Virtual Cities: Gaming Engines & Urban Planning

How can virtual worlds help us plan for the real world? Christopher Choa asks in his prelude to the talk. How can the advances in digital simulation, visualisation and AI virtualisation “create new decision-making strategies” by generating, evaluating and analysing different outcomes? Three leaders at the intersection between urban planning and data visualisation step forward to answer these questions.

In the first talk of the evening, titled “New digital products and engagement through visualisation and gaming at City Hall”, Smart London Policy and Delivery Officer Stephen Lorimer discusses London’s new Office of Technology and Innovation and the development of Build London, an infrastructure mapping application to visualise all utility networks and planning systems to evalute, for example, the impact of building height in Vauxhall Nine Elms. By gathering data and visualising demand and capacity in London into a high-performing, closed data set, Lorimer is able to anticipate demand for public services as well as limit access to this data to trusted partners, an important development. Additionally, a developed gaming platform enables planners to better capture information about people’s preferences by allowing people to act as policymaker and make decisions based on the consequences of their policies, which are generated by a macroeconomic model aggregating a “system of systems”.

Next, we hear Jacopo Hirschstein, an Italian architect and programmer who married his two professions in design and technology to found Tekja Data Visualisation. In his talk, Visualising dynamic City and Urban DataHirschtein discusses how people can better solve and understand data if it is made into engaging images with which people can interact. From a colourful map of eight million work-home journeys to recording real-time reactions by word connotations in an area, Hirsctein’s new art of mapmaking captures not merely territory or data but how we can depict the stories of humans in real-time. These maps provide ways to answer questions a little bit differently and make novel connections between movement, feeling, seeing. Christopher Choa calls the work “not just useful but beautiful, a new form of urban spatial graphic poetry”.

The last speaker is James Kidner, Partnership Director of “Improbable”, who believes game engines can be applied to spatial planning as new ways of testing scenarios. Citing failed cities such as Heraklion and Angkor Wat, Kidner showed how lack of foresight can lead to the downfall of their great urban agglomerations and why it is important how big data today can be used to reproduce foresight. Instead of looking back to the past and integrating emergent complexities as they arise, Improbable uses SpatialOS, a spatial computer abstraction, to form computerised reproductions of cities and integrate the systems that make up a city (such as road traffic, power, internet, gas, water & sewage) such that one is able to measure the exact, cascading consequences of errors in a particular system. The same can be done to determine the effects of pedestrianising an area like Bath Street. By putting open data into a cloud computer, examining these systems, and running simulated individuals and cars, the delight of big data comes together to prepare us for transformative technologies that haven’t happened yet. “Improbable isn’t a crystal ball,” Kidner says, “but when it comes to the next Thames crossing or airport runway, Improbable can put together all the best ideas and let the computer come up with consequences that no individual could have envisaged.”

Words by Pao Maneepairoj 

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