© Imperial College London

Evidence-based visual decision-making in urban masterplanning

Urban masterplanning involves the creation of a coherent design for the development of a district, campus, city or even a region. It spans a number of disciplines that need to be evaluated and their impact optimised prior to implementing any changes to the built environment. For any urban masterplanning project, several designs are produced and these are initially assessed qualitatively. Very few of the designs are taken to the next stages, in which they would undergo quantitative analysis across several engineering disciplines. This is due to the work load required at subsequent stages: the necessary data management and tool integration typically consume up to 50% of the practitioner’s time. As a consequence, overall design freedom is curtailed at the early stages of a project, as the high costs of analysis prevent detailed insights for each designs being generated at large scale and high resolution. To help overcome this limitation, the tool of immersive visualisation has considerable potential.

We explored the effectiveness using an immersive visualisation space for collaborative, evidence-based decision making for urban masterplanning. This approach used a human+machine collective intelligence application in order to overcome strategic investment challenges in the masterplanning of cities. We developed a computational framework for design insight that integrates city-wide analyses into a common platform, allowing automated analysis of designs under multiple scenarios. This visual environment can be used by professional stakeholders to enable them to explore the consequences of different decisions around architectural and engineering parameters such as land use densities, energy and carbon strategies.

The ability to compute the consequences of proposed masterplans towards meeting carbon reductions and business goals has moved from an exploration to a request from clients. At the same time masterplanning clients responsible for 20+ years developments are interested to ensure that the design process and methods are also evolving with time to include, for example, feedback loops. Specifically, they see a growing expectation by the citizen to participate in the process. Clients recognize that responsive design solutions are needed if a development has to meet targets and where citizen support is necessary to support such designs. Clients also have a growing expectation for flexibility and timeliness in the very long term masterplanning process to adapt to a changing political, social and economic environment without the need to return to the drawing table.

Using a visual environment, multiple stakeholders involved in a masterplanning project can explore different scenarios and the consequences of decisions regarding both architectural and engineering parameters.  Data about interactions between the stakeholders can be used to inform practitioners about the general trends, priority criteria and specific points of interest. Visualisation of the design options can also be used to facilitate collaborative decision making, especially in the projects where multiple stakeholders are engaged, who may have different drivers and priorities. Designers can use the developed framework to quantitatively check compliance and performance of their designs.

Applying a visual environment to explore different scenarios and the consequences of decisions around architectural and engineering aspects allows the cost-effective and timely exploration of a larger number of design options than would be feasible using traditional approaches.

Visualisation allows the engagement of multiple stakeholders, as well as means for recording and analysing their interactions: this helps designers understand what scenarios are preferred to stakeholders. Collecting feedback and tracking stakeholders’ interactions makes it possible to interactively explore many scenarios to develop strategies that balance different drivers and market forces. For service providers, the information available increases their understanding of what is needed and increases their potential for bid success.