Planning for disruptive tech

“Planning the future of cities is not rocket science, it is infinitely more complex…and the urban DNA of cities is going to fundamentally change” – Stephen Yarwood, PIA NZ Conference 2017

There is a feeling of change in Tasmania. The population is growing, the economy is expected to grow 2.5% this year, and unemployment is down.  The State 2017 budget lists tourism as a ‘very significant’ part of our economic base, with 8% growth in visitor expenditure over the 5 years from 2011. More people are moving to Tasmania and investing in Tasmania.  In this context, questions arise as to what kind of place Tasmania is and wants to be.

In part, these changes arise from global developments in technology. Over the past decade, social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, and ‘sharing economy’ platforms, like Airbnb and Uber, have changed the way we buy, travel and interact and connect with place. This technology has disrupted our economy and our lives.

Urban futurist, town planner, and former Lord Mayor of Adelaide Stephen Yarwood recently spoke at the 2017 LGAT Conference and asked us to think about how technology will further disrupt economic and social norms. Stephen’s view is that there are opportunities and risks that we need to plan for.

Driverless vehicles, the sharing economy and 3D printing, present both opportunities and risks at the same time.  Data security is an obvious risk, but social cohesion, disruption to traditional markets, and increasing gaps in inequality are as important.

Advances in artificial intelligence are already displacing jobs, compounding the impacts of automation and globalization on local employment markets. A 2015 McKinsey study concluded that ‘45% of the activities that workers do today could already be automated if companies choose to do so’. Research by the Foundation for Young Australians underlines the risks for young people training in occupations that may no longer exist in the coming decades—and that will be replaced by jobs that haven’t been invented yet.

The gig economy is changing housing and employment demands, offering additional income sources but perhaps masking the increasing casualisation of the workforce. An aging population may in future not have the security of traditional housing, superannuation and savings to sustain them in later life.

The sharing economy and peer-to-peer services are already disrupting our suburbs and our economic and commercial centres. Uber, Airbnb, meal-sharing, Liquid Space—each of these platforms encourages uses where planners have traditionally least expected them: in peoples’ homes, in industrial estates, on boats, in public spaces. Some of these services stimulate more intensive uses of traditional housing: can the assumption that the average Tasmanian household holds 2.6 people be sustained when a 4-bedroom house can be used for visitor accommodation without planning permission?

There is so much more to think about – the Internet of Things (IoT) and the so-called ‘smart array’ of intelligent street devices and sensors, 3D printing and prefabrication in building design, virtual and augmented reality (AR/VR), electric cars, drones … the list goes on.

It is a time of both excitement and uncertainty as cities and their citizens look to determine what the rapid pace of change might mean.

Leading international think tank, the World Economic Forum (WEF) describes the present period of change as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  The WEF cites technological change as a leading risk to social cohesion and democratic institutions, saying “we are in a highly disruptive phase of technological development”.

How does the planning profession respond? What policy framework do we need? What are the constraints and opportunities from this disruption? What elements of policy should we consider? How do we plan for the future? What questions do we even need to ask ourselves?

As a starting point, consider:
1. Home sharing and meal-sharing: People sharing their home spaces, and creating pop-up restaurants. What does this mean for commercial centres?
2. Autonomous vehicles: What infrastructure do we need to plan for? What opportunities are there?  For instance, to connect regional communities, or displace public transport with “on demand” services?
3. What parts of the planning profession can be automated and replaced with AI? Is this a good thing?

4. What are the risks presented by uptake of new technologies? Not only in employment, but in social inclusion, for health and active communities, for affordable housing and displacement?
5. How do we maintain inclusive employment?
6. How do we maintain vibrant and healthy communities?

What is the central policy approach needed to guide us through the transition?

As we talk about the Cities Deal for Launceston and Federal Smart Cities program on Day 2 of the State Conference, this theme will keep recurring.  Check out my Reading Room blog on cities and disruptive technologies for some related podcasts, articles and videos.  All comments welcome.

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