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In October 2023, Bonnie Shaw, Place Intelligence co-founder, was invited to give a keynote presentation at the Victorian chapter of the Planning Institute of Australia conference. She was challenged to pitch a provocative vision of the role of advanced technology for the future of planning profession. The following is a summary of her presentation.

Houston, we’ve had a problem.

In the lead up to the 1970 Apollo 13 Mission, NASA used a sophisticated set of 15 digital twins to train the astronauts and mission techs on the complex systems of the Apollo space craft and run a wide range of scenarios for possible failures.

When the now famous (and famously misquoted) communication came through – “Houston, we’ve had a problem” – the team on the ground were able to quickly test a series of viable solutions to bring the damaged spacecraft and crew home.

As we move into an age where we face increasingly unpredictable events in our urban environments, the ability to test and plan for a variety of scenarios becomes increasingly prudent.

Increasing (and increasingly visible) tensions and trade-offs.

In recent years, the concept of the Digital Twin has moved beyond space flight, military, health and manufacturing to take hold of the collective built environment imagination. City and state governments are making significant investments to aggregate and visualise data in pursuit of an accurate model of their places.

As built environment professionals we are working in a time of increasing (and increasingly visible) tensions and trade-offs. We are being asked to do more with less. We are being asked to respond faster to challenges of increasing volume, severity, complexity and interconnectedness. Some of these tensions are new – but many have been there for a long time – either hidden from view or intentionally deferred.

Now, these tensions are revealing themselves through rolling crises in climate, conflict, economy, housing, health, community, etc. Another speaker illustrated these tensions with a description of the pressure to increase housing availability by approving new dwellings in areas that data shows will have a high likelihood of flood, fire or coastal erosion in the next decade – tension with critical consequences.

These complex challenges cannot be solved by any one intervention or institution – they require coalitions of organisations, multiple levels of government and local communities to come together in coordinated ways to form collaborative solutions.

Tools like digital twins  – that aggregate, visualise and communicate data to better understand our places – can contribute to better outcomes to these challenges – but new tools and technology must be paired with the development of new skills and the cultivation of a mindset or culture that can leverage them for meaningful action.

Adaptive Leadership = Data Literate

Adaptive leadership is defined as the ability to anticipate future needs, articulate those needs to build collective support and understanding, adapt responses based on continuous learning, and demonstrate accountability through transparency in decision-making processes.

  • Anticipate future needs, trends, options through a deep data informed understanding of critical issues
  • Articulate those needs to build collective understanding via clear communication and visualisation
  • Adapt responses based on continuous learning and ongoing monitoring through regular data collection and analysis
  • Demonstrate accountability through transparency in decision making processes and openness
  • Collective action with coalitions for shared delivery outcomes

At the core of adaptive leadership and decision making is a need for robust data and a high degree of data literacy.

Data innovation at scale, fidelity and frequency.

At Place Intelligence, we build activity based twins delivering location intelligence to support better place-based decision making. Our models are used to understand how places function over time, to visualise and quantify the impacts of disruption, to monitor the ongoing impacts of design, investment and policy change.

We are unlocking access to critical place data and making it easy for built environment professionals to apply insights to power smarter design, planning, investment, and policy.

This kind of data innovation is happening across a wide range of datasets – giving planners, designers and policy makers the ability to build a much richer understanding of a place at a variety of scales, fidelity and frequency.

You don’t build muscle by watching someone else lift weights.

Data shows that we now have less than a decade where we can make a meaningful impact on climate transition. Now – more than ever – is the time for the planning professions to actively invest in data and the technology and tools to process and manage it; to build the skills and literacy to analyse, evaluate and communicate it, and to cultivate the mindset to value and to take action on this evidence to drive better and more efficient design, planning and policy decisions.

If you are not actively using or learning about these tools already then you need to roll up your sleeves and get started – because we’ve all got some heavy lifting to do – and you don’t build muscle by watching someone else lift weights.

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