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December 01, 2018

Planning and the Evolving Impacts of Technological Change

Earlier this year, OPPI Council embarked on a series of generative discussions around the Council table on “mega issue” topics that have broader implications to the planning profession. We invited key stakeholders to join us in these discussions, and we also took the opportunity to reach out to the OPPI membership to gather your input to inform the discussion.

One of the key trends as part of OPPI’s Strategic Plan 2020 is changes in technology and its impact on planning profession. The pace of new technology has accelerated expectations for information sharing, transparency of process, and digital channels for consultation. To better understand the impact of technological change, on May 23rd, 2018, we reached out to our membership through an online survey with the objective of determining:
  • Members' level of experience with their use and interaction with technology;
  • How it is influencing their practice;
  • Where they see it going;
  • What concerns they have; and
  • What OPPI can do to ensure we stay ahead of the curve? 
288 responses were received, the highest we have ever received for an online survey demonstrating a clear interest from members for OPPI to give greater attention to this topic and issue. 

For clarity, when we refer to technology, we are including to all forms of tech you have access to and rely on to practice your profession.  Examples of this technology can include use of smart devices (i.e. smartphones and tablets) , using software for word processing, presentations,  graphic design or 3D
Technology doesn’t just refer to cutting-edge equipment like autonomous vehicles; it also refers to tablets, laptops, word processing software, and much more.
modelling/rendering,  use of social media platforms, public consultation tools, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), drone technology, etc. 
We asked our membership seven specific questions to understand where we as a profession stand on the matter of technology. The following is a brief summary of the results.

How do you feel about the importance of technology to advancing the planning profession?
The vast majority of members (98%) who participated felt the importance of technology, including new and emerging technologies, to advance the planning profession as either very or somewhat important, reinforcing the importance of exploring this mega issue.
What kind of technology do you use in your role?
The vast majority of members have experience with platforms such as email, word processing software, presentation software and GIS as part of their planning work. Where members have the least experience includes 3D modelling, drone technology and augmented/virtual reality. Other forms of technology being used shared by members include, but are not limited to, interactive public consultation tools and web-based spatial mapping applications. Some interesting additional technology was also identified by members as being used as part of their daily practice. This includes:
Virtual Reality (VR) is being adopted as an educational and consulting tool across many professions. This image is taken from a VR program designed to educate participants on the basics of First Aid. Image courtesy of Pathways Training & eLearning.
  • Moodle (online learning environment)
  • Microsoft Visio 2016 (professional diagrams and flow charts)
  • Wikimapping (collaborative mapping)
  • FME (data workflow management)
  • Beyond2020 (data publishing and analysis)
The pace of technology and its greatest impact on planning
When asked about the pace of technological change and what the greatest impact technology has on the planning profession, the majority of members (206 responses) provided the following top 7 responses:
  • Being able to produce data, trends and visuals to help the public better understand planning;
  • Easier to communicate and engage with the public and for the public to engage with us
  • Faster and easier to access, process, analyze and share information, knowledge, ideas in a more accurate way
  • Improved public access to information and data
  • Use of spatial software to improve work
  • Changing expectation on engagement and communication such as social media
  • That our profession is already behind and we need to keep up and educate ourselves 
Most of the responses spoke generally to positive impacts as a result of its use in our daily practice, with the lingering message that we are not keeping up with change. Some of the key words that were noted in many of the responses to the question of impact included work that is data driven, the emergence of smart cities and smart urbanism, using real time data collection, and democratization of planning (due to engaged citizens). Some members fear the impact is the loss of personal contact as both and impact and an outcome of technological change that should be taken note of.

What are the barriers to adoption?
A VR demonstration. VR has potential to be a remarkable addition to the planner’s toolkit. As it is adopted more widely, costs should come down to make it more accessible for various organizations.
By far the biggest barrier to adopting technology is that new technology is often cost prohibitive.  That is followed closely with having a hard time keeping up, an organization’s reluctance to try new technology, and other items that included primarily the time it takes to learn. 
What emerged from this question was a number of disparities among our members relative to the ease of access and use of technology. The first being a disparity between members working in municipalities versus the private sector relative to the ability to try new things. The second being a disparity in geographic locations and access to infrastructure, particularity the urban vs. rural divide. The third being a disparity between small and large organizations relative to pooled resources or economies of scale.

