisions and visioning our future. Join me.

Graeme McCarrison
Engagement and Planning Manager
Technology Evolution