Digital Master Planning

An Emerging Strategic Practice in Global Cities

+ Stephen Lorimer


The 21st century is being shaped by two global trends: the near-total urbanization of the world’s population, and the seamless integration of digital information technology throughout the built and manufactured environment. In this third phase of the diffusion of computing, following the mainframe (one computer, many users), and the personal computer (one computer, one user), the dominant model is ubiquitous computing, “in which individuals are surrounded by many networked, spontaneously yet tightly cooperating computers” (Wieser, 1991; Muhlhauser & Gurevych, 2008).

A diverse array of interests are deploying these technologies at an accelerating pace, and a handful of global cities find themselves at the forefront of the convergence of urbanization and computational ubiquity. This working paper investigates a key strategy these cities have developed through the creation of what we call “digital master plans”. These plans are attempts to mobilize local stakeholders around visions, goals, and road maps to adapt to these external technological and economic pressures, within local social, economic and political constraints.

We surveyed plans from eight cities - New York, Chicago, London, Barcelona, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dublin, and San Francisco, identifying the scope of content addressed in the plans, the process used to develop the plans, and the overall approach to implementation chosen. We find that while there is little convergence of methodology, the plans share a common set of goals: the amplification of existing investments in infrastructure, government services, and economic development through sustained, incremental innovation in digital technology. We identify four strategic approaches for action for cities considering digital master planning: facilitative, learning, systems and interventionist. 


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Stephen Lorimer is Network Coordinator and Research Associate for the Sustainable Society Network+.

Tile image by Les Haines.

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