Innovation Brief: Post-Pandemic Decision-Making and Institutions

Decision-making and Institutions in the age of COVID-19

In this chapter of the Innovation Brief on post-pandemic places, we look at how the experience of COVID-19 and lockdown affects the decision-making processes and structures of urban leaders and their partners.

Coronavirus challenges the established tools leaders use to gather information and make critical decisions about their area. National and local governments have moved at speed to tackle the crisis with a mixture of remote teamworking, shared data and the use of models. Under pressure they have shown flexibility and adapted long established procedures to fresh problems. Prolonged social distancing will speed up adoption of new tools and may catalyse the reimagining of place-based decision-making for a data-driven, digitally enabled society.

In this brief we will focus on the challenge for national and local planning processes. Hemmed around by complex rules and regulations, this is an area where change is required, but difficult to deliver. They are a good example of the pressures on many government services. Change is already slowly happening, and we can see the future shape of many decision processes in the work on PlanTech underway.

In this article we will focus on three horizons:

  • Right now – the current situation and the emergency response within decision-making and institutions during lockdown.
  • What next? – the transitional restart for decision-making and institutions in the post-lockdown, pre-vaccine period.
  • Beyond recovery – a look further into the future ahead for this sector.

The global coronavirus pandemic forced national and local government across the world to respond extremely rapidly. They have done so through extensive use of collaboration tools, remote teamworking, rapid and open access to the latest data and extensive use of models. They have learned that decision processes do not have to be paper based, and meetings do not have to be face-to-face. As we begin to imagine a post-pandemic future, there are opportunities for innovation in all decision-making processes.

PlanTech goes mainstream

In 2016, our Future of Planning programme began advocating a digital upgrade to the UK’s land use planning system. Over several years, working in collaboration with many others, we showed how ‘PlanTech’ could enable more data-driven, agile and transparent planning processes and decision making. From tools which make it easier for SME builders to identify sites for development, to an automated application process for simple household extensions, PlanTech innovators showed they could leverage existing and emerging technologies to build a 21st century planning system. From a few early concepts and prototypes, PlanTech has grown to become a recognised and growing sub-sector of the connected places market.

Despite these successes, the transformational potential of PlanTech remained limited by national planning regulations. These required, for example, the display of local plans in libraries and posting planning notices on lampposts.

That is, until the outbreak of COVID-19.

In April 2020, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) allowed local authorities to convene planning committees virtually and changed the consultation requirements for planning applications, temporarily removing the need to display them physically. Instead of being present in the community to gather local insight and gathering to discuss proposals in person, planning committees and their officers have embraced telepresence technologies like Zoom to overcome lockdown.

For a traditionally slow-moving sector, this is a major break with the past. As with moves to reallocate road space for active travel and micro-mobility, we do not yet know whether changes to planning will outlast the lockdown. Recreating the traditional process online is a practical short-term fix, but will be unsatisfying in the long run.

The system must develop beyond replicating old processes online to harnessing innovation to deliver improved experiences for developers and decision-makers. Many planning authorities across the country were already experimenting with innovative PlanTech tools, including immersive visualisation of new schemes and robust modelling of impacts. These solutions are well-suited to the current digital-first way of working and have seen take-up increase. For example, planning officers at Haringey Council used Vu.City’s virtual model to present applications at the authority’s first virtual planning committee in June.

As we emerge from lockdown, we will have to work out how to adapt our infrastructure to new requirements. The fundamental physical components of our urban areas change slowly. We cannot replace infrastructure quickly, so we need to find adjustments and alternative ways of using what we have. After COVID-19, it will be critical to make good decisions quickly and with agility, allowing prompt adaptations to the way places work.

A digitally enabled planning system will allow greater flexibility to accommodate changing social distancing needs. It will better understand and respond to the impact of planning policies and decisions on the local and regional economy, the transport network and the environment. In our recent white paper, Connected Places Catapult outlined six principles for planning technology that helps planners work better with complexity and rapid change.

The six design principles of a new digital planning and operations system

We have defined six key design principles for future digital planning software architecture. Drawing on the best practices of other industries and the emerging features of new technologies, they overcome the problems identified in most existing planning software and enable new solutions. A planning system fit for future challenges, for example, needs to respond to another crisis like the current global pandemic:

  • Principle #1: Data, not documents – The transformation from a document to a data-based planning system is essential. Opening up planning data for wider use across the ecosystem in plan-making and development-monitoring.
  • Principle #2: Common data schemas –Industry-wide common data schema for planning applications to ensure a planning system that is collaborative, open, and updateable.
  • Principle #3: Open and standardised APIs – Allowing services to communicate with each other enhances the reach and utility of a single module, creating a system that is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Principle #4: Modularity (unbundling) – Modular software components built from simple parts, connected by well-defined interfaces, avoids the complexity and development risk of large, monolithic systems.
  • Principle #5: Privacy, security and fairness – Building privacy, security and fairness into planning software ensures a healthy ecosystem of services that is trustworthy and responsible, creating an ecosystem for knowledge-sharing and innovation.
  • Principle #6: Ease of use – Web-based planning tools facilitate ease of use, reduce problems with software and promote remote working.
Baking agility into our decision-making tools

