A whole new (digital) world

Written by Niki May Young on 26 September 2012

In 2009 the Institute of Civil Engineers undertook an analysis of the existing digital masterplanning landscape with a focus on a suite of spatial masterplanning tools still used today. The study provides timeless lessons for digital software providers.

Once upon a time there was a cave-dweller called Dave. Dave had just gotten used to basking in the long summer's heat when all of a sudden the frost came, and he was cold. In his frustration he picked up a piece of flint and he banged it against a rock covered in shrubbery. 

Dave gawped in awe at the reaction it delivered, and for years Dave lived content in the knowledge he could make fire and keep himself warm as long as he had shrubbery and a rock. The knowledge of fire, was enough for Dave. But wood was in short supply and soon the forest had diminished to such an extent that fire was becoming difficult to produce. His wife and children were now getting cold.

Then one day Dave observed a light emitted from his friend Paul's cave, he watched it for hours and realised that Paul had not emerged in three days. It was a cold winter, how could this be? Unless..! Dave entered Paul's cave, concerned about his friend, but was presented with an altogether unexpected picture. Paul lay happily atop his furs, bathing in the warmth of his cave. He had discovered central heating. He had installed a boiler that attached to radiators throughout the cave emitting a constant and regular heat. Because of a thermostat it fired automatically when a chill entered the atmosphere. In addition it warmed water in which Paul could bathe. Paul now had time on his hands, so he chose to read. Paul's brain expanded, and he scoffed at how silly he had been to have lived so long with fire produced by wood and stone. What a laborious task it had been and how limited its potential. 

The, admittedly rather laboured, point here is that there is often a passive reluctance towards exploring new technologies, a comfort-zone that encourages acceptance of what one has, but the reward when taking the leap can be exponential. 

In terms of urban development, this reluctance has proceeded for longer than one would hope, according to a 2009 report by the Institute of Civil Engineers. It advises that masterplanners were one of the last design communities to become familiar with computing. They adopted only its most simplest of forms - mathematical and statistical modelling, in the 1960s – 70s. By the 1990s, reluctance to adopt new technologies had created a Yin and Yang, (or if you like a Dave and Paul), within the design community. ICE's author of the paper, Christian Derix, represents architects constricted by simple building design in the Dave camp, and a 'new breed' of urban designers, those who studied the sociology of city planning in a realm outside of the architecture curriculum as Paul.

A wasted opportunity 

Derix highlights masterplans as a wasted opportunity in terms of digital engineering with, at least in 2009, limited use of digital technology despite being “ideally suited to computational systems” due to their scale and low complexity. 

“The low complexity arises because countries in which such masterplans are developed are often low on urban planning policies and stakeholder involvement. Other than the developers they are almost always dealt with as if virtually context independent,” says Derix. This in turn opens a path for employing digital assessment and exploration.

He calls for the implementation of systematic computational procedures to design massing strategies and accessibility, and to explore digital measuring to engineer quantities like energy consumption, and wind-flow, or transport design. 

The paper is, in essence, a critical analysis of seven of the Aedas Computational Design and Research Group's 16 Digital Masterplanning suites developed for spacial masterplanning. Throughout which he outlines both the benefits and the drawbacks of their use at that time. At this stage it is important to reiterate that his assessment is now three years old, but the 16 suites remain as a package today, although they will likely have been enhanced.

Derix welcomes the way the mapping tools provide the ability to overcome terminology by simulation, allowing urban designers and their clients to see associations between drivers of impact. He provides praise for the functionality of elements of the suite which allow designers to 'motion plan' – creating a visibility graph showing all possible visual axes between corners and allowing the calculation of potential routes for vehicles; or search for the shortest routes between sites for walkers. But he finds there are many limitations, though not always as a result of computational inability. 

One such application, designed to simulate accessibility, of which he deems the most crucial as it applies at every scale and phase of design, is limited by its commission-based approach. The need to use an expert creates 'design distance' he advises, and therefore “places them firmly in the 'analysis' rather than design stages”. 

Another application, the Relational land use mix and development density tool mixes too many integrated factors and “makes too many assumptions”. The results therefore were non-heuristic - not best practice- and this, he said “underlines the need to keep applications light and limited in functionality in order to allow participation and visual access by designers. 

As a final note he also warns of the implications of dressing-up projects using impressive-looking models, instead of providing appropriate representations of practical use. 

Categories: Technology, Governance, Living, Mobility, People