How Technology Is Shaping Planning and Your Career

The breadth of the material discussed during the webinar hosted by APA's Technology Division "How Technology Is Shaping Practice and Your Career" was very wide. We introduced technological currents shaping practice, identified changes and trends in education, identified alternative careers, and imagined what the future of practice could look like as technology enables digital twins and living plans. It was a great deal of material.

As the technological foundations of planning shift, there won't necessarily be one skill or technology required of planners to perform their jobs in the future. Planning adjacent disciplines have increased in such breadth and diversity that specific skills will be more important than others. The technological tools and skills that are needed in environmental planning and transportation planning may be very different.

Adapt, Code, Communicate, Understand Data, Learn

Below is guidance on five skills and technologies to identify broad needs in the profession.

Ability to learn and adapt new approaches into practice

An important skill for planners is to learn new approaches and technologies that might apply to practice and remain flexible enough to include them. Technologies will continue to evolve and enable problems to be solved differently than they were before.

Understand what coding and automation can do for practice

The planning process can benefit from leveraging coding and automation to advance public purposes. All planners don't need to learn to code, but it is important to understand how it can shift our expectations for the types of professional tasks we can take on.

Clear and concise communication

Planners will always need to be able to communicate policy proposals and plans in public and technical contexts. In the case of technology, communicating the risks and opportunities of new technologies to decision-makers and the public is an arena where planners are currently playing a key role.

Understand data systems

Data is required to guide community decisions and plays an important role in the planning process. However, moving from data just guiding decisions to being a core part of our governance systems requires thinking about its role as a community round table. An important skill for planners in the future will be to think about how different departments and organizations can interact and coordinate through data.

Continual learning throughout your career

Keeping abreast of technology-related skills will take different forms at different stages of your career. Students will be focused on course content and projects, while practitioners will likely seek other forms of training activities. Also related to the career stage is the depth of upskilling whether a planner's role is technical, managerial, or administrative.

Integrate Coding and Tech Skills

Introductions to coding and advanced computing are increasingly more prominent in colleges. At a minimum, many colleges are integrating R as opposed to SPSS into their quantitative analysis courses. Good examples include Berkeley's Urban Informatics and Visualization course, which shows how planners can quickly identify the basics of Python programming and quickly jump to applications such as accessibility modeling or data analysis. Others are more specialized open courses such as Esri's Python for Everyone, which guides students through how to automate spatial analysis using Python. The best courses tend to introduce the fundamentals of a coding language but quickly jump to relevant applications such as different types of spatial or tabular analysis of important planning topics.

Additionally, web-based data visualization and mapping are increasingly important communication tools in planning practice. If a course can provide basic exposure to how to engage the public over the web with ArcGIS Story Maps, Leaflet Applications, and even build APIs, planners will be better situated to either commission or build the planning applications of the future.

Technical Planners: Coding, Web Applications, Tech Awareness

The skill sets employers may look for in planning graduates may depend largely on their role. If a planner is going to be functioning as a generalist, they are likely to be expected to be capable of clear and concise communication in public forums. There might be an expectation they are familiar with how to communicate materials digitally but there are various content management and web mapping platforms out there making that increasingly easier to manage.

For more technical planners, I think many employers are looking for them to bring a new awareness of what is possible to their practice. In their minds, this means being able to code using languages in Python and R and being able to build advanced web applications as part of public communications or planning analysis. More important than that though is a broad understanding of the technologies that could have applications in planning. Employers depend on new graduates to update their practice with new ideas and technologies.

Top image: ipopba/iStock/

July 30, 2021

By David Wasserman, AICP, Thomas Sanchez, AICP