Using data to design better towns and cities

After launching its Future of Consultancy campaign in November 2018, the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) set out on a mission of welcoming a new era of design and delivery in the built environment.

As part of a two-phased campaign to better understand how the consultancy and engineering sectors need to adapt to change, the first of three breakfast debates, organised by the recently formed ACE digital transformation group, looked at how consultants can utilise data and new technology to model and design strategic plans for delivering new places.

Opening the morning was guest speaker Miranda Sharp, director of innovation for the Ordnance Survey. Using examples from her line of work, Sharp discussed how advances in technology mean that firms are now working with unprecedented amounts of data and on a level never seen before.

She said historically physical asset owners have underestimated both the cost and value of their data assets and now is the time for new business models that can measure “value” based around a useful and useable digital twin. “The digital twin is not one thing. While you might receive information regarding your asset or network, it’s my responsibility to keep data up to date, discoverable and accessible for a whole lifetime, not just through construction phase,” she added.

Referring to the digital twin, Daljit Rehal from British Gas believed it became a question of modelling, rather than just taking raw data. “You will never answer how society is going to change just by taking data and assuming,” he said. “The side of this digital twin I’m most attracted by is scenario planning and the ability to model using simulations.”

Mott MacDonald’s Richard Shennan, who also sits on the ACE digital group, said it all came down to decision support. Highlighting how all organisations make decisions based on data, the digital expert said the big step in the process was to be able to present data in a way to people that is understandable, so they believe it enough to change their actions.

Throughout the two hours of debate, questions surrounding accountability and reliability were never far away. “Reliable data is crucial in making informed decisions on how to plan for the future, but who is responsible for making sure that data is accurate if we are going to be making pivotal decisions on what is provided?” was one question posed.

This led Keith Mitchell of Peter Brett Associates to say that he believed the human side of data capture was going to be more challenging than the digital side moving forward. 

“If we are working in the strategic planning and built environment, the decisions makers are typically public authorities who have a very little understanding of the conversations we as consultants are now having,” he said. “We have to make decisions about the type of methodologies we use to engage them, so they can understand the process we are going through and take accountability for the pubic decision that are being made,” Mitchell said.

Chris Cann of Jacobs shared similar thoughts and believed guidelines should be published. “There are important points around the quality of data and the provenance of data - there needs to be a framework in place as concise as possible which people can follow when they are collecting the data,” he said. 

When it came to placemaking, a question posed to attendees was “How do we use data in a social context to support decision making?”

The feeling in the room was that conventional ways of predicting the future by looking at reports from the last 20 years and planning for a certain outcome were no longer adaptable to change. A new way of thinking was deemed necessary if the industry was going to provide the appropriate infrastructure for an uncertain future.

Adrian Malone, of WSP, thought it was important that consultants don’t become too objective and instead use data to engage with people. “I think we need to get away from always trying to find the answer from the digital twin and actually use data to frame really smart questions,” Malone said. “When we talk about placemaking and impact on society, the answer doesn’t come from the model, it comes from the engagement with communities,” he explained.

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