Why Big Data and smart cities can’t save us from bad design

Emma Stewart | September 15, 2015


This article originally appeared on Greenbiz.com

Big Data is a big buzzword in both the sustainability and tech spaces, especially when it comes to VERGE. Autodesk’s Emma Stewart isn’t convinced that Big Data will save us from poor design and planning, especially when it comes to smart cities.

Stewart, Autodesk’s head of sustainability solutions, sat down with GreenBiz’s Joel Makower at VERGE 2014 in San Francisco to explain why she considers herself a bit of a “contrarian by nature.”

As many others at VERGE noted, Stewart said cities will be at the forefront of environmental design and sustainability, as more people make the move from rural to urban.

“I think that what’s apparent for city leaders today is that their cities were designed for smaller populations and a more stable environment,” she said.

Stewart followed up by saying that the drive for “smart cities” may be conflating the means with the end goal of sustainability and resilience. She gave an example of the humans in the Pixar film “WALL-E,” who are whisked from one place to another whilst viewing ads.

“There are some things wrong with being ‘smart,’” Stewart said.

“If you really want to stabilize the climate, we have an increasingly shrinking window of time to do so,” she continued. “Those of us in the tech sector have a shiny new hammer called Big Data. I worry that cities are our nail.”

Stewart used an example showing that while General Electric may benefit from having a multitude of sensors in jet engines to predict failures and maintenance tasks, digging up New York City streets to place sensors to measure ice and snow might not be a smart idea. While the costs of sensors have gone down, the cost of crunching those numbers haven’t.

“I think we’ve become sensor-happy,” she said. “[Big Data] definitely isn’t free.”

One of her colleagues noted that selling Big Data solutions to cities is like “selling yachts to people on welfare.” “These are significant IT overhauls we’re talking about,” she said.

Instead, Stewart said that a focus on design tools, city planning and engineering can create the greatest value for cities who will need to increase sustainability and resiliency in the 21st century.


To learn more about Autodesk Sustainability Solutions for smart cities, visit: sustainability.autodesk.com/cities


6 comments on “Why Big Data and smart cities can’t save us from bad design”

  1. Engel Ching says:

    Can you please elaborate further and provide more details into your thoughts? While additional sensors are ideal, we currently have more data that we are not even looking at and ripe for analytics. It’s more important to establish context to various sources of data than getting more data.

    It may be premature to throw the big data baby out with the bath water.

    1. Emma Stewart says:

      I agree that we already have more data than is being used effectively – hence my argument that focusing on more instrumentation for cities may distract from using the data that already exists. Even more importantly, we should be determining what policy and design questions we want answered and define analytics accordingly, not just instrument everything and then consider our options. So collect the least amount of data necessary to answer the most pressing sustainability questions…

      I guess you could call me a fan of “small data”!

      1. Engel Ching says:

        For the first time in human history we are generating data faster than we can comprehend, and certainly far too complex for us to contextualize and make any sense of it. Why not use all this free data to our advantage?

        The AEC industry has not kept up with other industries in terms of productivity in the last 50+ years because we have not been innovating as much. Working with small data does not seem to be different from the past. Sooner or later big inefficiencies are bound to be disrupted.

        I have not seen real data science applied in AEC, and quite surprised to see the type of comments about it.

        1. Emma Stewart says:

          Engel, Thanks for your note. I think you may have misinterpreted my point a bit. I’m arguing that in Operations & Maintenance a) one can do a lot more with existing data than is currently accomplished if that data is assembled into one place rather than sitting in different departments, b) understanding the factors most determinant of sustainability performance (say, glazing on the southern façade of an existing building in the N. Hemisphere) can reduce the need for data-collection-intensive approaches (say, building energy audits). As an example, see how much we’re able to conclude about a building with extremely minimal data: http://sustainability.autodesk.com/available-solutions/rapid-energy-modeling/

  2. Tim Ward says:

    I could not agree more Emma. No amount of big data or retrofitting can counter the incredible loss that poor design creates, especially in the context of non-linear green costings, where the real green-saving design decisions are front loaded to the beginning of the design process.

    1. Engel Ching says:

      What do you think causes poor design choices?

      Why do you think big data cannot help, are you aware of anyone using it currently in AEC applications?

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