What kind of technology should planners make better use of?
We asked members to think about some recent or emerging technologies that they knew of and if there are specific examples planers should make greater use of to advance their work. There was a broad list of responses that were given to this question; however, the top 12 most reoccurring answers included:
  1. 3D modelling and visualization
  2. Drones (photo/video)
  3. Social media engagement
  4. GIS
  5. Virtual and augmented reality
  6. Online aerial mapping, 3D and interactive mapping and street views
  7. Enhanced graphics and design software for visual communication
  8. Real time data management, simulation and web planning decisions (everything available online)
  9. Applications that make it easy to convert data for quick use (desktop and smart devices)
  10. Cloud storage and digital collaborative work environments
  11. Big data, open data that is publicly accessible
  12. Digital submission and tracking of applications
Several specific applications and resources were also noted from many members’ in their responses that all members should take the time to investigate and determine if they are useful tools for themselves. The applications include:
Kahoots Mentimeter Geowarehouse
Canva CommunityViz BIM
Prezi Trello Minecraft
Adobe Creative Suite Sketchup InfraWorks
City Engine OneNote Microsoft Project
Revit Microsoft HoloLens TerraServer
Digital Kiosks ESRI
Will technology replace some or all the roles of planners?

The majority of members indicated no, and of those members that indicated yes, the top three responses for roles that would be replaced with technology included administrative roles, a more streamlined approval processes, and researching, analyzing and synthesizing data.
Many members shared strong views that the role of the planner could not be replaced, but would rather be enhanced with emerging technology, recognizing that planning is both an art and a science.

We then asked members to provide general feedback on this subject. Of the broad range of responses received, the top two consistent responses included:
  • Making available to members courses, training, webinars and continuing education on new technologies. Courses are currently focused on the traditional role only; and,
  • Highlighting best practices and their applicability in the Ontario context.
A number of members provided some insightful advice and opinions which I took the liberty of quoting anonymously to help our members see what the profession is thinking:
  • Just because something is more visible, doesn’t mean it is new technology (i.e. Airbnb).
  • With technology, planners are able to make more accurate decisions backed with more quantifiable evidence.
  • All the technology in the world does not replace common sense, practical planning.
  • Desire to see a balanced discussion between technologies for the workplace and technology on its broader sense, as on how it can change our cities.
  • Would like to see a critical and honest analysis of whether the recent technology that has been adopted or embraced by planners is improving what we do.
  • It is important to not overestimate the transformative power of technology or underestimate the importance of soft human infrastructure.
  • We should be leading and not reacting to technology.
  • A 'tech corner' or 'tech tips' section on the OPPI website to provide updates would be very welcome.
With this feedback received, OPPI Council and Staff, along with esteemed directors of planning schools from across Ontario debated the impact of technology and computer-on-desk-3.jpgour actions on this mega issue to best serve our members as we move forward.
What was clear from the findings and our discussion is that technology is influencing the way we do planning, the way we communicate and share, and the environment that we work in. There are two aspects to technology: planning WITH technology and planning FOR technology, with the former focusing on how well equipped we are to respond to the built environment and the latter being how well prepared we are to respond to change that is emerging.
The Planner’s role is a constant negotiation of how communities are built, and technology can help us make better decisions. However, the rapid pace in which technological change is happening provides opportunities for both innovation and disruption, so we need to be ahead of the curve as much as possible and avoid becoming reactionary to change. To achieve this, we should consider the following:
  • Providing members or directing members to open access tools as a resource that can leverage.An example of this includes the website Planetizen which provides online training or webinars of applications like 3D modelling for planners and other platforms tailored to our profession. We should look to other planning organizations such as the APA to obtain some best practice approaches to achieving this service.
  • Exposing members to examples of how new technology benefit what we do, and how it is being used or applied in the industry. This can be achieved through presentations by the technological provider or teaching a new method through a course made available to members in webinars or at symposiums/conferences.
  • Establishing user groups around technology where members can reach out to each other for advice;
  • Keep a critical eye on the governance and privacy rights as we expand use of technology, ensuring that the public interest is always top of mind 
As we move forward, OPPI will consider this feedback and determine the best way to continually educate members on best practices for planning with and for technology. OPPI needs to ensure that our Institute is an outlet that members can rely on to be prepared for rapid and unpredictable change. I want to thank all members who responded to the survey to help us advance this important issue.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Eldon Theodore, RPP

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