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Tech landscape: Is a robot going to take my job?

Published on: 18 Dec 2019

Alison Broderick  [square]Artificial intelligence will eliminate hundreds of different kinds of jobs, we're told. Alison Broderick wonders whether planners should be worried. 

It is widely accepted that the future landscape of work and employment will look very different from the one we know now. Disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and blockchain are already changing the nature of the way we work. Machines are ever more able to carrying out work currently done by humans, work alongside us – and go beyond human capabilities.

How would this affect planning?

In 2015, the BBC created an interactive online app that calculated the risk of professions being replaced by automation. For town planners, the risk was low – just 13 per cent. However, nothing is that simple. The calculation is based on the degree of automation relative to other professions, and the complex nature of planning work means there are clearly areas where increased automation poses a greater threat.

That is not to say, however, that planning is immune. There are always opportunities for improving efficiency, and as Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google put it in 2016, “in the next 10 years we will shift to a world that is AI-first.”

AI is not only cheaper and more productive than a human workforce, it can work around the clock and work more quickly. It is also quick to learn and can increasingly teach itself without human input. AI takes traditional automated efficiencies and adds further efficiencies in terms of thinking and decision-making.

Additionally, many people are already comfortable with the technology underpinning AI and use it daily. Virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s Bixby, Amazon’s Alexa and others already play music, dictate reminders or search for information. Extending this assistance into the workplace is an obvious next step.

"Planning work requires an amount of administration that offers an opportunity for improved efficiency with technology"

In planning we work in complex situations that require management and understanding of people and landscapes, elements that are not easily put into an algorithm. But there are certainly opportunities for elements of planning to be carried out by machine. Disruptive technologies such as blockchain offer the opportunity to share vast quantities of information quickly and securely. Rather than sending emails or submitting information on memory sticks, documents and applications can be shared efficiently with the data processing ‘middleman’ eliminated. Currently, this requires human input to manage, but AI could quickly learn and facilitate this system.

Planning work also requires an amount of administration that offers an opportunity for improved efficiency with technology. For example, AI could be used to review and validate planning applications; it is already feasible that a program could check the application against validation requirements. The introduction of an AI capability that can learn what is required for different sites - and how to interpret what has been submitted - is not a great leap from this.

Planning nevertheless also requires a degree of creative thinking and interpretation. Surely these elements of the job are safe from technological encroachment? It isn’t that simple; AI learns from its mistakes and from information it has previously seen, teaching itself the most logical and efficient paths to an end goal.

AI can also be used to model behaviours. For example, based on a site plan it could plot the most efficient routes around a development, or propose location of green space to make most efficient use of the site. AI could assess sites put forward under a call for sites and rank them, and then later develop a masterplan based on the information available for the site.

6 ways in which AI can influence planning

  • Check and validate planning applications against clear criteria. Milton Keynes Council is looking to introduce AI to carry out the validation aspect of planning applications this year to free up capacity and resource. The team also plans to use AI to assess householder and permitted development applications.
  • Assess and rank sites put forward under a call for sites.
  • Combine ‘big’ data with mapping to shed light on the relationship between urban form and social outcomes and to support better delivery of services.
  • Intelligent mapping that can ‘learn’ urban networks to identify the best locations for different kinds of amenities / community infrastructure.
  • Analyse and map sentiment on social media or in online engagement exercises.
  • Augmented and virtual reality to support public engagement by ‘immersing’ people and learning from how they explore the virtual space.

Of course, there are many more. A good place to start discovering how AI is beginning to be absorbed into planning is via the Future City Catapult’s Future of Planning work.

Liberation from process?

However, this is not the sounding of the death knell for planners. Technological advancements are coming, but if properly embraced there is an opportunity for planners to work more creatively and focus on the parts of the job humans are really good at.

To some extent this is already happening. The Future Cities Catapult – an initiative to help develop innovative products and services to meet the changing needs of cities – is already working with central government to lay the foundations for a data-driven and digitally enabled planning system.

They have identified improved mapping technologies, big data and better public engagement tools as available apps and programmes that can advance the planning profession.

“Engagement with these tools will enhance our jobs rather than replace them”
Not only is better information more widely available, open source data and information can improve public engagement, democratising the planning process and resulting in better information and better decisions. Engagement with these tools will enhance our jobs rather than replace them.

So while planning may not become fully automated any time soon, there are opportunities for increased efficiency and support to planners working across the industry through improved processes and understanding. The ‘human’ side of planning – interpretation, engagement and understanding nuances – will still be needed, but there are opportunities to delegate some functions to robotic colleagues.

Handing parts of our work over to technology frees time for better human interaction and thought throughout the planning process, and gives us the opportunity to work more strategically. Understanding the technology available, both now and in the future, and how this could be applied to the many facets of the planning, is critical to ensure that the profession remains future-proof. So while robots may not be taking over our jobs any time soon, they can certainly aid and support them.

AI Facts

  • 15%: Currently only 15% of enterprises use AI today, but 31% are expected to take it up during the next year (Source: Adobe)
  • 38%: About 38% of consumers believe AI will improve customer service (Source: Pega)
  • 40%: The impact of AI tech is projected to increase productivity by up to 40% (Source: Accenture)

Alison Broderick MRTPI is a senior planner at Savills

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