Game changing new digital platform to drive innovation in urban design

Image by Maria Gabriela Giurizzato Cremona
Image by Maria Gabriela Giurizzato Cremona

Urban policymaking, plan-making and place-making in Australia could be about to get smarter.

A $1.8 million funding package was announced on 27 November by the Australian Research Council to a research consortium spanning Australia’s four largest capital cities. Led by Swinburne University of Technology together with UNSW, Monash, Curtin and Queensland universities, the objective is to develop a 21st century digital information platform for collaborative Built Environment and Design applications capable of matching those emerging elsewhere around the world.

It will enable the creation of critical capacity and new forms of collaborative integrated research among academics and practitioners who have been involved for the past several years in three Co-operative Research Centres (CRC) focused on more sustainable urban development: CRC for Spatial Information, CRC for Low Carbon Living and CRC for Water Sensitive Cities.

Increasing demands for improved urban governance and improved urban planning are interdependent. A game-changer capable of providing a transition on both fronts has emerged in the form of a 21st century smart, networked, decision supporting platform for applied urban research, synthesis and participation.

Called the iHUB Network, it is a readily scalable, state-of-the-art, multi-layered networked facility that helps participants make smarter decisions in urban policy-making, plan-making and place-making (Figure 1).

Using a common infrastructure, the iHUB network is designed to deliver superior computational, visualisation and broadband communications infrastructure that is capable of supporting a broad spectrum of applied and strategic research and engagement objectives with digital pin-ups and high speed computing, enabling real-time distributed synchronous computing and communication nationally and internationally 24/7.

Each iHUB facility in the initial five-node network has a highly reconfigurable meeting space (see figure 2) with five principal infrastructure layer features:

  • a space affording up to 64 individual presentations from laptops, tablets and smartphones to be compared and contrasted simultaneously within a digital pin-up space;
  • a room hosting high-end computing with advanced graphics capability with the power to crunch large urban data sets and produce spatial visualisation in real time, making use of all combinations of screens;
  • connections via Australia’s fastest broadband network (AARNet), enabling teams of urban researchers and practitioners from across four states to collaborate, sharing each others’ high resolution visualisations, created from local and distributed urban data sets;
  • a digital pin-up space that can host exhibitions drawn from various sources as a visual backdrop to urban research, as well as government, industry and community-initiated engagement meetings; or it can function as a combination of exhibition space and interactive meeting space, hosting both presentations and real-time visualisation of urban analytics simultaneously;
  • a “digital workbench” for many powerful digital urban analytical tools that, to date, have not been able to interoperate. The digital workbench provides the “smarts” that enable the design decision-makers to consider fresh data-driven scenarios in combination with future planning scenarios in real time. Through sophisticated data capture, transmission and advanced analytics, and advanced visualisation, experts and end-users will be able to interact with both the data and each other in real time.

In short, an iHUB facility provides a highly adaptable space where visual-analytic material from many sources can be used to cover a landscape of disciplines with vastly different modus operandi. This space offers a visual representation of ideas, theories, facts, postulations, models and scenarios in the most appropriate common format upon which to inform, negotiate, advocate, and instruct.

iHUB Workspace

In addition to the infrastructure layer, the data layer initially established in the iHUB will operate as a distributed system that draws on proprietary databases developed and managed within partner organisations and their affiliated networks, as well as those with open access managed by governments and agencies such as AURIN.

The surge in data acquisition, processing and representation during the last decade, however, has not been adequately addressed by built environment and design (BED) professions, insofar as the considerably improved data outputs are not routinely captured/accessed and converted to design inputs.

The software layer represents a significant repository of computer-based tools developed by the iHUB university partners, who have all been involved in one or more of the three “urban” CRCs, as well as those tools that are available as open source.

Computer modelling of built environment performance (at building, precinct and city scale) has generally been undertaken in silos – as one-off grants to individual research groups or within Co-operative Research Centres (CRCs), or consultancies working on (often domain-) specific projects, with the resultant tools rarely being applied to important urban planning and design issues and never integrated. They are extensive, but currently, exist in isolation (see Figure 3), and mostly as new prototypes, awaiting wider exposure on actual projects (e.g., via integrated assessment in research synthesis projects). With subsequent hardening, and where strategically important, they have the prospect for being developed as integrated multi-factor models. There is an opportunity here to respond to repeated calls for creating a capacity for integrated urban systems analysis and modelling.

The engagement layer is where the principal benefits of the iHUB network are delivered. Imagine politicians, planners, developers, architects, engineers, social scientists, and citizens being able to gather in a room to make collective decisions based on real-time data analytics. In such a facility, key stakeholders, experts, and end-users could probe “what if…” scenarios using 3D simulation to demonstrate the effects of competing urban development possibilities. The collected diverse disciplinary expertise and interests could debate alternative speculations around future cities together, and consensually decide appropriate courses of action. There has been no such facility in Australia to date. As a nation, we have all the necessary ingredients but lack the ‘glue’ to bind them together. This initiative will enable “the city as laboratory” to be realised on a national scale, linking individual university labs as a single collaborative research space (including Swinburne’s Smart Cities Research Institute and Centre for Urban Transitions; University of NSW’s City Analytics Lab and Urban Pinboard; Monash University’s Urban Lab; Curtin’s Circular Economy Living Lab; and University of Queensland’s individual research centres in the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and IT).

