Transforming Places Together: digital strategy for planning

This strategy defines a long-term strategic direction for how Scotland’s planning system will digitally transform, embracing the opportunities new digital technologies and data present. It sets out what we intend to deliver, why this is needed and the benefits this transformation will bring.

Understanding how to digitally transform

  • 1073 Participants
  • 70 Professionals Including Architects, Consultees, Developers and more...
  • 859 Citizens
  • 144 Staff Across 34 planning authorities

User research is providing a solid, robust and reliable foundation for digital transformation, with a clear understanding of what people need from a digitally enabled planning system.

Learning from the experiences of different groups who interact with the current planning system is helping ensure a collaborative approach to understanding problems, different perspectives and discovering effective solutions.

This approach is in line with the Scottish Approach to Service Design (SAtSD) which aims to ensure “that the people of Scotland are supported and empowered to actively participate in the definition, design and Digital transformation will also enable us to further policy alignment (from policy making to live service improvement).” With this user-centred approach at the heart of the digital transformation of planning, user research will continue as the programme moves into delivery of new services, ensuring that the needs of users are at the centre of service design.

To inform this work we spoke to over 1000 participants in a series of workshops, interviews, design validation sessions and citizen surveys. Drawing participants from the broad spectrum of user groups across the planning system in Scotland. Over 850 citizens, nearly 150 planning authority staff across a mix of planning authorities and 70 professionals, including architects, consultees and developers have taken part in the user research.

Common themes identified from the user research and dialogue were:


There are “34 ways to solve the same problem”. The different approaches and different systems used by planning authorities and other parties can lead to inconsistency for users across the system. This highlighted opportunities in having a single seamless system serving all areas of planning.

Engagement and trust

Public engagement across planning is viewed as narrow and unrepresentative. Citizens sometimes feel planning decisions are a “done deal” and that their voices don’t matter. There is an opportunity to democratise planning through increased transparency, trust and engagement in the planning process.

Knowledge of planning

There is a perceived lack of knowledge amongst individuals and communities in both planning and the impact of planning decisions on their lives and experiences. More widespread understanding of these could enhance civic capacity and the ability for many to meaningfully participate.


Effective communications, notifications and updates are seen as necessary factors in ensuring that the planning system as a service is efficient, responsive and easy to understand for users. Improving notifications and updates in particular could have multiple benefits in reducing confusion, frustration, and delays, and increasing satisfaction and efficiency, and could also lead to more effective and timely decision making.


Professional user groups highlighted opportunities to enhance collaboration, with the potential to identify and resolve potential issues early and improve community engagement.

Data and technology

Data is seen as a key asset in supporting effective monitoring and decision making, and the technology used across the planning system needs to be fit for purpose. Potential benefits were identified through taking advantage of the available advances and innovations in technology, data and integrated systems.

Knowledge, skills and resources

A high-quality service is dependent on users having knowledge of the planning system and the planners of tomorrow having the skills and resources to be able to make best use of data and technology. Filling current gaps in knowledge, skills and resources can positively influence decision making and the ability of staff to deliver the quality of service users expect.


A number of areas were identified where efficiency could be improved, often relating to technology issues or staff carrying out unnecessary admin tasks. There is an opportunity for targeted technology solutions to deliver a more efficient, integrated, single platform.

“To inform this work we spoke to over 1000 participants in a series of workshops, interviews, design validation sessions and citizen surveys.”

To complement the user research, two phases of horizon scanning have been carried out, providing an understanding of innovative technologies and techniques already in use across other sectors and countries. We’ve used this to consider how these technology trends could be applied within the context of the planning system, informing and shaping a digitally enabled future system.

The first phase, led by Connected Places Catapult, was a broad look at the different technologies and how they could be used. The second phase, led by The Scottish Futures Trust, was a focussed, deep dive on technologies that could help address specific challenges discovered through our user research.

  • Machine Learning
  • Augmented Reality
  • Distributed Ledgers
  • Big Data
  • Digital 3D Maps
  • Image Recognition
  • Internet of Things
  • Predictive Urban Models

Singapore - Case Study

Singapore is at the forefront of the Govtech agenda and rise of the Smart Nation, driving innovative ways of doing the work of government. Digital transformation of the planning system in Singapore began in 2013, forming part of a wider ‘Smart Nation’ programme to digitise all government services.

Focused on making the best use of data analytics and geospatial technology to develop greater insight in planning, the programme, led by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), worked in conjunction with commercial partners to bring new digital technologies into the planning process.

