The past is easy to predict, the future not so much. As custodians of the built environment and designers of long-lasting infrastructure, WSP experts need to balance the needs of today with the possibility of the future. We asked our thought leaders what trends are likely to shape their area of expertise in 2020.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to hear the renowned Formula 1 leadership expert Mark Gallagher speak, and was struck by the insights we could apply to the latest review of the Resource Management Act (RMA).

The intent of the current overhaul is to reduce the complexity and costs of regulation, to better enable urban development and to improve protection of the environment. Environment Minister David Parker said, “There is a need to create a system that better enables economic growth within environmental limits and which aligns the economy with the environment.”

Balancing the needs of growth in our economy with those of environmental protection seems like an almost impossible task in today’s consumption-focused society. However, impossible tasks are the bread and butter of F1 motor racing. Adopting an F1 mindset could help planners, scientists and engineers as we lean into the challenge of seeking more sustainable outcomes for our communities.

As you might expect F1 has a relentless focus on improving performance and achieves this by 8-10% year-on-year, measured by velocity improvements and wins on the track.

It’s hard to ignore the level of investment that goes into creating such a high-performance team. If the environment industry spent upwards of US$2.6 billion annually, I guarantee we’d be able to measure a similar tangible uplift in performance. Sadly, this isn’t our current reality, but we can emulate F1’s steely focus.

Another thing F1 does is focus on the front windscreen, rather than the rear vision mirror. The importance of ‘lead’ as opposed to ‘lag’ indicators and the role that these indicators play helps motivate everyone to reach the goal.

Stage two of the RMA review will consider the potential of spatial planning, one of the most powerful tools planners have to focus on a forward-looking view and achieve alignment.

Spatial planning isn’t a new concept, but it’s important. In 1959, Ian McHarg wrote the book Design with Nature, a visionary approach that recognised the need for environmental planning to be responsive. McHarg demonstrated how complex spatial data could be layered and used to inform policy decisions and design choices that focused on site suitability and carrying capacity.

Essentially this concept improved both development and conservation outcomes.

Spatial planning enables us to build a model of complex data and view different priorities including cultural, environmental, economic or social through a single view. This gives us a considered view of what direction to take and is far superior to the traditional policy-based planning approach.

Spatial plans are designed to evolve and are, by nature, adaptable. They incorporate new and growing sources of data, some of which don’t exist at the time a plan is first generated. Back in 2011 who could have imagined that future refreshes of the Auckland spatial plan might use data from scooters and rideshare bikes, mobile phones and crowd sourcing to better understand our community’s needs? The ability to use big data in this way enhances how we might design our infrastructure to improve user experience, achieve better economic outcomes, lift social connection opportunities, and create environmental net gain.

Spatial planning is the chassis of our planning approach; the data layers provide the engine, the fuel source body shape, and control instrumentation. In the world of F1, the shape of the vehicle will change, and the fuel source may be hydrogen rather than petroleum – but the goal of lifting performance, shaking the champagne and taking a place on the winner’s podium won’t change. A change in approach to spatial planning presents an opportunity to minimise impact on the planet and improve social and economic outcomes for all.

Carole Smith, Director Environment