Feb. 25, 2022
Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine or the American Planning Association. Please send column ideas to email@example.com.
Artificial intelligence is headed to a planning organization near you.
Although the technology is new and not widely understood, there's nothing to fear when it comes to AI — and potentially a great deal to gain.
Recent research tells us that planners see some great opportunities related to AI and planning. As part of a collaboration among Virginia Tech, the American Planning Association, and Arlington County, Virginia, in the fall of 2021, researchers asked APA members about their familiarity with AI technology, how they were preparing for it, the likely applications for planning, and what questions they had. We were also looking to identify specific areas of planning that were most suitable for AI applications — information that would be used in the next stage of an ongoing project with Arlington County planners to identify where they see prospective application of AI in their planning activities. (Support for the project comes from the National Science Foundation's Smart and Connected Communities Program and the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE) Scholars Program.)
The survey revealed that understanding and knowledge of AI among planners is low — most likely because many of these technologies are still new to fields like urban planning and management. This finding isn't surprising, and it means that now is the perfect time to prepare for AI technology developments.
There is a good deal of skepticism around AI, and it often makes me think about doubts about other emerging technologies in the 1970s and '80s. Many planners were dubious about microcomputers, but today they are invaluable for all sorts of planning tasks. The same is true for geographic information systems (GIS). These tools have accelerated general office automation and saved time, but more importantly, they have equipped planners and other stakeholders with advanced capabilities to manage, analyze, and visualize information.
Putting AI to work
Planners have been using forms of AI at work and in their daily lives for years. That AI assistance might be barely noticeable because it helps with small, mundane tasks, but it represents incremental yet valuable time savings. In fact, AI tools have much to offer planners, and the profession will be better off embracing these technologies, especially if we use them to inform and improve the planning profession's existing practices and ways of thinking, ultimately offering better ways to create sustainable, equitable, and resilient communities.
The urban planning process is complex, involving social, economic, environmental, and political systems. Knowledge of how these systems interact is the domain of professional planners, and that will always be the case. AI presents us with a ripe opportunity to critically assess our systems and explore how new data collection, analysis, and methods can augment our understanding of places as we seek to anticipate futures with improved quality of life. AI can offer access to more and better information about travel patterns, energy consumption, land utilization, and environmental impacts, while also helping us to better connect the dots, which is what planners do.
We asked survey respondents how they thought AI could be applied to planning. They suggested that more could be done with personal assistants (like Siri and Alexa). PAs help us find information, send messages, get directions, and organize calendars and events, all of which are helpful on a planner's desk for daily tasks. But personal assistant-type AI at the front counter of the planning office could help reduce time and effort spent answering questions, which could speed up the permit review process — another area where AI could be a valuable tool. AI in this arena can also help nonplanners understand land-use regulations, zoning ordinances, building codes, and other frequently requested information.
What about AI for community engagement? This might seem to be counterintuitive because that process traditionally involves person-to-person communications. But the role of AI here, as in the other examples mentioned, is in providing support for planning tasks, not taking the place of human interaction. For instance, AI could be employed to systematically poll or request input from residents to gauge satisfaction with services or gather sentiment about local development impacts. Such a process could highlight locations where direct in-person, in-depth conversations should be pursued. (And if used continuously, these efforts could benefit for AI-supported pattern detection.)
Several respondents to the recent APA survey also surfaced the prospect of AI actually doing a planners' work and shared their fears about job security. I think that is highly unlikely because the complexity of urban planning issues is far beyond the capacities of any computer system or algorithms that exist today (or will anytime soon). Many experts agree that a general AI that can mimic (not to mention exceed) human intelligence is unlikely to arrive soon, and the APA AI Foresight Community (a multidisciplinary group of thought leaders) is actively discussing the appropriateness of AI augmentation for planning tasks, while the APA Education Committee is considering the educational and upskilling needs of planners related to AI.
Instead, the potential of AI lies in assisting with recurring data and analysis-intensive tasks. AI holds promise for helping the profession step back and identify opportunities for process improvement, and can help us think about ways to increase capacities for real-time field data collection systems, for instance, to learn over time and build up expert capabilities. These ideas have been around since the 1960s and '70s, but advances in computing technologies and data availability, combined with AI, now make them viable.
Investments in new technologies for cities go well beyond the physical aspects of sensing data and optimization for things such as parking management, traffic flow, and infrastructure monitoring, although those are the whiz-bang AI tools that get attention. Planners should also focus on intelligent planning tools that improve decision-making that guides urban growth and change. Climate change, income inequality, affordable housing, and other pressing issues require enhanced approaches based on evidence and meaningful public discourse to better address the needs of places we live and work. Effective policy interventions must emphasize sustainability, equity, and resilience. AI is yet another tool we should be leveraging to enhance our problem solving and translate knowledge into action.
It's safe to say that planners will not be replaced by robots and community plans will not be generated by mysterious, inexplicable algorithms. So, let's leave concerns about an AI takeover where they belong — in science fiction — and embrace the potential AI holds for both our communities and the profession itself.