Blurred lines: Planning for societal change and digital disruption in the built environment (Abstract)

Camilla Siggaard Andersen
5 min readFeb 16, 2024

This is an abstract of an article that was first published in the Journal of Planning & Environment Law (by Sweet & Maxwell). The full paper can be accessed here:

In the UK, spatial planning emerged in the 20th century as a mechanism for safeguarding people’s health and wellbeing in the built environment. As physical conditions improved, the field naturally expanded to consider wider social, economic, and environmental outcomes associated with building and land use. These uses are now being disrupted by digital technology, with new behaviours, tools, and services developing at an unprecedented rate. How should the built environment respond to these changes, and the opportunities and challenges they present?

In this paper, I examine how the relationship between place, technology, and people has shaped our past, in order to better understand, and ultimately reposition, the role that the planning professions must take in shaping our future. I take a critical look at how digital technology is commonly framed in the context of ‘smart cities’ and call for a new approach that puts the health and wellbeing of people and planet first.

Holistic planning paradigm. Diagram by author.

The first section of the paper explains how environmental conditions, technological progress, and societal change have been connected throughout the history of humankind.

From the invention of stone tools by prehistoric nomads to the creation of computer networks by 20th century scientists, the milestones on our timeline sit squarely where these three domains coalesce. For the past three hundred years, the rate of technological innovation has been escalating. The First and Second Industrial Revolutions were catalysed by significant advancements in energy, manufacturing, and construction technologies. In addition to enabling new areas of industry, this progress also reshaped the environment and the ways people lived and worked — from small houses to tenements, fields to factories. The UK’s first planning legislation was enacted at the end of this period, responding to the increasing complexity of the built environment and its impact on people’s health and wellbeing.

Looking at the 20th century, the paper points to two defining technological developments: first, the invention of the motor car (enabling urban sprawl), and second, the advent of digital technology (enabling the growth of the knowledge economy). The paper frames the emergence of digital technology as an evolution of information and communication tools, explaining both its immediate impact on economic and social patterns, and its relatively inconspicuous impact on the environment’s physical form.

The next section of the paper considers how digital technology has been framed in the context of urban planning, and where and when the idea of a ‘smart city’ was born.

The planning profession has been playing with advanced information and communication technologies since the 1950s, altogether with varying outcomes. Early attempts at creating computer models to simulate and optimise urban systems mostly resulted in deficient results, and none were widely adopted. Then, in the late 2000s, the world entered a financial crisis at the same time as half of the global population became urban. This became the catalyst for technology companies to enter the field of urban planning, creating the first definitions and discussions of smart cities. The paper points out that even though this is now more than a decade ago, and even if most local authorities claim to have a smart city agenda, there is still no common definition of what a smart city is, nor how this concept might be delivered. Why is that?

Data objectives in the private versus public sector. Diagram by author.

The middle section of the paper is focused on answering this question by presenting three main issues of the current discourse. These issues have all emerged from an over-reliance on one sector (the technology sector) to develop solutions, paired with interest, resource, and skill shortages in other sectors, including within the planning professions.

  1. An issue of variables: A digital model functions much like an equation, with a set of expressions and numerical variables. The problem with modelling urban systems is both with the number of potential variables (which could be infinite), and with the character of the variables (which could be both qualitative and quantitative).
  2. An issue of viability: Data has become a hugely valuable commodity for the companies that make their business from selling discrete products to consumers. The problem with urban data is both with the underlying business case (which has to capture the value of a process not a product) and with the supporting data protection law (which is fundamentally about the rights of citizens not users).
  3. An issue of physics: Digital technology companies are leading the world’s economy by making use of their ability to update and distribute products to the entire global population in real time. The built environment cannot adopt this approach because it operates in the physical world (which is bound by time and space) and from a different perspective (which is local over global).

By allowing one sector to dominate the discourse, we have inevitably come to ask what the city can do for digital technology, instead of what technology can do for the city and, even more so, what the city can do for a digitally transformed society. In order to change the conversation, this paper presents three opportunities for thinking differently about digital technology in the built environment:

  1. Digital technology as a communication tool: As an information and communication technology, digital technology presents significant opportunities for improving public engagement and collaboration between diverse project stakeholders. These benefits can only be realised if you have something meaningful to talk about.
  2. Digital technology as an evaluation tool: Computer programmes can easily weigh up complex quantitative parameters, ensuring that minimum benchmarks are met. These benefits can only be realised if you can measure what you value.
  3. Digital technology as a planning tool: The digital transformation of economic and social activities is creating unique opportunities for rethinking how we use space in more efficient and enjoyable ways. These benefits can only be realised if you know where you want to go.

In conclusion, the paper recognises that there is a shift happening in the smart city discourse, from a more technology-centric to a human-centric view of the world. Together with this change comes a new opportunity for the planning professions to reshape the smart city agenda, but only if we recognise the interconnectedness between place, technology, and people, and the importance of managing this relationship with the health and wellbeing of populations in mind.