A Brave and Better World? The iPad and the Future of Planning

February 7, 2012, 2pm PST | John D. Landis
Share Tweet LinkedIn Email Comments

John D. Landis gazes into the future and sees a bold new world in which Planners are replaced by a system of Internet-based applications that conduct analysis and interpretation more easily, quickly, cheaply, and reliably than humans. Alas, not all is lost, Landis also offers some consoling words on the planning activities for which humans are irreplaceable. 

Most of my graduate planning students and several of my colleagues have iPads. And many of them have iCloud accounts. I never much saw the value of the iPad, but then just recently, I read Walter Isaacson's biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs, and in it, Isaacson noted that as early as 2005, Jobs was thinking about how people's digital lives could be made completely mobile and placeless. Several of us were talking about this idea over dinner recently, and it struck me: if this vision were truly to come to pass-which is to say that aspects of our everyday activities and preferences are seamlessly recorded and collected in the digital cloud-it's a short hop, skip, or jump to not needing most planners.

Seen from the perspective of the iCloud, what is it that planners do? Mostly, we aggregate individual preferences about the uses of space and location; mediate among competing spatial preferences and demands; and use spatially-tagged data to make projections and plans about local futures. With good input data, a cloud-based preference aggregator, and a bit of forecasting intelligence, might it not be possible to write a set of Internet-based algorithms to do exactly the same thing? And do it more quickly, cheaply, and without the sturm and drang of today's elaborate planning processes? Could it be that the iPad, the iCloud, and a series of planning algorithms might make many human planners redundant? This is a rhetorical question.

Consider the following scenario, set in the year 2015: After getting up in the morning to a perfect cup of coffee brewed to your personal preferences and wake-up schedule by the iPad iBarrista app, and after reading the latest news and commentary at the New York Times-Huffington Post mashup on your iMurdoch app, your iPad casually queries whether you will be going to work at the usual time and by the usual mode. You answer yes. Your iPad's transit app knows that you normally take the 8:20 bus from a nearby corner to your downtown office, and transmits that information to the iDispatch app residing in the iCloud, which aggregates all such intended behavior, realizes that the 8:20 bus will be overly crowded, and quickly dispatches a second bus.

CityTransit App, which provides location based information and real-time updates on NYC Transit, in action

If you were instead going to drive to work, the iLOS (for Level-of-Service) app in the iCloud would have determined that the addition of your single trip to the already congested tollway would have reduced its level-of-service to C, raised the congestion toll accordingly, and sent a soothing voice message to your iPad advising you that you should take a different route or be prepared to pay a 20% higher user-fee. But only for the next 22 minutes. [As you walk out the door on your way to work, your iSpouse app reminds you that today is your wife's birthday, and that because you have forgotten her last five birthdays, it offers to communicate with your wife's iSpouse app to see if they can jointly schedule dinner that evening at her favorite restaurant, Sushi-Unplugged. After offering iJaques, Sushi-Unplugged's electronic maitre' d a $10 tip to complete the reservation, your iSpouse app sends a message to your wife's iDivorceLawyer app, which has been accumulating a running count of all such transgressions, reminding it to reduce the count by 3.]

Every hour, iDispatch and iLOS send complete summaries of all transit and road system use (broken down by minute and for every road or transit link!) to iRobertMoses, an always-on-the-job master planning app. Since all three app databases are located in the same iCloud down at City Hall-which is really just a big server farm-these updates are instantaneous. At the end of every day, iRobert Moses compares the usage and congestion patterns of the entire transportation system to the daily patterns of the last ten years, and updates its 90-day projections of future anticipated usage and congestion levels-again, by both minute and link. These projections are then compared to the transportation system's design and operating specifications, and if they are exceeded, iRobertMoses writes a brief (but fully documented) e-mail to the regional DOT administrator demanding additional funds to upgrade the system to avoid future congestion and delays. The regional DOT administrator is still a person, but plans are underway to convert her to an app because, as a human being, she doesn't have sufficient time, try as she might, to read all her incoming e-mails.

Because of proper concerns over privacy and confidentiality, once iCloud's resident databases have logged an action or responded to a request, iCloud's free-roving iBillofRights app erases all specific names, personal identifiers, and IP addresses from its databases. Not all countries make use of iBillofRights. Some make use of its evil twin, iOrwell, to keep track of and cross-reference all individual actions and requests. Should you inadvertently try to book a trip to such countries, you are confident your iAmnesty International app will catch your mistake, and cancel your reservations.

