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Informing wider debate in an age of localism

The digital and data revolution is changing the relationship between designers, planners, elected representatives and communities involved in place and movement. Scenario testing tools and ‘games’, 3D visualisation systems, real-time data tracking and collaborative management tools are enabling public debate and discussion to come before, and not after, decision-making

Peter Warman

The digital and data revolution is having a big impact on the wide range of professionals – and communities ­– involved in place and movement. Scenario testing tools and 'games', 3D visualisation, Building Information Modelling (BIM) systems, real time data tracking and 4D collaborative management systems are changing the relationship between designers, planners, elected representatives and the public. In a digital world, public debate and discussion can come before, and not after, decision-making.

A new interactive 3D visualisation developed by Parsons Brinckerhoff enables the public to virtually ‘drive’ across the proposed San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Active participation in the form of a car driver simulator with on-screen touch controls for speed, steering (by tilting the screen) and braking is taking ‘public participation’ to a new level. These powerful tools will soon allow the public to actively participate in ‘visioning’ and possibly ‘voting’ on our futures.  

Augmented reality (AR) applications are already on the way into our shops, enabling shoppers to ‘try on’ virtual clothes in front of a full-size high resolution TV screen. Viewed on smart phones or tablets, AR imposes an extra layer of information (sound, video, graphics or GPS data) over an on-screen image of the real world.

When it comes to designing and planning transport projects for our urban and rural environments, interactive visualisation and AR are becoming professional tools that urban and transport planners will be encouraged to work with for both professional and public benefit. Smart transport systems, 3D images on in-car navigation systems, mobile phone ‘way-finding’, walking, cycling and public transport apps are already widely available. Increasingly, we expect a mix of real time information and ‘journey planning’ information combined with 3D images to augment our experience of the real world. 

Visual analysis of travel patterns

At an afternoon seminar of the ITS (UK) Public Transport Interest Group at the beginning of March, PhD Student Roger Beecham from City University London demonstrated how data and animation are being used to analyse use of the London bicycle hire scheme, linking docking sites and bike distribution at any given time. Transport Control Centres are beginning to use such systems – by capturing information from vehicle tracking systems, smartcard data, mobile phones and CCTV – to monitor travel patterns, provide asset management systems and track vehicular movements, creating rich evidence bases to inform future decision-making.

Understanding complexity

Data of this kind enables designers to bring together virtual 3D simulation of the built environment with movement and crowd sourcing data. At Imagina (held each February in Monaco), I took the opportunity to see the many ways in which 3D visualisation and simulation technologies can be used. Clay Starr from RTKL explained the benefits of BIM: consistency across drawings and schedules, accurate 3D visualisation, enabling designers from various disciplines to work collaboratively in a 3D database, and scenario testing. ‘BIM allows us to express our concepts in three dimensions, giving clients a more accurate depiction of the project’s progression while providing us with a platform for greater integration among disciplines throughout all phases of development.’

Extending 3D to 7D

Such approaches are becoming standard practice on a wide range of large construction projects, and the use of BIM will be mandatory on public projects by 2016. The discussion is moving on to envisage projects as 7D processes: the fourth dimension is ‘time’ so a project can be visualised at each stage of its development; the fifth dimension is ‘cost’, so a bill of quantities and construction labour costs are incorporated; 6D is ‘asset management’ to determine how the building will be maintained when in use; and 7D examines a building’s lifetime sustainability and, possibly, its demolition when the time comes.

‘Technology and the cloud are making it easier to test and simulate virtually how buildings will perform within their environments over their lifetime,’ says Starr. Such approaches will soon be impacting on large scale development and major transport infrastructure investment, as  wider applications across the urban development and transport planning sectors take shape.

Virtual models

Several cities across Europe maintain an ongoing dialogue with their citizens using a 3D virtual model of their city: past, present and future. In France, national legislation has been passed to encourage the city authorities to provide below ground 3D mapping of main utilities.

A presentation by the City of Bolzano, Italy, explained a 10-year programme to improve communication with the 100,000-strong population using 3D virtual animation.

All ideas are included on the city’s 3D territory virtual model, which is linked with a GIS database, and the public is encouraged to share in city decision-taking about their city through an online voting system.

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