Planning generates valuable intellectual property. It’s time cities used it

A scale model of London. Why not. Image: Getty.

The knowledge economy has shaped cities. As part of the startup gold rush, civic administrations have toiled to create conditions that will attract entrepreneurs keen to set up shop and create intellectual property. But while doing so, cities have overlooked the fact that they have also been generating valuable knowledge.

The planning process intrinsically requires urban environment models to understand the best courses of action. These are often, though by no means always, based on data, perhaps formalised in a spreadsheet or jotted in notebooks. Regardless, they capture patterns, insights, and observations about how a city works, today and in the past; and are used to forecast how they may continue to work in the future.

Cities invariably don’t solve all of their problem alone. That’s because many – such as as, say, improving air quality or reducing traffic congestion – require expertise and resources that they don’t possess. In those cases, they turn to experts to help them.

But, the relationship between the two is broken. Cities pay large sums for experts to create models or refine existing ones, often with a great deal of input from the city authority. And yet cities ultimately retain the rights to use only a small proportion of the work for which they’ve paid: a report, perhaps slides from a presentation, maybe some results from the model in a spreadsheet if they’re lucky. Rarely, if ever, do they retain the model itself.

That means that, when the time comes to revise a strategy or plan, the city has to start from scratch. The Greater London Authority, for instance, has an annual budget of around £500,000 to employ external experts to update the London Plan. The majority of it is used to revise and refresh existing studies and models, rather than build new ones – and some of that could be done more efficiently in-house

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that domain experts hold the newly generated IP, which they can either sell on to other clients or else use to leverage new contracts. In extreme cases, the dual role played by experts – in supporting both cities and organisations that work for cities – can lead to perverse consequences.  The knowledge gained in developing affordable housing policies is, for instance, also useful to developers seeking to minimise exposure to such projects. In these cases, cities pay a consultant, give away their own IP, then allow other parties to use the knowledge against them.

City authorities and their staff must be far more pro-active in understanding and valuing the models and knowledge that they use to support the planning process. In the future, it should be the case that cities design, build, and own their own models of their city. These will still require the input of domain experts – but instead of handing over intellectual property, they will pay for the knowledge of others to create models that they can re-use, edit, and build upon, enabling the planning process to move far faster.


This will prove expensive in the short term. It will require cities to employ data scientists to capture and codify their knowledge, as well as altering their expectations about IP in relationships with contractors.

But costs will be easily recouped. First, cities will act as the gatekeeper of models built on their own data, that other organisations – housing developers, utilities companies, even other cities – will seek to utilise, and the city will be able to charge accordingly. Second, those same models could be used to inform broader city planning and service delivery, reducing duplication of effort and increasing consistency across the local authority.

At Future Cities Catapult, we’ve already started investigating how cities could adopt these kinds of approaches. With Space Syntax, we’re developing an innovative project called Tombolo that will provide an open source platform to streamline the connection of multiple urban datasets and models. Currently, we’re working with Leeds, Milton Keynes, and the Royal Borough of Greenwich to understand how their data and models could be simply and easily fused, to give policymakers new insights into complex challenges.

Tombolo, though, is just one of three large-scale products being funded by Innovate UK which are investigating how data modelling can be used to inform real world issues – and this must all be seen as part of a much larger trend towards the concept of modelling-as-a-service, which is being led by the likes of Andreessen Horowitz-funded London startup Improbable.

If UK cities take advantage of this trend and use their own intellectual property, they will be able to interrogate assumptions that sit deep within the myriad planning documents that currently remain inaccessible. Ultimately, that will allow them to perform land use planning with increased speed, efficiency, and transparency. By using their own knowledge, cities will finally be able to develop as effectively as possible.

Stefan Webb is head of projects at Future Cities Catapult.

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Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?

Latitude

You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.

 

Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?

Wikipedia

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.

McDonald’s

I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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