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Crunching the Numbers: Designing with Big Data

Arup and RIBA reinvigorate the Smart City debate by questioning design’s role in the technological future of our environments

The concept of Big Data − information sets so massive as to render their analysis with off-the-peg computer programs impossible − has moved to the centre of scientific and cultural debate over the last couple of years. This not only promises to change our relationship with reality, but also to create substantial profits; for instance, the recent Shakespeare review of open data suggests that £7 billion could be injected into the UK economy in the long term.

Big Data’s impact on the design of cities has been summed up by an equally fashionable slogan: the Smart City. Designing with Data: Shaping our Future Cities − recently published by Arup in collaboration with the RIBA − is yet another report on these much debated topics. Unlike most of the existing literature, however, it calls for a shift away from the framework in which Big Data has been discussed so far. The groups that have been most active in this field − IT companies such as Cisco, IBM, Siemens or IT Living − are not traditionally associated with architecture. Nevertheless, they have managed to establish themselves on the urban scene by delivering technological improvements and services and, perhaps even more surprisingly, by touting themselves as theoreticians of the Smart City. Whether these companies can keep their position in this debate remains to be seen; but it is alarming enough for architects to acknowledge their inability to come up with a convincing theoretical discourse to accompany the introduction of digital technologies to the built environment.

This report aims to reinvigorate the debate by introducing the so-far missing notion of design. The authors identify four approaches to achieve that: ‘using data to help designers to meet users’ needs, experimenting and modelling using data, analysing data to improve local and national policy making and implementation, and using data to improve transparency to speed up development processes’. The team at Arup cites precedents from across the Western world, and at times make proposals themselves. The latter respond to the UK government’s vaunted desire to encourage digital technologies and related economies by conflating digital and physical domains. In spite of the vague wording of some of the government’s White Papers on this matter, this report manages to formulate a more coherent narrative, concluding with a series of recommendations.

The authors call for ‘a better integration between government departments to work together to realise a smart future’; ask ‘the government to systematically link up with academics and the private sector to coordinate the implementation of smart technologies’; and to ‘facilitate the digitisation of the planning process’. The last of these three points is particularly eye-catching, not only because current procedures anachronistically require printed blueprints in an age in which design processes are entirely digital, but also because a digital archive of our planning activities would produce a much more detailed map of our built environment, one that − by applying statistical methods to analyse spatial data − could reveal a different image of our cities and planning procedures.

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Realtime Rome project image, depicting average cellphone user distribution during Madonna’s ‘Live to Tell’ concert on 6 August 2006 - the peaks represent heightened usage near the Olympic stadium where it took place and the Vatican nearby

But despite explicitly dedicating the publication to design and its potential for developing the concept of the Smart City, it is this very notion that appears to be the report’s most lightly sketched section: a problem shared by large parts of the profession. While it is explicitly admitted that architecture and urbanism ‘have not fully understood the relation between smart infrastructures and space’, the report rightly indicates some possible ways out by calling for substantial injections of urban theory to rebalance the technocratic view of cities promoted by IT companies. The most convincing parts of the report are those addressing policies and strategies. The document calls for greater integration between governmental departments and between academic, corporate and institutional partners.

There is a convincing and provocative argument here that understands that the success of Smart Cities will be a political rather than a technological matter. The speed at which digital technology develops and infiltrates our physical space will only exacerbate the gap between digital capacities and planning procedures. This is more of a geopolitical than a technological issue. Digital technology is rapidly empowering diverse actors − both human and non-human − to generate data, share and act on them; however, what will have to change to guarantee a meaningful deployment of all this technological apparatus will be the notions of ownership and agency, currently trapped between the fluidity allowed by digital devices and the present planning system. Nonetheless, this is one of the potential radical transformations of the use of data in designing cities: an enlarged set of actors involved in the transformation of our cities.

It is an indication of the complexity, uncertainty and potential of this debate that a report which sets out to discuss how design could be reframed by the emergence of Big Data ended up making its most eloquent contributions on the matter of policy. Though this may prove to be the most difficult obstacle to overcome, this report is right in indicating that the and political discussion surrounding Big Data will be key to determine its actual success.

Designing with Data: Shaping our Future Cities

Authors: Arup and RIBA

Free to download at: architecture.com

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