A range of new planning tools were developed to integrate with existing government services:

ePlanner – a “geospatial urban analytics system” that pulls together information from various sources, enabling advanced spatial visualisation of data. The platform includes features such as site visit information, existing and planned groundwork in the region and options for public engagement.

URA SPACE – a centralised integrated map portal to deliver location-based services and information. It comprises a variety of mapping services and data to help visualise planning regulations and planning related data.

The platform makes it possible to explore map services with information such as Master Plan data, urban design guidelines, planning approvals, car parks (including availability) and property transaction data.

This integrated suite of planning services has created an end-to-end digital planning system, improving efficiency and decision-making, and leading to better outcomes that meet Singapore’s long-term planning needs.

Planning, Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai - Case Study

The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) is one of the largest local governments in the Asian continent and has primary responsibility for urban management in Mumbai.

The approach to digital transformation taken in Greater Mumbai, highlights the benefits of greater standardisation and the adoption of new technology capable of interpreting ‘machine readable’ policy.

Working with a dedicated PlanTech supplier, MCGM has implemented a CAD scrutiny engine and workflow management system to increase automation in the assessment of applications and enable more efficient processing.

The initial focus for MCGM was to ensure its planning and building control policy was produced in standardised and machine readable form. This first step highlights the foundational work that must take place in Scotland, as part of the digital transformation programme, and the collaboration that will be needed to adopt a similar approach.

Through greater automation, Mumbai is progressing towards a digital planning system and has seen a reduction in time taken for applications to be processed.

Lessons learned from COVID-19 response

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives since early 2020. Almost overnight our lives, our work and many of our services shifted online in a way that is simply unprecedented. In planning, as in most walks of life, the pandemic has driven the widespread rapid adoption of digital technology and new ways of working.

During this period, we have seen key aspects of the planning system continue to operate, including the submission and processing of planning and building applications, helped by previous investments made in technology and changed business practices. As we adapt to the new digital norm there have been examples of how this has driven positive change. For example, the greater use of digital public consultation events for planning have brought increased numbers of people, across a wider demography getting involved and having their say.

Even so, some of the positive opportunities also present challenges; in particular ensuring that in the drive towards digital solutions we find a way to meaningfully address digital exclusion and ensure everyone can participate in a way that suits them.

As the submission and processing of applications has continued, there have also been areas of challenge within the sector as many of us work remotely. Notably, in accepting and refunding payments to applicants, processing paper applications while working remotely, neighbour and site notifications and site visits, with many authorities thinking differently about how to carry out their functions.

The experience during 2020 has brought into sharp focus how we live and work, with an increasing recognition of the importance of technology. We have seen the planning sector adapt and act with resilience to keep the system operational.

Moving forward we need to build from this, ensuring a consistently high quality of digital service provision across the country.

The lessons learned during COVID-19, both from the eDevelopment service and working with local government partners, have been reflected in and used to refine our priorities for delivery. The full report on lessons learnt can be found here.

“2020 has brought into sharp focus how we live and work.”

Aberdeenshire Local Development Plan Engagement - Case Study

Greater public engagement and participation in planning has long been a goal of planning authorities, and we have seen how those involved in planning across Scotland have used digital technology to meet this challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aberdeenshire Council has used a mix of creative ways to inform and engage the public about its local development plan.

During the plan-making process, officers traditionally engage face-to-face with members of the public through drop-in events, usually held in public halls. However, given restrictions associated with COVID-19, it was not possible to hold these events. So instead, they offered the opportunity for statutory consultees and members of the public to continue to engage via a digital drop-in.

This approach was popular, providing a cost effective way of giving people a say in what is happening around them. Over 3000 individual visitors took part in the drop in, an increase from previous consultations, with 25-34 year olds most active.

  • 78% of planning authorities* using technology to conduct virtual site visits
  • 46% Using online mapping like Streetview
  • 25% Using submitted video and photos
  • 23% Using site history
  • 5% Using video conferencing tools like Zoom

Thinking differently about site visits during the pandemic

*From a survey of 23 planning authorities.

“As digital transformation was opening the door to the future of planning – where effectiveness and efficiency will be experienced in equal measure – the COVID-19 crisis kicked it in!

Thankfully, the impact of the pandemic on service delivery was lessened, by keeping the hinges and handles intact, and preparing the system to be more robust and resilient for the next crisis.

The transformation programme is building in a new agility and operational flexibility that will enable the strategic purpose of Scotland’s planning system, of supporting inclusive, sustainable growth, to shine like a beacon on a clear direction of travel.”

An economic development professional



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