This represents a future urban governance decision-making platform for local as well as metropolitan development policy-making, plan-making and placemaking that could be transformative. For the first time, key decisions can be tested for likely consequences in real time. This enables all stakeholders to be present, sharing information and a wide assortment of insights with a fluency and timeliness only made possible by the confluence of rapidly improving computing technology and processes, and combining these with distributed urban analytics and design software.

There are at least two major classes of transformative collaboration capable of being enabled by the iHUB network facility:

1. Integrated assessment and research synthesis (again, see Figure 3), representing a new model for rapid engagement between researchers and end-users (government, industry and community – in multiple combinations) to unlock opportunities that stem from the new knowledge and analytics. These can be focused on critical urban development problems related to new transport, water, waste and energy infrastructure, infill housing in brownfields and greyfields etc. Pioneered by CRC Water Sensitive Cities, this is an engagement methodology perfectly suited to the iHUB networked facility utilising 21st century digital infrastructures. It requires integrated assessment as a critical input, achieved by assembling real-time input from distributed research experts and practitioners and their specialist software tools, generating spatial analytic outputs related to a specific urban place and challenge. These would be displayed on multiple digital pinboard screens in real time, with digital mark-up tools (compare this to Powerpoints of outputs that are currently shown sequentially by experts brought into a workshop). Critical tacit knowledge from the assembled working group can rapidly assess and synthesise the outputs to create new planning and design options, that could be evaluated on the fly, and which, in many cases, can be further assessed during the meeting (a major boost to creativity and productivity).

Multiple applications are foreseeable:

  • Regenerative urban infill design and assessment. Achieving targets of 70 per cent urban infill is a common target for Australia’s largest cities, but is failing in several aspects related to environmental, social and economic outcomes, quality of precinct place-making and community engagement. IHUB is a space for researchers and practitioners to demonstrate potential solutions in an interactive digital environment that enables both design visualisation and performance assessment in multiple forums. There is a large and immediate market for this capability, which would provide academic researchers with new opportunities for a front-row seat in helping to steer contemporary urban planning and design.
  • Strategic metropolitan planning for Australia’s capital cities requires significantly greater horizontal and vertical integration among government agencies than is presently the case (for example, across state government agencies; state and local government alignment on future planning; state and local government community engagement, etc.). iHUB also contributes a new governance platform where researchers, consultants and representative urban stakeholders can facilitate informed evidence-based dialogue with government policy makers and planners.
  • With the proliferation of digital planning and design tools (such as those emerging in the three CRCs) there is a critical need to ensure these tools are fit for purpose at the earliest possible stage of their development. The iHUB platform also provides a dual purpose of enabling researchers to study how planners, policy and decision-makers best interact and use digital planning and design tools in order to undertake city shaping activities. It also provides the leaders of major research projects, that are often spread across multiple organisations in different cities (and increasingly internationally) with a powerful new platform to better engage with and manage their teams.

2. Integrated modelling. To date, there has been no mechanism in the Built Environment and Design research sector for coordinating software development within domains (for example, energy, water, building, etc.) much less cross-domain (integrated) modelling. An initial challenge is to develop software that allows existing bespoke tools to communicate with each other (data interfaces that allow communication between disparate software products, for example). The software would also need to allow input from and output to commercial off-the-shelf software currently used by the design industry. There are many areas where this would add significant value to end users in government and industry in challenging areas such as greening suburban transport, local government’s task of Development Assessment of new urban projects (for example, urban heat mitigation from higher density redevelopment), adaptive planning for cities in the context of climate change (for example, sea level rise and catchment flooding – a multi-jurisdictional and multi-factor problem for city planners) – if the intermeshing of currently fragmented analytical tools could be undertaken. This would also involve undertaking cross-scale modelling, aligned to leading BIM-PIM-CIM architectures, standards and protocols, enabling cross-institutional software development and integration that requires national and international oversight in relation to the challenges of interoperability and harmonisation. The iHUB network provides the infrastructure and capacity for this endeavour – a platform for synchronous distributed computing/collaboration/co-working among geographically dispersed domain experts and software engineers, where the objective is to integrate these scenario-modelling tools into a common platform; allowing each speciality to interact with a shared model and thus produce a more complete suite of urban design and assessment tools; and enabling engagement and partnering with leading global organisations active in this space.

In summary, the iHUB platform will:

  • enhance interdisciplinary engagement across the Built Environment and Design sector and affiliated academic fields of research in tackling wicked urban problems;
  • promote more effective urban governance, involving enhanced horizontal engagement and integration across the multiple departments and agencies involved in strategic metropolitan planning;
  • facilitate vertical integration between state-level strategic planning (and zoning), and local government statutory planning, and development approval processes associated with increasingly complex built environment projects;
  • provide real citizen engagement and participation associated with significant urban development issues involving some aspects of neighbourhood change (typically transport or building related);
  • deliver integrated urban assessment and integrated modelling capacity for research synthesis workshops on major urban development proposals/projects;
  • provide real time, geographically distributed, synchronous communication and research collaboration platforms (enabling telepresence, co-working, co-designing etc.);
  • partner in an urban data repository (open data) with agencies such as AURIN;
  • provide a new, unique training environment for graduate and postgraduate students in the BED sector;
  • provide a critical mass of local capability to match emerging global initiatives that have the capacity for a disruptive effect on Australia’s architecture, engineering and construction industries. These industries have been protected from the full force of globalisation to date due to their relative isolation geographically and an absence of competitors that are already successfully harnessing the new digital information platforms, processes and tools described above.

Peter Newton is a research professor in sustainable urbanism at Swinburne University of Technology, and Mark Burry is foundation director of the Smart Cities Research Institute at the university.

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