Digital Innovation in Planning – Insights from Scotland

Figure 1. Old meets new in Edinburgh

The CDBB-funded research project, “Future Cities in the Making—overcoming barriers to information modelling in socially responsible cities” is investigating digitisation in the UK’s planning system. Taking a case study approach, the project looks at the barriers to and opportunities for using digital tools and BIM in local authorities across the UK. In tandem, the project is also exploring digitalisation’s implications for data privacy and ethical data use.

The Scottish Context

We recently travelled to Scotland for our Scottish case study, where we spoke with stakeholders across the planning system (Figure 2). Several factors combine to make this a dynamic time for planning and digitalisation in Scotland. In 2016, a review of the planning system highlighted opportunities for digitalisation to help improve planning and as a result, a Digital Task Force was formed to give Scotland a first-rate  planning system, enabled by digitalisation. At the same time, the 2017 Scottish BIM mandate brought focus to using digital tools for infrastructure management across the Scottish Government, which is in the process of redesigning the planning system through a new planning bill

Figure 2. Map of stakeholder interviews from Scottish case study

The Scottish Government and Digitalisation

Given this context, it’s not surprising that our interviews in Scotland revealed a rich array of projects and approaches to digitalisation in planning and asset management. Spurred on by the BIM mandate, Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has embarked on an ambitious BIM program. Currently, HES is in the process of making its own organisation-wide BIM standards, while exploring how BIM and 3D modelling can serve conservation efforts, through monitoring dampness, for example. Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) is also actively engaged in preparing the country for a digital future. Aware that organisations and local authorities need a good business case to start using BIM, SFT has created an online tool to help understand the upfront outlay BIM requires and the return on investment. This tool has gained popularity both inside and outside of the UK.

During our Scottish tour, we also had the opportunity to meet with Scottish Government’s Digital Planning team, which is working to deliver on the Digital Taskforce’s agenda. They are prototyping different methods for visualising Scotland’s data (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Scottish Government Digital Planning team prototype

Data visualisation tools like this can help make apparent where investment is happening, reveal patterns and trends, and serve as a decision-making support for planners and policy makers. The Digital Planning team is also seeking to redesign planning’s user interface to make submitting a planning application a user-friendly experience, and to facilitate public engagement. They are in the process of experimenting with interactive 3D visualisations that enable users to see proposed development in context, and allow users to track and comment on planned changes for areas they select.

Digitalisation for Rural Areas

Speaking with local planners in more rural parts of the country highlighted how geography plays a role in driving digitalisation. For example, Highland is the UK’s largest local authority, but at 9 people per km2 in 2012, it is about as densely populated as Russia. Having the duty to cover such a large territory drove Highland to be a leader in adopting digital, mobile ways of working. Highland’s example underscores the difference between digitisation and digitalisation. When Highland adopted new digital tools, they also embarked on a change process that fundamentally altered the way they operated and shared work across their field offices, as opposed to just making digital what was once done in analogue.

Our conversations with Scottish local authorities also highlighted the importance of having fit-for-purpose software systems that integrate with one another. For example, although building standards may function separately from the development plan management processes, information collected through the building standards system about building starts and completions directly informs future development plans. Any attempt to develop digital tools for the planning system must facilitate data sharing between interlinked processes and departments to deliver true value and efficiency.

Smaller authorities also highlighted that while moving to more digital ways of working creates efficiencies and cost-saving benefits, storing data itself is not cost neutral: local authorities may pay around £30 per gigabyte of data, and often do not know where their data gets stored when they opt for hosted solutions. As the UK moves towards greater digitalisation in planning and also towards Brexit, questions about the cost and location of data hosting will become increasingly important. 

Reinvigorating Strategic Planning

One theme that replayed across nearly all of our interviews in Scotland was the importance of rejuvenating the role of planning. Planning can play a strategic role, spatially aligning resources with needs for the present and future. Planning can also be a facilitator, convening different parts of government, responsible for delivering services such as education and roads, to collaboratively create a vision and a capital resource plan to support the future. Digital tools can support these strategic purposes, giving planners better data to use when making professional judgements, and making public engagement easier and more meaningful.  However, planning must be seen as more than a tick box exercise, and communication between departments and across levels of government is of paramount importance. Though the future of the Scottish planning bill is still uncertain, our stakeholders expressed hope that the bill can help planning assume this more strategic, forward-looking role.

While there may not be consensus on exactly what the Scottish Government should do to digitalise the planning system, or on the role that technology providers should play in the country’s digitalisation processes, our research reveals that there is strong forward movement towards using digital tools to reinvigorate strategic planning. Like other nations, Scotland faces a variety of resource constraints. However, these constraints have not prevented government, either at the local or the national level, from pursuing a digital agenda. It is not possible at this stage in our research to suggest with confidence the factors that enabled Scotland’s digital drive. However, preliminary analysis suggests that more joined-up approaches to planning, with fewer divisions in decision-making competencies and responsibilities, facilitates the kind of cross-disciplinary coordination that can change planning from a rote exercise to a strategic tool.

Our research shows that, as is often the case, individual leadership and transformative vision is necessary to jumpstart any change processes. On the whole, our interviews highlighted that there is appetite for developing pilot cases, amending procedures, testing software, and learning about how BIM can support planning and building standards. However, interviewees also pointed to a need for further guidance documents. We were extremely lucky to connect with so many key stakeholders during our time in Scotland, all of whom took a considerable amount of time to speak to us. Thanks to all who spoke with us!

In the coming months we will be finishing our analysis on another two case studies, and preparing recommendations to government on how to support local authorities in adopting BIM and other digital tools for planning. We look forward to sharing further results. A first conference paper has been submitted for the conference Data for Policy, and can be found under here.