The Future of Planning
To master AI we must topple our ivory tower
Tomorrow’s opportunity for planning will be to faithfully represent the humanity that AI lacks. So we must double down on diversity and inclusion today, writes the CSO of Leo Burnett
15 May 2023
As you can see, I’m white and male. I’m also middle-class, well-educated, straight and have no disabilities.
25 years ago, even my face didn’t quite fit in planning circles, as I’d started out in data and digital agencies, and not one of the traditional homes of planning such as BMP or JWT. (And yes, I can hear those tiny violins of sympathy.)
Today, the planning community is a little more open-minded. This year the APG actively encouraged entries from across disciplines to the prestigious awards.
But we’re still undoubtedly in an ivory tower. A London-centric, middle-class, ivory skin-toned ivory tower. And if you’re not dripping in the kind of privilege I enjoy, it’s tough to get in and get on.
Leo Burnett, founder of my agency, said of advertising that “at the end of the day, we’re just people talking to people”. Our lofty position up in the clouds has put obvious distance between planning people and most other people, and has long impaired our effectiveness.
This ivory tower is even more of a problem as we enter the age of AI.
A tool with huge power to collect and analyse data, make decisions and create, it will magnify our strengths. It will also amplify our weaknesses.
AI could easily exacerbate the issue of advertising’s over-reach into people’s lives. An increasing ability to target and tailor will increase irritation levels, potentially fatally damaging the fragile contract of people’s tolerance for advertising in exchange for content.
AI could also dangerously perpetuate societal bias. Research has already demonstrated how the new generative tools can amplify stereotypes in ways that are difficult to predict and hard to control. Putting aside the obvious negative impact on emotional impact and effectiveness, creativity built in this way and distributed at scale through advertising could cause serious societal harm.
So as the influence of AI grows, it will need a master with the emotional intelligence that it lacks.
The value of planning will therefore be increasingly defined by our ability to accurately represent the humanity absent in AI, or in other words to faithfully represent the people we are creating for.
This is why the future of planning lies in demolishing our ivory tower.
The full force of AI transformation is clearly not yet upon us, but with the exponential rate of advances, there’s no time like the present for change, and in two areas.
Firstly, we must liberate existing tower dwellers, encouraging them to shake off the last of their lockdown agoraphobia and get out into people’s neighbourhoods across the country. IRL is best, obvs, but a rare pandemic upside was the acceleration of virtual research. There’s now no excuse not to be plugged into people’s lives.
Secondly, we must work harder to welcome different people, people who better reflect the diversity of the nation we create work for. We’ve seen some progress on this front in recent years, but we’re pretty much nowhere on hiring disabled people for example.
That’s why I use the hyperbole of demolishing the ivory tower. Because it’s not enough to simply drop down a few rope ladders to let others climb in. Today, even once people have scaled the walls, they look around and realise that they don’t know how this place works.
Research that Michael Lee has led as Chair of the APG shows that it’s not simply getting people in the door that matters. It’s creating a planning culture that is more inclusive, and less alienating.
I believe we’ll see immediate return on these efforts. Our experience at Leo’s over the last few years has been that our work has got better and more effective the better we reflect the nation.
The real rewards, however, will be over the long-term. In the age of AI, the better that planning represents the nation, the more valuable we will be. The greater our emotional intelligence, the more we can realise the potential, and mitigate the risks, of artificial intelligence.
Josh Bullmore is chief strategy officer of Leo Burnett