Smart data - improving our cities by creating a dialogue between virtual and physical worlds

16th September 2015

Sheppard Robson's Alan Shingler and Martin Sagar make the case for the intelligent use of data to improve our cities, creating a dialogue between the virtual and physical worlds. The below article was written for the Institute of Environmental Science's journal Environmental Scientist (August 2015).

London is a fulcrum for discussions on urban issues. Do we build taller? How do we solve housing shortages? And how do we address these issues in a responsible way that engages with the immediate urban issues whilst creating long-term, sustainable, informed solutions?

As more of us record our experiences and movements digitally – from the use of phones and tablets to travel cards and GPS devices – there is an opportunity to collate the huge amount of data that is generated, give meaning to it and find ways of using it to shape and improve the urban fabric of our cities. Whilst 15 years ago we were reliant on formal and expensive surveys to gauge relationships between people and cities, we now have real-time virtual information that gives us a deeper understanding of place than ever before. As a recent smart cities report by the Royal Institute of British Architects stated, in New York a terabyte of raw information (enough to fill nearly 143 million printed pages) passes through the Mayor’s office daily1. This presents the opportunity and the challenge of how we use and share such a volume of data to have a positive impact on our everyday lives as well as making macro-level, city-wide improvements?

Gathering Data

When working in newly formed neighbourhoods, there is an opportunity to create a collective social and environmental understanding of place using data. New communities, neighbourhoods and cities can be fitted with advanced operating and monitoring systems from the start, creating a closely connected dialogue between virtual information and the physical environment.

Projects such as East Wick and Sweetwater – which involve creating a new community with 1,500 homes on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park site in London – have the ambition and scale to make the most of data. Although the project is in its early stages, Sheppard Robson (part of the project’s design team) is looking at how smart principles can be integrated into everyday life; for example:

  • Installing real-time energy and water monitoring so that residents can compare the performance of their homes with those of other residents;
  • Creating a digital forum where people can get to know their neighbours and also highlight maintenance issues; and
  • Installing real-time dust and noise monitors to manage and inform mitigation of nuisance activities.

This data is also crucial to the construction industry. The sector often considers its work done soon after the official completion and opening of a building or space, with the majority of the profession remaining in the dark about how a building actually performs over its lifespan. Collecting micro-data will help the profession improve the efficiency of the development in question, whilst also feeding lessons learnt into other projects, sharing experiences and raising the bar for best practice. Architecture – when viewed as a community and not a profession – could be given a new collective power through gathering and sharing smart data.

The London Heat Map

An example of using data to shape the future of existing cities is the London Heat Map, created by the Greater London Authority (GLA). This digital map shows heat loss from the built environment, and ultimately led to the revision in the GLA’s policy to encourage decentralised energy solutions, such as combined heat and power (CHP) and district heating networks. By presenting and visualising information that was not previously available, this digital map highlighted the amount of heat lost through existing buildings, allowing the GLA to look at efficient ways to deliver heat, leading to CHP district heating networks. This is a good example of digital analysis informing policy and encouraging change.

Data can be a particularly powerful tool for cities when a number of datasets are combined to create an interactive overview of an urban environment. A common language and accessible platform for data would enable datasets to be evaluated in relation to one another and could help designers understand and respond to dynamic change. For example, the London Heat Map could be combined with conservation and regeneration plans as well as data on traffic, infrastructure and retail hubs. A common platform could also be used to model the impact of renewable energy generation and could include micro-climate analysis such as daylight and sunlight. The cumulative effect of overlaying these different streams of data would be a resilient low-carbon plan for London, as it would enable designers and strategic planners to make data informed decisions. Resilience is achieved by assessing all relevant information instead of embarking on policy revisions or masterplans that might only be informed by one data set.

If consistent data could be shared whilst protecting intellectual property, stakeholders would also be able to form partnerships beyond the boundary of an individual development. A common data platform would enable opportunities only achievable through economies of scale and collaboration. For instance, where CHP is proposed, heat could be more freely shared with neighbouring residential developments, schools and public buildings with a relatively high heat load. This would enable the optimum amount of electricity to be generated off the CHP for office and commercial uses, which typically have a low heat demand.

The London Heat Map is only one example of how big data is currently being used to develop our cities, but this only seems to be the start, with more sophisticated tools planned for next 10 years. The government-led Digital Built Britain is an initiative to create a virtual world by 2025 that forms a live digital map of London, allowing people to conduct more in-depth sustainable analysis and also to project energy use, carbon emissions, and pedestrian/traffic flow into the future.

The Context of Data Collection

With data-fuelled city initiatives, there is a fine balance between the irritation of feeling monitored and benefits of feeling informed. The difference between the two is the use of technology in an informed context. The smartest ‘smart city’ is a robust network of digital data – spanning social, economic, cultural and administrative layers of a community – that is processed and displayed intelligently.

However, the use of this data should not lose the connection with the people and community that it is helping to shape. With projects like East Wick and Sweetwater, the collection of raw data should be complemented by qualitative findings that give meaning and direction to the data. If we are to create a digital social forum for residents, then this should encourage people to meet in person and use the local cultural and leisure facilities (or indeed inform the facilities or cultural assets that should be included in the development). Architects are not driven by creating purely digital communities that can exist anywhere, but are interested in where the virtual and physical worlds meet to create digitally informed communities that still remain focused on face-to-face relationships.

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