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From the Design Quarterly: Embracing the unknown when thinking big data and smart cities

June 26, 2019

By Darren Burns

Our data revolution—5G, smart and connected buildings, autonomous vehicles—is changing the design profession

According to Buckminster Fuller, creator of the knowledge-doubling curve, until 1900 the sum of human knowledge doubled every century. Different types of information grow at different rates. Today, our online activity, networked devices, and objects network generate large amounts of data and grow the knowledge curve exponentially. We’re entering a data revolution, an era of monumental change that experts say could rival the industrial revolution in its effect on humanity.

Some big questions are beginning to come into focus: How will smart city technology benefit us? How will we get to smart cities? And what will they look like? It’s important for us—as designers, planners, and architects—to admit that what we don’t know is just as important as what we can predict. So, what are some of the things we do know about the approaching smart city?

Oakridge Centre Redevelopment in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Stantec, Gensler, Henriquez Partners Architects)

Big data is already here

To a certain degree, this data revolution began without any warning. Private entities have been collecting data and using it for years. The general public now realizes that all this information isn’t meaningless, it’s meaningful—and potentially quite useful. Big tech companies harness data to make profit and big data informs and influences everything from targeted advertising to politics, and it’s not always used in our best interest.

This data-rich environment will define our future city model.

We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Technology advances onward. Objects (from the sewer line to a streetlight) that were previously inert, will be fit out with sensors, making them intelligent, and able to self-adjust their operations on the fly. 5G is on the way, a wireless network a hundred times faster than what we use today, which will be the cornerstone for this revolution. It is the digital infrastructure on which all this data is going to flow.

Institutions and industry are rushing to understand and harness the power of data. For me, it was seeing Data Collider, a project developed by MIT’s Senseable City Lab to help designers and planners visually express city data, at a conference a few years back that really sparked my interest in smart cities and networks of big data. I was amazed at the power of connected data at the city scale and the role design leaders could play in the advancement of smart city thinking at all scales of development. Visualizing data is key to harnessing the power of smart cities.

The promise

The promise of a more intelligent data-enriched city is that it enables us to be more efficient. Access to data empowers us to uncover existing synergies that we can’t imagine, to make better decisions, and to be more efficient. This pool of data will influence our design and urban planning decisions and feed into investment choices around development, transportation, and mobility. Ultimately, this data-rich environment will define our future city model.

A glimpse of the unknown

Predicting the future of smart cities is fuzzy. We can’t foresee the social dimension of all these changes. We don’t know what all the data points are going to be that guide a smart city. There is, however, some experimentation in the works and we will soon have case studies to learn from.

We can catch a glimpse of this beneficial interconnectivity already. One example is the evolution in district-energy systems. Currently, few buildings communicate with other buildings enough to know that one might need to be cooled and one needs to be heated, a perfect opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and strive to net zero. By connecting smart buildings in energy districts on shared energy platforms, as opposed to heating and cooling isolated individualize buildings, we can realize remarkable energy savings. This is happening now.

A holistic approach to smart cities.

Smart buildings will be even smarter as elements in a connected network

We already see smart-building elements emerging. Today, there are window systems that can self-adjust their opacity depending on sunlight exposure. That’s an example of one element on a building being automated to benefit its energy consumption without a user input. Extrapolate that to thousands of elements within a building and you begin to see the high-performance potential for truly intelligent buildings.

What are the potential intelligent components that would then affect the ultimate design of that building? Zoom out. Take that idea outside the property line; what are the connected components from these smart buildings that plug into a broader city infrastructure? We can predict that communications networks, energy systems, and wireless networks will be layered and interconnected. This interconnected, layered network will be the infrastructure that supports emergence of a smart city. At this point, we can’t imagine all the elements that will comprise this layered network—there is so much more to discover and that’s exciting.

But on the flip side, we must consider the social and cost implications of all this technology. Especially for cities that are contending with rising housing costs, social challenges, and aging transportation infrastructure. As we implement smart-city thinking at larger scales, the answers to these questions will emerge through trial and error.

Oakridge Centre Redevelopment in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Stantec, Gensler, Henriquez Partners Architects)

Today’s pilot projects will be revelatory

Where are the pilot projects for smart cities? In cities, of course, but in other places, too. An easy way to control the big picture is to own a lot of land. What sits on a lot of land? Retail malls are a good example. Deconstruct 40 acres of a suburban mall and you have a microcosm of a smart city.

I am currently engaged on a project at Metrotown in British Columbia, where the conversation is centered around parking, autonomous vehicles, future proofing, district energy systems, and the transition from sales-oriented to experience-oriented retail. Each of these elements contributes to the promise of the smart-city revolution. Effectively, these large development sites are incubators for everything “smart” and serve as incubators and precursors of what the larger city can tap into, explore, and exploit.

This revolution will change the design profession

Over time, as technology in building systems became more complex, the role of the master architect transformed. As complexity increases, areas of responsibility break off from the traditional role. The singular master architect is no longer; one person holding all that complex, technical knowledge is just not possible. Today we have specialists: experts in envelope, code and municipal issues, elevators—each come into play on a major building project.

Technology has transformed our design delivery process. Virtual reality, augmented reality, and computational design have arrived and are gaining traction. These digital tools are exploding now with the data revolution. With more inputs entering the process, specialization and layering in design development will increase. The expanding tool set and the data infrastructure will open further windows of possibility for how much we can digest, manipulate, and incorporate into the buildings emerging from our design process.

The architect’s role as a natural coordinator will continue, of course. Our focus will be to bring together an incredibly diverse array of disparate components of connected design across disciplines. It’s unlikely that many of us understand the complexity of what’s coming, nor just how dramatic and pervasive those changes to the way we do things will be. But that’s what keeps things interesting.

  • Darren Burns

    Darren is an architect, designer, and leader with over 20 years of experience specializing in the commercial sector, particularly in retail, mixed-use, and complex project delivery.

    Contact Darren
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