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Virtual Data, Physical Impact: BIM and Smart Cities

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Pinsent Masons BIM conference. For the uninitiated (and the BIM community was described as a ‘priesthood’ by one attendee at the conference), BIM stands for Building Information Modelling.

BIM means many things to many people. Its value and its implications are very different depending on where you sit in the value chain, and it is a field that is constantly evolving. But fundamentally it is about improving the process by which spaces and places are designed, built, operated and ultimately, destroyed and recycled.

My interest in BIM comes from its role in the future city and this was the theme of my talk, an exhortation to the audience to think beyond the immediate challenges of cost savings and collaboration, to a world where buildings and infrastructure come alive and play an active role in a responsive city environment

Normally I’d share my script from such a talk, but the truth is that my words were themselves evolving right up to the moment I stood on stage. The script as written doesn’t bear a huge amount of resemblance to what I actually said. So here’s a précis. You can view the deck here (if you’re interested it’s built in HTML and CSS using the impress.js framework).

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My interest in BIM stems from an interest in smart cities. ‘Smart city’ has become a bit of a dirty phrase recently, tainted by excessive marketing hype from the large tech companies. But I remain a fan, convinced that making our cities smart is crucial.

In the short term it is crucial because we need to run our cities cheaper. We cannot afford to be profligate with energy, water or building materials.

In the medium term smart cities are important because they present us with the chance to live with less impact on the planet. Cities are already the greenest way to support large populations. Smart cities can be greener still.

And in the long term, perhaps most importantly of all, I believe smart cities can be better places to live. Not because we are protected by unending surveillance that seems to be the current trend, but because the city itself learns from our behaviour and adapts constantly to improve our lives. In transport, accommodation, planning and other ways.

This vision cannot be realised without BIM. And not BIM as the computerisation of what has gone before. Not BIM as a way to do things cheaper — the overwhelming narrative in much conversation on the subject. But BIM as a way to give living DNA to buildings and infrastructure in a way that make them evolve and respond, change and react to our needs. That enables the buildings to interact with the other components of a smart city ecosystem to mutual benefit.

This idea presents many challenges. In this symbiotic relationship between citizen and city, building and business, we each must be willing to share much more than we perhaps have before. Particularly data: data about our behaviour as individuals. Data about the performance of our buildings. Data about the construction and operation of assets.

I don’t have answers these questions yet, but the vision I believe justifies the search to find them.

The first step may be to re-establish what we mean by a smart city. The term has become controversial due to technology-driven experiments around the world that have arguably focused on efficiency over humanity. It reminds me of the old teacher’s joke: “school would be great without the children.” Cities without citizens would be incredibly efficient, but clearly pointless.

Architects, artists and those of a more cultural bent have pointed out the soulless nature of many new-build smart cities. They don’t feel like places we’d want to live — and we won’t. Most of us, at least in this part of the world, will live in developments of existing cities.

The furore around mechanisation and automation ignores an important reality. That there is a desperate need to make our cities more efficient today. To ensure that in construction, operation and maintenance we waste as little as possible, both for the sake of the finances of the city and more importantly for the sake of the health of the planet.

Technology presents us with a way to do this. A way to minimise our use of resources, and maximise their re-use.

Today retro-fitted smart cities like Santander are starting to see real results. Bin lorries saving fuel through dynamic routing to bins that need emptying. Parks consuming less water because they’re only watered when needed, not on a fixed schedule. Citizens able to park minutes faster thanks to smart spaces that let them know when they’re empty. And of course the ubiquitous lights turning off automatically.

To the naysayers, I say ‘be patient’. For me the optimised city is just the first step. The drive for optimisation is simply providing the financial cover for us to add a nervous system to a currently inanimate city. This is the first step in bringing our infrastructure alive.

Sensors, switches and data networks may be a form of nervous system but it is at best an analogue for our autonomous functions. The only intelligence there is embryonic at best. But before we get to that, we need to give the building some sense of identity. We need to return to the building its DNA.

Imagine a building, equipped with the self-knowledge embedded in its DNA, and with sensors that give it real-time information on its use and performance. Intelligence in the building could begin to make suggestions for its own enhancement. Moving doors or partition walls here or there based on the flow of people and heat. Not just optimising but enhancing.

Imagine with new materials it starts to gain the ability to make those changes itself. Living constructions and 3D printers.

Now imagine that building playing a role in a city that is itself equipped with the systems to understand and respond to our needs — at the very least informing planners and governments with much more empirical evidence on what is required than has ever been available before.

Some people are even going a stage further. Believing that the combination of this data with a degree of direct democracy might give us the tools to see into the future. Imaging roadtesting planning decisions on a virtual version of our cities before they are implemented for real.

This may seem like the stuff of science fiction today. Clearly there are some immediate challenges to address when the latest Pinsent Masons survey suggests so many people won’t meet the 2016 deadline for reaching Level 2 BIM. But now is the time to have this discussion. To consider the issues of contracts and confidence, privacy, data and schema, that will need to be addressed if this idea of a living city is ever to become a reality.

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If you’re interested in booking futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright for your event, you can find more information here.

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Tom Cheesewright