I was among those shocked by the national decision to leave the EU on Thursday, but perhaps, as a planner, I should not have been so surprised. I have witnessed well-thought-out local plans scrapped and many high-quality development schemes thrown out of committees in response to emotive populist politics.
The Remain argument was backed by a series of experts, including leading business people such as Sir Richard Branson and Lord Alan Sugar, as well as many economists, world leaders and international organisations such as the IMF. Cases were presented as statistics or were packaged in carefully written evidence-based reports that outlined the potential risk of leaping into the unknown. In May, The Economist wrote an article questioning who was winning the debate. There was a general feeling of disconnection between the voters and each of the campaigns. The Leave campaign, however, felt that the passion generated by their campaign could overcome the more reasoned arguments of the Remain camp. In hindsight, we now know that the passion won out, but why was this?
In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman explains that we make decisions based on two systems of the brain. System II is slow, thinking rationally and strategically, weighing up choices before deciding. System I is fast: ‘it is easy going, confident, intuitive and creative. At the same time, it is impulsive, impatient, gullible and biased’. By appealing to System I, which requires much less bandwidth and effort, populists convince people with emotional and simplified rhetoric rather than the complex and fact-based reasoning.
The mistake of not establishing a gripping narrative for remaining in the EU was a costly communication failure for the Remain camp. Leave leaders were quite the opposite; there was a lot of charged passion on the part of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Whilst arguments were sometimes confusing and often misleading, they connected to people’s hard-wired emotions. The idea of Turkey joining the EU and unleashing a new wave of immigration to the UK was much easier for the audience to understand than the complexity of talk on single-markets, trade deficits, tariffs and the effects on GDP.
I could see dramatic parallels with the planning world. Despite a vast undersupply of housing, developers, planners and politicians too often fail to produce a convincing narrative for why we need to build locally. The stacks of files filled with professional jargon and complex evidence submitted for the consideration of planning officers are often defeated by committee members who, appealing to System I of the brain, represent a mob passionately defending a field, for fear of losing views or inviting new people into a traditionally small community.
Everyone involved in the property industry–on both the public and private sides of the fence–could do a better job of informing people of the benefits of development. If we are to address the housing crisis, we need to create a more positive narrative and give local people an idea of what it is they will be getting when planning permission is given. It is important that this is present in both the plan-making process and the implementation process. As opposed to the fear of loss, we should be connecting in a way that provides easily-understandable assurance of what communities stand to gain.
It is absolutely important that communication is not just empty rhetoric without a real action plan, as some may say has been revealed of the Leave campaign following their victory. Instead, it needs to be backed up with a sustainable strategy for development that people can actively participate in creating from the beginning. Development communication should be friendly with ‘fast thinking’ in mind – that is jargon-free and not overly complex.
Technology can play a part here, too. The saying goes that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. A development might evoke a lot of fears in the imagination, but there’s no excuse for allowing expectations to run away either positively or negatively. Now we have the ability to simulate and visualise development schemes and cities in ways we have not been able to before. We should let people see what future scenarios might look like from their point of view and let them see what they are likely to actually get – before expensive design schemes get too far down the road and people feel disenfranchised by the entire planning process.
This article was originally posted by Urban Intelligence Founder Daniel Mohamed on LinkedIn (June 30th 2016)