Simulation driven planning for development of economically feasible sustainable cities

Combining economic and social development and environmental impact with technology and financial modeling to build new and regenerate existing cities.

Since the publication of the UNFP State of the World Population 2007 report, the world’s attention has intensified on the rapid rate of urbanization: how to mitigate the potential problems and unleash the benefits of urban growth.

By the year 2050 the world population is expected to reach more than 9.6 billion. More than 6.4 billion (66 percent) will be living in urban areas. This is all good news if the cities around the world are able to not only absorb the population growth but also flourish economically while achieving and maintaining environmental and social sustainability.

Cities have been expanding for some time now, but the information technology world has largely ignored the sector for reasons related to its anachronistic and old ways of doing things - and specially that information technology is mostly about efficiency leap and system thinking.

This is beginning to change rapidly, and rightly so. Cities are the engines of economic growth at the center of human aspiration. More than ever before, cities are homes to humanity’s greatest ambitions. They are the magnets for people and businesses. But cities can also become home to increasing social disparity, poverty, pollution, congestion, waste and environmental problems. The capacity of nations to pursue their economic and social agendas will increasingly depend on their ability to shape and govern their cities.

Increasing Infrastructure demand but who will pay for it?

By rough estimates, we would need to build between six hundred and nine hundred million buildings in the next 35 years – That is a lot of buildings in very short time. A June, 2012 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, Urban world: Cities and the rise of the consuming class, suggests that by 2025, more than half the world’s population will live in megacities of 10 million or more people. Some of these urban dwellers, for the first time ever, will have incomes high enough to classify them as consumers contributing significantly to spending and GDP. Nearly half of them will be living in slums and substandard housing. Demands on infrastructure and services will be great while very few will be able to pay for it adding further to the current infrastructure investment gap. To meet the needs of these new urban dwellers, cities will have to invest intelligently to meet complex social, economic and environmental needs and demands, to build cities that are economically robust, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. This is going to prove to be a gargantuan task as current practices and tools cannot scale to solve the problem.

While most architectural and engineering design firms may continue to thrive designing spaces for the consuming class of new urban dwellers, City administrations / municipal governments will face a daunting challenge to keep the megacities intact and keeping them from not getting split further apart separating the affluent and the poor. Smart cities must invest in infrastructure, intelligently; to build and sustain inclusive societies else they won’t be sustainable.

We have seen cyclical investment from the public sector in infrastructure, responding to demand, requiring ongoing re-investment from the public sector to maintain capacity. The implication is that the understanding of the evolution and ultimate planning infrastructure / predictions of cities is often underestimated - the symptoms are continual re-investment in city systems and abortive capital works programs inaccurately estimating future demand - and ultimately underinvestment - leading to impact on financial requirements going forward.

In search of a New Paradigm

To address the problem we would need a whole new paradigm, a new thinking and a new approach. We would need to reimagine the city planning process at all levels. As Albert Einstein once famously said that the significant problems we face today cannot be solved with the same level of thinking we were at when we created them, a new level of thinking will be in the form of sophisticated software tools that can reduce the cost and time of development and its occupation by 30-50 percent (while addressing the essential requirement of uniqueness). This is possible by automating and integrating the master-planning (at all levels) and design process – having one single plan in one place using data and simulation.

Master Planning process can take anywhere between 6 to 18 months depending on many factors. But time apart, master plans say nothing much other than detailed land use / efficiency, services, places, amenities and convenience. It rarely talks about investments; neither life cycle costs nor articulates social and, economic development scenarios, environmental impact and how these weigh against financial inputs and risks. It rarely includes the community in the design process. That will soon change.

With an array of new software technologies like genetic algorithms, machine learning, deep learning and advancements in simulation techniques, we can turn current form of master plan into an information rich master plan and in seventy to eighty percent less time. These will be “shovel ready” master plans that are interactive and can be accessed in part or full for architectural, structural and engineering design. Parametrically modelled, the master plans would allow for scenario modeling for sustainability, development risks and life cycle cost analysis. Addressing these issues at an early stage will save a lot of time and cost of changes at design, engineering, construction and post- handover stages.

Such data rich rich master plans will bring economic, social, environmental and financial plans in one place and explicitly express economic, social and environmental impact while allowing for dynamic scenario modeling along with a financial model for investment feasibility and risk analysis. This new paradigm is the digital transformation of the urban master planning process which we like to call “Digital Master-Planning” and it will be an integrated, 3-D digital interactive master plan for new and existing developments, and typically providing

  • spatial-economic master plans for new and existing development zones.

  • identification of acupuncture catalyst projects for urban transformation

  • integrated and parametrically modelled public utilities and services model

  • requirements and economic feasibility of the development of major infrastructure associated with development

  • environmental impact of the development

  • performance indicators and measuring economic, social and environmental impact

Applications and Use cases

With limited scope and parameters the prototype software has been successfully applied in cites for urban regeneration – in one where 6 new acupuncture projects were identified for urban regeneration and tested for financial feasibility and environmental sustainability, and in the other a simulated urban regeneration was tested for ROI using construction, regulatory and real estate market demand and supply data. While these were early testing of the viability of the technology in full scale, the results are proof of things to come in transformation of the construction industry, badly in need of dramatic boost in productivity.

Ultimately, technology - and in particular, parametric simulation, will be able to properly address the debate about the cost of private capital on public infrastructure, the nexus between urban development demand and infrastructure investment.

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