Euan Mills, Urban Futures Lead with Future Cities Catapult, believes that new technology has the potential to revolutionise the involvement of local residents in urban planning decisions.

“Citizen participation is one area the planning system is not managing very well,” says Euan Mills. “It’s here that technology can have the biggest impact. But it requires developers to understand in what way citizens participate.”

Euan leads a team of professionals who formerly worked in the built environment industry, such as architects and urban planners. “Our role is to basically translate the problems, the priorities, and the kind of challenges that the built environment industry has, and to match that up with where technology, academia and innovation is,” says Euan. “We carry out a lot of user research, looking at the planning system as a whole, and we identify areas that we think need improving. We’ve managed to create a lot of buzz around the potential of new technology to improve the planning system.”

Helping citizens to take part in the urban planning process is one of smarticipate’s primary aims. At present, levels of citizen engagement in planning processes vary, but tend to be underwhelming. Euan believes that there is a significant portion of society that would get involved if the process was more inviting.

“There is a growing demand in terms of citizens wanting to be involved [in urban planning decisions],” says Euan. “There are a number of different platforms already that try and facilitate the organisation, funding, and delivery of urban projects. I think this is something that over time will become the norm.”

“Citizens can grasp urban planning ideas if they’re formulated in an accessible way. For example, there might be a very complex development that if it was to be described on paper would be very hard to visualize. But if I was to give you an augmented reality model of the building that you can look at, you can have a much more informed opinion.”

“I think it’s very much about how you communicate with residents, and that’s something that planning isn’t quite getting. Of course there is a side of it that we can’t expect the public to know – we can’t expect them to understand the full complexity surrounding everything, particularly in terms of financial contributions – but I think we can meet in the middle somewhere.”

Some citizens have voiced concerns that smarticipate could be used as a “digital shield” – a technological barrier that prevents local residents from being able to talk to a real person about their concerns. While Euan can understand why people may have this worry, he believes that the platform should be seen as a first screening.

To function correctly, the smarticipate platform is reliant on open data. Many cities in Europe are debating the merits of opening up their data, but Euan says that framing the discussion in terms of whether data is “open” or “closed is an oversimplification of the issue.

“I don’t think of it as opening up data,” he says. “Particularly in planning, it’s about collecting data and owning the data. Planning authorities often have very little data about planning, and whilst a lot of data is produced, we don’t treat it as data. So all the studies and information gathered is stored in poorly named, non-machine-readable, scanned PDF documents in a server somewhere. This data needs to be properly digitized first, not just scanned.”

“It’s about having the infrastructure to provide it properly. Planning authorities and citizens in general don’t have the infrastructure to store and provide controlled access to this data. The data can be more useful if cities and planning authorities can structure the data and its access better.”

Euan also doesn’t believe that providing a “data dump” in the hopes that entrepreneurs will then curate it for innovative business practices is the right approach.

“Transport for London opened up all of their data, but because it was so open very few big companies could make money out of it and so didn’t fully engage, and it ended up undermining the potential competition. This is a result of the data being dumped rather than selectively provided.”

“Just giving away public data doesn’t really create the ecosystem of innovation that we originally thought. It’s about an exchange with the private sector. I think data should be open and accessible, but controlled.”

“It’s also important to say that anything that is created using that data, the city should also have access to.”

Smarticipate is focusing on one specific urban planning issue in each of the three partner cities (the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London; Hamburg; and Rome). If successful, the platform has the potential to expand to tackle other challenges. According to Euan, however, starting small is preferable to being overly ambitious.

“Sometimes focusing on a single issue works better than being too broad. We tend to jump quite quickly into solutions without actually understanding the problem. The proposals that seem to get more momentum are the ones that try to tackle a small problem incredibly well, rather than taking on too much. It must be human centred and you need to understand what it is that people actually want solved.”

“Usually an idea that starts in one particular form gradually evolves and becomes something very different in the end, but what it becomes is what there’s a real demand for.”

To visit the Future Cities Catapult website, click here.