Futureproofing the Planning Profession

The world is in constant flux and so is the planning profession. Our annual Trend Report for Planners outlines the myriad of shifts, emerging trends, and potential future disruptors we as planners have to make sense of and find solutions for.

Together with our APA Trend Scouting Foresight Community, at APA, we have also identified some of the skills and approaches we as planners will need to be successful in our work and to futureproof our profession:

  • People-centric and hyperlocal planning approaches to enhance equity
  • Integration of future literacy and imagination into planning to become proactive instead of reactive
  • Merging the digital and the real worlds to generate more inclusivity

To meet the needs of a changing world, in 2022, APA launched its Upskill Planners initiative, an ongoing effort to provide education and training on skills planners will need to tackle current and future challenges. The first training released under this initiative, Using the Future to Create Dynamic Plans, focuses on future literacy and how planners can use the future in their work.

More training that will contribute to a robust and resilient planning profession will be released throughout the coming months and years.

Volunteers working together. Credit: E+ SDI Productions

Volunteers working together. Credit: E+ SDI Productions

People-first Planning and Hyperlocal Approaches

Learning from the past, we acknowledge that the focus of our plans should be the people who live in our communities instead of specific domains that were once defined as the traditional comprehensive plan elements. People-first planning focuses on human beings and the systems that serve them, including school systems, policing systems, food systems, and others. New comprehensive plan elements might be needed.

Informal, community-based knowledge (or tacit knowledge) can help to define new focus themes, especially in underrepresented communities. Everything is interrelated, and systems thinking can help to understand the different connections between needs and community assets.

To be able to include community-based knowledge in planning equitably and effectively, hyperlocal solutions are needed. Hyperlocal zoning concepts created new opportunities for housing in Sacramento; Portland, Oregon; and Minneapolis.

The Swedish concept of the 1-minute city provides a hyperlocal perspective on street design and related co-creation. Planners will need to upskill and learn about people-first planning approaches that use community-based knowledge to make planning more inclusive and people-centric.

Family biking together. Credit E+ AleksanddarNakic.

Family biking together. Credit E+ AleksanddarNakic.

Institutionalizing Imagination

The growing number of trends and signals in our Trend Universe reflects the continuous and accelerating change we are living in. Constant disruption seems to be the new normal. It doesn't have to be that way, though. Disruption usually occurs due to a lack of preparedness, reactive actions instead of proactive actions, and the absence of imagination as an integral part of planning.

Futures literacy and the ability to imagine multiple plausible futures, interdisciplinary collaborations, the inclusion of diverse perspectives, and the ability and openness to question dominant narratives and existing systems can help us link the present and the future together more tightly and mitigate the impacts of disruptive events on our communities.

Disruptions To Transportation Planning

Let's look at transportation planning as an example: Transportation planning is likely today's most disrupted planning sector. Looking at the list of transportation-related trends and the number of existing and emerging transportation systems, it becomes very clear that transportation planning needs new ideas and approaches to make sense of and keep up with the pace of innovation in this sector.

The concepts of streets and transportation management need to be re-imagined. The combination of driving lanes, bike lanes, and sidewalks no longer serves today's transportation systems. We live in a world where pedestrians and people in wheelchairs need to share their dedicated space with scooters, delivery robots, and other ground-based pick-up-and-drop-off services.

Riding a bike can be life-threatening unless a separate bike lane is available, which in most cases isn't. And it's unclear if adding more concrete to our streets will make them safer. Banning climate-friendly solutions such as scooters from our cities can't be the solution either. Even the sky is no longer the limit, as we may soon be able to hail flying taxis or have our groceries delivered by drones.

Mobility-as-a-service providers try to integrate all these systems on one service platform (focusing on the actual purpose of transportation, which is to get people from point A to point B, instead of the specific system). And in addition, local governments are moving toward the electrification, decarbonization, and automation of transportation overall.

Planning needs to become more proactive instead of reactive.

Taking emerging transportation systems seriously and preparing for them at the right time (not when it's too late) is one crucial part.

