Conceptualising the Use of Digital Technologies in Spatial Planning: A Progress Report on Innovation in Britain

Conceptualising the Use of Digital Technologies in Spatial Planning: A Progress Report on Innovation in Britain

Barry Goodchild
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/IJEPR.2020070101
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This article is about how best to frame the use of digital technology in spatial planning and how best to frame the evaluation of impact. The different sections argue the following points. First, the conceptualisation of digital technologies in spatial planning should pay less attention to the discourse of smart cities and more to pragmatic approaches that can cope with the Janus-faced character of technology and provide a bridge to planning theory. Then, as revealed by the assumptions of actor network theory, there are three main innovation paths—Prop-Tech, Civic-Tech, and Project-Tech—all of which have a different pattern of beneficiaries. Then, as revealed by structuration theory and unless moderated by professional ethics and explicit policy commitments, technology is likely to be concerned with the cost effectiveness of working practices. Finally, taking the various approaches together, spatial planning may be conceptualised as a field of heterogeneous elements (stakeholders and citizens, technology, place) with non-local governance and markets as external structuring forces.
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1. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to provide a new analytical framework for the application of digital technologies in spatial planning- an analytical framework that will help set a research agenda and guide future studies of practice. Current discussions are typically characterised by a disjuncture between heavily critical, structural accounts of the smart city and more optimistic accounts based largely on the potential of technology to facilitate collective decision making. The aim here is to develop an alternative to both the smart city debate and to piecemeal accounts of technology. The paper focuses on Britain and the experience of digital innovation up to the summer of 2019 but refers to the international literature on matters of principle and theory.

The pervasive growth of digital technology is recognised in the World Cities Report by UN-Habitat (2016, p. 42). Moreover, practice in Britain is of particular interest owing to the government’s expressed aims to be at the forefront of innovation in the use of data and artificial intelligence (HMG 2017, pp. 36-37) and the existence of a series of related initiatives organised through Innovate UK and its predecessor the Technology Strategy Board and through the continuing work of Future Cities Catapult (now the Connected Places Catapult) first established in 2012. 1 It is topical, in this context, to prepare an analytical framework that goes beyond specific examples of technology and helps in the interpretation of events and responses.

The main research question, derived from socio-technical theory (Fountain, 2004: Greenhalgh & Stones, 2010: Orlikowski & Scott, 2008), is to determine what happens when governments try to innovate and change planning practice with the help of digital technology and new forms of data analytics. Once the analytical framework is specified, two further questions become apparent. Do these frameworks suggest that digital technologies will lead to radical changes or otherwise influence the culture of planning practice? Do they suggest that technological innovation will influence forms of democratic accountability?

Preparing an analytical framework means that theory is the main framing device, rather than, as in previous accounts either the statutory town planning framework and its various stages (Burgess and Quinio, 2018; Future Cities Catapult, 2016a) or a classification of different types of geographic information (Laurini 2017). Preparing an analytical framework also means a review of the literature, including official documents and the many examples of digital experimentation available online. The analysis is not just based on a desktop analysis. The author has attended smart city and innovation events and discussed the various issues with those seeking to implement digital innovation at both a national and local level (this latter with practitioners in three local authorities based in Yorkshire, the Midlands, and London). For reasons of anonymity, the details of the events and discussions are not revealed, however.

The account comprises four sections. The first section ‘Background: From the smart city to socio-technical pragmatics’ summarises the context, explains why existing ‘smart city’ conceptualisations are flawed or limited, provides relevant historical parallels and goes on to the explain how an alternative framework might be constructed from existing socio-technical approaches. The subsequent sections explain the implications of the main alternative frameworks, namely actor-network theory and strong structuration theory and then bring the two frameworks together.

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