Meanwhile, down at Steve Jobs Park in front of City Hall, the iCU app is continuously interpreting the transmissions of the park's twenty closed-circuit cameras, and comparing the results to the visual profiles in the local database of recent crimes and criminal behavior. (Some transmissions are also surreptitiously cross-checked to the iPeople database to check for local celebrity sightings.) While the database checks for possible criminal behavior, another app, iWhyte, is comparing pedestrian usage patterns in Jobs Park to the norms extracted from its database of worldwide community park usage, corrected for time of day, temperature, and local cultural preferences. iWhyte determines that Jobs Park is consistently underutilized, and sends an e-mail to that effect to another app, iOlmsted, which then redesigns Jobs Park to make it more attractive and functional. The new park design is forwarded to the iRobertMoses app which ignores it; but because of local public disclosure laws-as enforced by an iNader app-it is nonetheless tweeted to the next day's local edition of the New York Times/Huffington Post. Thousands of subsequent tweets protesting iRobertMoses' indifference ensue, and they soon overwhelm the android operating system on the Mayor's non-Apple-compliant smartphone. When the Mayor is slow to respond with her own tweet, the iTeaParty app starts circulating a recall petition throughout the iCloud.

Back to you, because iPads are really all about you. Six months later your employer-whom you've never actually met face to face-e-mails that he (or is it she?) is transferring you to Las Vegas where housing is relatively inexpensive thanks to the still-available surplus of homes built in the early years of the 21st century before the Federal Reserve app was available to prevent asset speculation. Upon intercepting this news, your realtor app first consoles you and then shows you data and pictures of all the available homes for sale in Las Vegas, sorted by available wireless bandwidth. You don't like any of them, and tell the realtor app so. Ever helpful, your virtual realtor sends an e-mail to all three remaining Las Vegas area homebuilders, asking what might be in the construction pipeline. Sadly, nothing is.

Having surreptitiously intercepted these communications before iBillofRights could delete them, and hoping to gain your business, iMcHarg, an ESRI-developed app owned by Toll Brothers Homebuilders, quickly accesses all publicly available GIS databases and conducts an on-the-fly development suitability overlay analysis for every privately-owned piece of undeveloped land within twenty miles of Las Vegas. Finding a dozen or so appropriate parcels, iMcHarg quickly checks their zoning and subdivision status with Las Vegas' zoning and subdivision administration app. Five parcels turn out to be appropriately zoned but all five are on wetlands, so iMcHarg quickly prepares take-permit applications for electronic submittal to the Army Corps. of Engineers' wetland permit review app. Upon arrival in the Corps' review queue database, the application is promptly lost. All of this has happened within ten minutes of when you first learned you were being transferred to Las Vegas.

The brave and bold new world described above would need fewer bus dispatchers, fewer toll takers, fewer divorce lawyers, fewer realtors, and especially fewer planners. This is because much of what planners do-record, analyze, and project how people individually and collectively use, navigate, mediate, and move among spatial locations-can be done more easily, more quickly, more cheaply, and more reliably by a linked system of Internet-based databases and applications. To those who would say that these scenarios are unlikely anytime soon, a similar position was probably held by the extinct species known as travel agents the day before expedia.com debuted in 1996. As to the question of whether such a future is technically possible, let me just note that today's smartphones are far smaller and infinitely more capable than the communicators used by Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series, which premiered in 1966 but was set in the year 2266. I know all these dates and references are correct because I just checked them on Wikipedia. On my smartphone. By audibly asking it a question.

I argue that not only is such a future likely, but that all kidding aside, many of its less intrusive aspects may actually be desirable. For decades, planners have positioned themselves as the principle arbiters and interpreters of urban and environmental information. For the most part, we have been successful in these endeavors. What we have been less successful in doing is using our information analysis and interpretation skills to make the public decision process quicker or demonstrably better. In a period of profound public worry about competency of all levels of government and continuing downward pressure on public budgets, this leaves planners especially vulnerable.

The best way to restore planning's luster is to make it more efficient at its tasks, and the road to efficiency is paved with automation. So, instead of planners worrying about the long-term solvency of our current employers-principally local government-we should be busily writing the types of Internet-based applications identified above. The advent of travel websites like Expedia and Orbitz decimated the travel agency industry, but by making travel easier and cheaper, led to an increase in travel itself. So too, would the creation of useful, easy-to-use planning apps lead-I hope-to greater societal value placed on planning.

Let me be clear that I am not questioning the planning function or particular types of planning. There are many planning activities-dispute resolution, strategic planning, or affordable housing development are just three examples-that are more about mediating values, brokering interests, or leveraging resources than about interpreting information; and I would expect these activities to be more durable in their current forms. What I am questioning is whether the field of planning as a whole can continue to insist on maintaining its role as information arbiter all the while falling further and further behind in its ability to serve that function in a quick, low-cost, and above all, personalized way. Let's get busy writing those apps. I'll start with iRobertMoses.

John D. Landis is the Department Chair, Crossways Professor, and Urban Spatial Analytics Academic Director at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design's City and Regional Planning Department. Prof. Landis' research interests span a variety of urban development topics; his recent research and publications focus on growth management, infill housing, and the geography of urban employment centers.

Share Tweet LinkedIn Email