Do SaaS dream of recursive procurement? A prelude

3 min read

Prelude (or nocturne, if read in the evening)

The famous novel ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ by Philip Dick (1968) became the basis for the classic Bladerunner film in 1982, starring Harrison Ford and a musical score by Vangelis, and the eventful sequel Bladerunner 2049. These two dystopian and yet mesmerising films show that hypermodern technology is no silver bullet to solving our world’s problems, not least of which the ecological collapse that provides the backdrop for ‘Bladerunner 2049’. In fact, technology might be part of the problem! But that is not counting with SaaS platforms for community engagement to help re-enchant the planning system, to paraphrase Patsy Healey.

One of the most influential science-fiction novels of the twentieth century.

At the end of the data collection phase for my PhD, I tried to take the long view of Software as a Service (SaaS) from a lifecycle perspective. SaaS are basically web-based software with cloud data storage. They are immensely popular across various industries. In planning, these often come as proprietary software sold to local authorities by fast-growing tech start-ups. They are increasingly used for citizen participation in spatial planning, especially in towns and cities. As a specific kind of Civic Tech, SaaS can bear all manners of names – my own research reviewed no less than dozens of terminologies and typologies for participatory technologies used in spatial planning!

Of primordial importance for planning today, SaaS platforms for community engagement in spatial planning can go a long way in engaging people in the conversations that truly matter, and in influencing the decisions that will affect them. In fact, these nifty platforms can help avert the dystopian futures which science fiction has repeatedly embedded in our collective imagination. Instead, participatory platforms can help build bright shiny futures, which are worth aspiring to, both as individuals and communities. But as platforms, they remain a tool. Technology, no matter how innovative and integrated, is not a silver bullet to inclusive, participatory planning that serves both people and planet. Not now, or ever. As progressive planers have always argued, the human heart and mind must rule together over all the tools we may apply to city-making (see the work of John Forester, John Friedman, Judith Innes, Patsy Healey, among many others).

SaaS can go through several iterations of procurement in their lifecycle at a particular client/sponsor organisation. Early successful adopters have often used them for many years, and across many kinds of planning projects. My conversations with dozens of planning professionals and thirteen Civic Tech representatives stimulated my interest on this emerging topic.

The following series of blog posts makes sense of the preliminary findings.

Introducing an exploratory lifecycle of SaaS for participatory planning

This is a series of three posts that presents an important output from my PhD thesis, namely: an exploration of the lifecycle of digital participatory platforms used for community engagement in spatial planning. At the end of all my data collection, I sat at what is probably the best café in Newcastle one day and tried to imagine myself as Civic Tech software. “Where do I start? Where do I end?” I asked. “Am I a product? A service? A collaborative workflow? A front-end tool with a back-office hub?”. “How long will I live? Can I grow into something bigger, faster, simpler?”

There is a breed of research called Science and Technology Studies which has been influenced by the Actor Network Theory (‘ANT’) of leading scholars such as Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law. In a nutshell, ANT can be said to investigate the social and cultural embeddedness of technology in society. It is unique in that it places people and objects (physical, technological ideological, intellectual, legal…) on an equal footing in terms of their influence (or ‘agency’) in people’s lives. Actors, as those who exert an influence/agency, are referred to as ‘actants’ to blur the artificial boundary between people and objects. ANT has some overlaps with social constructivism in understanding how knowledge and its many objects are lived and routinised through institutionalisation. The red thread behind ANT and social constructivism is the acknowledgement that things that are most taken-for-granted directly shape the way people relate to the world and to each other in powerful ways. The explicit power and agency of technology in the current digitisation of the planning system is an apt example, where SaaS have a key role to play to incorporate residents’ views and place-based expertise in plan-making and development management.

So, back at my coffee table, while I was sipping great artisan coffee over my research findings, I decided to take the view of a digital participatory platform journeying through urban planning processes.

The emerging insight is divided into three parts to make the content more accessible. It also leaves time for you to provide comments to help improve value of the preliminary findings.

The first part explores the notion of ‘recursiveness’, particularly what it means for humans and machines. It is particularly important to engage with this topic as spatial planning systems around the world are entering a new ‘digital turn’. The reflections I share here have sprouted since the final submission of the PhD thesis. They provide a creatively indulgent introduction to the findings proper. We all need the reflective space to make sense of all the data, information and hidden nuggets of wisdom we collect on a daily basis. Research is one of those many activities that require managing information overload

The second and third parts in the series will focus on the actual findings. These investigate the lifecycle of digital participatory platforms seen from: 1) client/sponsor organisations, and 2) software providers. The two diagrams explore the full pathway of SaaS platforms for community engagement in urban planning, from design and procurement to implementation and upgrading/upcycling. More of these specifics in the next blog posts.

Below is a diagram as a teaser of what to expect.

As you read the different parts, please do provide feedback to help refine these findings so that they can benefit practitioners, researchers, urban dwellers and tech start-ups alike.


The whole point of sharing research is to leverage value for a wide range of people and contexts. I am deeply grateful to all the research participants from across the globe who generously shared their professional insight as part of the PhD.

Sincere gratitude also naturally extends to my PhD supervisors and examiners, who helped to refine the findings.

I can also thank purveyors of great coffee. I particularly recommend Flat Caps in Newcastle, as well as TAKK in Manchester (boasting no less than three locations).

‘Electric Sheep’. Picture by Infidelic on Picture taken in 2008 at the Museum für Kommunikation, Frankfurt.

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