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Joshua Singh: Exploring AI solutions

Joshua Singh, Regeneration Team Leader – Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and RTPI National and West Midlands Young Planner of 2023

A hot topic at the fingertips of Sandwell’s Regeneration Planning and Growth Team at the moment is about fostering innovation in the Borough. Innovation within cluster dynamics was the focus of my Urban Planning Master’s Thesis at the University of Birmingham, many moons ago. Today, that looks like leveraging Large Language Models (LLM) such as ChatGPT by asking the right questions, to get a plethora of answers, knowledge and information for use.

To me, this is currently where the intersection of AI sits within the professional institutions, a tool for professionals to use to spark innovation, but a tool that requires consistent debate and discussion between partners, businesses, institutions and our communities. More importantly, a technology that built environment institutions should be at the centre of, to ensure that these advancing digital technologies are appropriately integrated into our daily lives.

In March, I attended the Exploring AI Solutions - Cross Institutional Collaborative Event hosted at TheStudio, Birmingham with CIOB, ICE, LI, RIBA, RICS and the RTPI. We can’t underestimate the value of bringing together such institutions to debate future concepts. The exploration of AI solutions is a future concept which is starting to play out in the present all around us. This was a key message from the evening.

The event was expertly chaired by Gbenga Oludotun, Modern Methods of Construction Lead at Systra, UK. Gbenga was joined by a number of guest speakers, all of which are embracing and shaping the use of AI tools within their businesses, organisations and professional networks.

In the spirit of the evening, Gbenga opened the event and framed his opening sentiments by quoting directly from the words of ChatGPT, the most widely recognised and used AI tool. This was a simple yet effective way to showcase how we already have this technology as a personal assistant, to aid such human tasks as presenting hard concepts to an audience.

Harrison O’Hara, UK&I Head of Advancing Technology and Innovation, BAM also opened his presentation by showing us an AI generated video created with Sora – a snapshot of where this AI envisioned future is blurring the lines between a reality made of quarks and one made of pixels.

He also had a disclaimer to share; that he had used ChatGPT to assist with crafting elements of his presentation. Speaking from his perspective as leading on Advancing Technology and Innovation for BAM – he outlined where BAM currently see AI adding value to the company, through a combination of assisting decision making and the automation of process, to increase efficiency.

What impact will this have on energy demand, spatial energy plans, local plans, data centres and more pertinent how we align for a national vision for energy?

What was noticeable, is that like others, BAM are already innovating with AI tools through internal testing and trials to understand where they can integrate AI into daily operations. Most notably their latest employee Barry – BAM Builder’s Best Friend – an LLM tasked with making construction project control an easier task.

Next, we heard from a modern-day magician, weaving the future into existence via his company Parametrix, Aleksander Gill. Aleks’s presentation aptly named “beyond text and pixels” focused on his utilisation of AI to bring forth a new dynamic to BIM – Heritage BIM (HBIM). To put what is a very complex digital solution into layman’s terms, Parametrix are using advanced AI/Machine Learning to automate the task of recognising and classifying the complex morphology and nonhomogeneous features of building elements of heritage assets/buildings through the interrogation of point cloud files.

This is a concept I’m bringing to the fore through my year as RTPI National Young Planner - Legacy Planning - the art of thinking bigger, bolder and across timeless horizons and bringing that into the ‘now’ to plan for a future with history in mind. To me, this goes back to the intersection of where we are in the AI adoption curve; forward-thinking individuals such as Aleks embracing the future and using human intelligence and AI tools to bring forward solutions that will shape the future.

As planners though, Alek’s presentation raised an important issue which we’ll need to grapple with – computing power will need to adapt and scale exponentially in line with what is emerging. What impact will this have on energy demand, spatial energy plans, local plans, data centres and more pertinent how we align for a national vision for energy?

We then heard from Mar Zumaquero Gomez, Global Innovation Management Director, Arcadis around the ethical standpoint of AI replacing people’s jobs. Interestingly, less than half the audience in response to her opening question about ‘whether they were worried about AI taking their jobs’ were worried.

Finally, we heard from Euan Mills – a major influence on the Government’s current push to reform and reimagine the Digital Planning ecosystem. Euan in his capacity as founder of Blocktype opened with framing the discussions around “what are the problems we are trying to solve”.

“What is the role of professionalism in the context of this future with AI?”

His vision of an AI world is one where we integrate AI into our daily lives to remove blockages within the planning system through increased efficiency, an opportunity to decentralise data and put it in the hands of the many for the benefit of all.

Euan gave us a live run through of what his company Blocktype does by leveraging a range of pre-designed building types and floorplans and dropping these onto redline boundaries and using AI interrogation to give us the critical building blocks to what every Regeneration Planner needs. A few seconds and GDV, viability gap, construction costs, CIL requirements, planning policies and indicative design work all neatly presented to you. Incredible cost savings for Local Government Planners and incredible efficiency for all.

At the end of the evening, I was left more curious than mind blown, wondering what is next as an industry and what is the vision of the future. The AI tools showcased point to a future where we can speed up our processing time for planning applications and fast track our regeneration thinking and plan-making. In its current form Ai is the most basic it will be. But embracing these new concepts will require a cultural shift in the way we work.

I give the concluding words to David Mountain, RTPI Research Manager who asked the question “what is the role of professionalism in the context of this future with AI?” The RTPI will be looking to ensure that as Planners, we have the capacity, skillsets, funding and detailed understanding to be at the front of embracing this generational change happening all around us.


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