40. Geospatial Friday - Pokémon Go reinvents Spatial Planning


Like it or not - Pokémon Go is a game changer. Almost a month after it's release, this location-based app has turned the gaming world on it's head and has created a global tribe of urban explorers. This post will concentrate on how and why this colourful, monster-packed game could change the spatial planning field, the spatial planning profession and the built environment.


Pokémon Go is a location based gaming app in which users navigate the real world using a representative 3D map in order to search for and capture imaginary creatures called Pokémon. The Pokémon world contains geo-tagged locations known as PokéStops (usually located in public places) where players can battle each other using their mobile phones. When players do encounter Pokémon in various settings the creatures are superimposed onto a real-world backdrop using augmented reality and smartphone camera technology.

From technological perspective, Pokémon Go is particularly impressive because it combines augmented reality, mobile devices and gaming together with global navigation satellite system (GNSS) positioning. From a geospatial perspective it is even more so. It uses maps which are arguably richer than either OpenStreetMap or Google maps combined, makes use of geotagging and geofencing for locations, and provides layers of real-world and made-up geospatial data in order to give spaces a whole new dimension.


So what, you might ask, is the connection between the spatial planner and the Pokémon/GIS developer? Well, the spatial planner plans space - he or she decides what should be built where and when it should be built. When making decisions planners try to ensure that spaces are equitable, healthy, safe, inclusive and liveable and their work has far-reaching and long-lasting implications. In doing so planners also confront (and battle) their very own Pokémon in the shape of engineers, architects, developers, community members and policy-makers.

Like these spatial planners the developers behind Pokémon Go are creating new spaces and places. Instead of doing so through policy, zoning and urban design guidelines they are re-imagining spaces through layers of spatial information which is then used by the Pokémon hunters. They are managing to 'activate' spaces which were previously passive and in doing so they are reinventing the built environment.


If the right steps are taken then Pokémon Go has massive potential for planners and for the spatial planning discipline as a whole. Up until now planners have formulated solutions in the real world - through community engagement, policy changes, development plans, urban design strategies and planning enforcement measures. The arrival of Pokémon Go indicates that the virtual realm is a new battle ground which planners should consider and enter if the discipline is to stay relevant. As well as the potential for creating new urban environments and for revitalising existing ones, Pokémon Go could provide planners with a new way of engaging with and consulting urban dwellers who may not be involved in standard community consultation processes.


Of key importance is that the new virtual realm will require planners to learn about and engage with the technology and data which was used to create Pokémon Go. With the right skills, tools and a healthy dose of imagination planners could use potentially under-utilised public-domain data to create similar apps which will help reinvent local and wider communities. 

What Pokémon Go really demonstrates is that the geospatial world is moving in an exciting new direction and is beginning to converge with a range of other technologies, data and users. Thanks to games like this, users are starting to explore and appreciate the world in an entirely new way.

Spatial planners should keep up.