When COVID-19 struck, decision makers around the world needed to plan and institute urgent changes at incredible speed. Inevitably, the pace and scale of change highlighted areas where our systems and procedures came up short. We face an extended period of uncertainty and potentially further waves of infection. That will demand equally agile decision-making, and the following areas are rich in opportunities for innovators:

  • Advanced data modelling for decision support: The pandemic has reinforced the importance of sophisticated modelling capabilities and data-driven insights to help decision-makers make unprecedented decisions at speed. For instance, the public health data and expert models used by governments have been critical for decision-making.
  • Data Modelling for Agile Demand Management: Managing the demand shifts caused by the pandemic in areas like transport and real estate will require greater adoption of advanced modelling and decision support technologies, including place-based digital twins. This is also true for managing critical infrastructure. The demand for autonomous systems may rise in response to the perceived fragility of human-centric systems.
  • Resilience Modelling and Planning: The pandemic has reinforced the need for better resilience modelling and planning at local and regional levels, and modelling at multiple levels – for organisations, communities, and the overall economy. This includes directing stimulus packages where they can have the most impact.
  • Data Integration and Analytics: Traditional opposition to data sharing has crumbled under lockdown, helping effective and efficient local service delivery. With these cultural obstacles partially removed, there is a path to further integration and exploitation of data. The practical task of bringing data together and managing it safely and securely will create opportunities for innovators, as will acting upon the insights that new combinations of data may reveal. In particular, with the value of integrated data now better understood by decision-makers looking to stay on top of complex and rapidly changing circumstances, there will be a need for more businesses who can equip place leaders with accurate real-time (or near real-time) data.

The pandemic has revealed the brittleness of many of the critical systems that support our society. There will be future crises. Slow moving like climate change, or extremely rapid like the next pandemic.

As we try to build back better, we need to improve the resilience of our economy and society. We need a thorough debate on what future we want. If we reconstruct using the same core models, we will make the same mistakes and be just as vulnerable to the next unexpected crisis to hit.

COVID-19 and the changes it has created raises questions for place leaders and decision-makers:

  • How can we create places which attract workers looking to move away from London and the South East in search of larger homes and access to nature?
  • How can we preserve the benefits of urban areas as the centre of industry clusters? Places where networks of companies can collaborate and compete. Where you can not only find your first job, but your second and third
  • How can we reconfigure our towns and cities to be resilient to future crises while preserving the benefits of density?
  • Can we harness urban design to create indoor environments and outside spaces that boost our immune systems, our mental health, and reduce the spread of future viruses?
  • And how can we ensure our places remain agile and adaptable, and resilient to future shocks?
Delivering agility through digital infrastructure

Too many decision-making institutions remain reliant upon traditional documents and deliberation processes. These cannot deliver the agility decision-makers will want and need in the future. Achieving agility will require a break from deeply ingrained mindsets. Innovators can help make that break by showing the tangible rewards of a wholly different approach, and demonstrating that it can be delivered.

Innovators looking to support the creation of truly agile, digital institutions must find ways to manage complexity, enabling large volumes of data and a wide range of stakeholders to interact effectively. Innovative creations must help shape decisions from the everyday to the kinds of extraordinary crises that we are living through.

New technologies shifting the role of designers

One particularly rich area of opportunity for future decision-making relates to the next step from PlanTech – DesignTech.

Automation, design as code, digital manufacturing, and information on how buildings perform are the base technologies for how architecture and design operate in the digital age. As outlined in the DesignTech report we commissioned from Dark Matter Labs, these technologies make it possible to distribute design knowledge in real-time at near zero cost. Technologies like Building Information Modelling (BIM) and visualisation tools have become common practice in architecture. However, they have slowly augmented current design services and business models rather than fundamentally changing the design process.

New applications and services, running as either desktop programmes (like or directly through the browser (like Higharc), are aiming to automate parts of the design process. Supporting design services for a broader audience, from property developers to first-time buyers. Others, such as Blokable, are attempting to go one step further by vertically integrating across the whole building lifecycle, adding upfront customisation and building performance management to automated manufacturing methods. The future starts here.

Working together to accelerate innovation for decision-making and institutions

Before COVID-19, Connected Places Catapult was working with partners across the UK and around the world to develop ‘art-of-the-possible’ projects, designing and deploying innovations to address the challenges faced by places. We have worked with over 100 businesses helping innovators navigate the complexity of the connected places market. We are creating new commercial opportunities for firms, improving productivity, and providing socio-economic and environmental benefits.

If you are working on an innovation that might contribute to the decision-making and institutional ecosystem, and would like to see it feature in future reports, please tell us about it. If you think we can help you with your innovation , or if you are looking for an innovation provider, then please get in touch. Together we can create connected places that are fit for the future.