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Real housing delivered through artificial intelligence

Kelowna is at the leading edge of a province-wide trend
Kelowna planner Ryan Smith says artificial intelligence can help builders navigate the approvals process, freeing staff to assist with more complex issues.

Short-staffed civic planning departments are often blamed for delays in permitting new construction, which must check boxes from the design stage through construction and commissioning.

With front line staff fielding approximately 5,750 planning inquiries a year, a volume that shows no sign of dropping, Kelowna is turning to artificial intelligence to manage workflows as it seeks to address a housing shortfall of between 1,870 and 2,650 units a year.

While artificial intelligence is no replacement for human oversight, Kelowna planner Ryan Smith told a Nov. 2 seminar organized by the Women’s Leadership Initiative of the Urban Land Institute B.C. that chatbots trained on the city’s development policies and various B.C. code documents have the potential to reduce the queries staff handle, provide consistent answers and free staff for more complex tasks that expedite development.

“We just can’t hire more staff to keep up,” said Smith, who began his planning career in Kelowna fielding questions himself – often the same ones day after day. “We’ve got to start using different tools, and that’s really what drove a grant application that gave us the oomph to do this project.”
A $350,000 provincial grant helped Kelowna land Microsoft as a partner contributing an equal amount of in-kind support. Kelowna pledged $200,000 worth of staff time.

Process mapping and user experience studies identified areas where chatbots could most improve an applicant’s journey through the city’s permitting process.

“Our AI will kick in at various points in those journeys if you ask it questions,” Smith explained, noting that the bots can deliver zoning and permitting information for specific addresses. “We’re hoping that people don’t have to come to the front counter to ask someone for this.”

Kelowna debuted its new system at the beginning of October. Data from the first month indicates that the most common query was, “What can I do on my property?”

While the tools will free up staff, human oversight will be needed to train, supervise and check the bots’ work. Kelowna planning staff currently monitoring the chatbots daily to ensure they’re delivering accurate information.

“Humans need to teach chatbots, humans need to monitor information dissemination, and they need to retain responsibility for decision-making,” said Tegan Smith, principal of Channel Consulting in North Vancouver, who also spoke at the ULI event. “But if the people part is done well, the exciting thing is that AI can be used to provide real-time feedback … from processes that may now take years and years. It increases certainty.”

Ryan Smith expects up to 40 per cent of frontline staff could be reassigned to other tasks if the tools are successful.

“The smaller-scale builders, the realtors, a lot of the mom-and-pops out there, they actually take a lot of time, and they take huge resources away from bigger projects,” he said. “I want to be able to give the resources back to those larger projects.”
Kelowna isn’t alone in harnessing the power of artificial intelligence. The province is digitizing the BC Building Code for a new permit approval tool that’s set to roll out this year.

Vancouver is developing a tool in partnership with Australia-based Archistar Pty. Ltd. that will check plans and flag issues for review with a view to simplifying the permitting for small-scale projects. The city launched an AI-powered project requirements tool this past summer. It declined to comment on its performance.

As a designer working with clients, Kirsten Sutton of 3D Dimension Drafting & Design Inc. in New Westminster hopes AI will ultimately help restore agency to applicants with simple projects.

“There are some people who just want a basic house,” she said. “The flattening of the process will dramatically affect how many applications can be approved.”