An incredibly belated note on Dan Hill’s 2014 ‘Designing future cities’ talk…

A tenuous and very delayed thought, nudged by my previous post on the history of certain ideas and how we forget – or never even realise – where they came from and how old they are.

It’s nearly lunch time on the last day of UX London 2014, and Dan Hill is on stage with a manner that suggests the talk will be a little dry. Fortunately, I’m totally wrong and he gives one of the most thought provoking talks of the whole conference (his slides are downloadable on the page link above, but be warned that the PDF is 91.7 MB).

From a User Experience point of view, after lots of chat about digital products and audiences, Dan’s talk was a great change of pace. Focusing more on physical spaces and the humans that use them, he presented ideas and observations about where our cities and social spaces are headed, and the opportunities on offer in the creation for better platforms, places and products.

But when he presented seven examples of laminated planning application notices, I felt an pang of unfairness, along with a reminder about how progress works.

The pang came from my own knowledge of how relatively new and socially responsible the idea of planning applications are. Introduced less than 70 years ago, The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 established:

…that planning permission was required for land development; ownership alone no longer conferred the right to develop the land. To control this, the Act reorganised the planning system from the 1,400 existing planning authorities to 145 (formed from county and borough councils), and required them all to prepare a comprehensive development plan.

15 years later, the duty to publish public notices of applications for planning permission was added in The Town and Country Planning Act 1962. In just 15 years we went from people being able to build whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, without any social consideration or awareness, to a system where land owners were forced to act more responsibly, and the public being made more aware of the things that could effect them. This, and many other social Acts brought in during the premiership of Clement Attlee, was brilliant.

Skip forward 52 years, and Dan was seeming to bemoan the whole system, with his sad looking examples of inconsequential planning notices:




“Is this the best we can do?” Begged the question on the final example. ‘But this is amazing!” said my brain. “Don’t you realise how big and important this social development was?”.

And there’s the rub. ‘Was’. Dan’s talk is future focused, and while all versions of The Town and Country Planning Act are impressive steps forward, the only way to keep progressing is to always improve. To always see the status quo as inadequate. And after every victory, to pick the next battle. That’s how progress works and what ‘design thinking’ is a practice of honing.

Put another way:

Just to lighten the mood.