Equally important is learning from past mistakes, of which there have been many. When cars became a mass-produced product, everything revolved around cars. Today we are tearing down highways because we realize they created more harm than benefits for those communities. An equitable and sustainable transportation system will have to revolve around people and their needs to live successful lives, not around the means of transportation and what it needs to operate.

The transportation planning field might be an extreme example. However, it showcases how a changing world requires updates to the built environment, the policy arena, and the planning approaches we use.

Instead of reacting to changes around us and responding to disruption, as planners, we want to be the change agents who shape the future of our communities, proactively. To be able to shape the future we need to be able to imagine it and integrate it into our plans. Using foresight in planning shouldn't be an option, it's a necessity.
Virtual reality exploration. Credit: E+ alvarez

Virtual reality exploration. Credit: E+ alvarez

Planning in a Hybrid World

Compared with other professions, planners in the U.S. have been adapting slowly to the digitalization trend. However, some argue that the evolution of the internet and Web 3.0 will require a Planning 3.0. Digital literacy is one of the most important skills in a world where almost anything can be done online. Ensuring digital inclusion, cybersecurity, and data privacy is more critical than ever before.

In general, we see three areas where the digital transformation of planning will impact the ways planners do their work:

  1. Information and communications technologies (ICT) are driving a shift toward dynamic planning
  2. ITC-enabled co-creation
  3. Planning for a hybrid world

Dynamic Planning

The availability of massive volumes of data (or big data) in real-time allows planning to become more agile. Plans can be updated more frequently, which will allow planners to more swiftly pivot and adjust. Today, extended reality and digital twins are mainly used for the visualization of plans. However, these tools can make planning more dynamic. APA's PAS Report 599, Smart Cities: Integrating Technology, Community, and Nature, explains how. More examples can be found in this year's Trend Report.

ICT-enabled Co-creation

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many planning offices had to shift to online engagement. Many of us realized that online meetings were more inclusive, offering more flexibility for those with internet or other remote access (e.g., calling or "zooming" in while working, taking care of kids, etc.). Additionally, digital online tools can be used to visualize plans while creating them together with community members.

Hybrid meetings (the combination of in-person and virtual meetings) allow for a wider reach and larger participation overall, adding more inclusivity. However, this is not the end of Arnstein's ladder: co-creation is next.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) enables those with internet connections to become "citizen planners" and more actively engage in planning, allowing them to directly shape their communities. This will make planning more complex and less predictable, but also more inclusive. We are seeing a global trend (driven by the development of ICT) toward increasing social self-organization, including in planning.

Planning 3.0 is about citizen planners using ICT for crowdsourcing, employing open data platforms and open-source digital twins to actively participate in shaping their community's future, and planning for the individual needs and identities in the community.

As planning is becoming more user-driven and decentralized, planners must make sure that those who don't have internet connections can participate as well. New approaches will be needed to allow for hybrid and inclusive co-creation to ensure no one will be left behind.

Planning for a Hybrid World

Many industries have started to think about how to incorporate a hybrid world into what they do. This blend of online activities with activities in the real world seems to have become the new normal post-COVID-19. Digitalization has turned cities and communities upside down and is driving societal, economic, environmental, and political changes, making the world more complex and more dynamic.

The ideas of people, space, and place become blurry in a world where we can live, work, and play in hybrid ways.

Planners will have to incorporate hybrid lifestyles into the work we do. The future of planning will have to expand from the built environment and its societal complexities to planning concepts that consider both the virtual and the built world: planning for a hybrid world. It may require a new definition of public space and related activities and a rethinking of what mobility means, among many other things we might not even be aware of today.

The only constant is change. As planners, we have the opportunity but also the responsibility to shape the future of our communities and to contribute to the changes ahead. Let's do it in a people-centric, proactive, and inclusive way!

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - eli- asenova

About the Author
Petra Hurtado, PhD, is APA's director of research and foresight.

July 18, 2023

By Petra Hurtado, PhD