The Future of Making Cities

Emma Stewart | October 1, 2015

The Future of Making Cities

Despite centuries of city-making, until very recently we have used the same ancient tools to describe these infrastructure projects – or at least their geometry. Only thirty years ago, with the age of personal computing, could we convert those drawings into models that were better descriptors, but this did not curb the hyper-specialization of design disciplines, such that traffic modelers, for example, rarely spoke to – let alone collaborated with – urban planners, architects, or utility providers. So while we described with less error what could be built, what needed to be built remained elusive at best, and contentious at worst.

A few years ago, with the advent of cloud computing, we began using virtually infinite computing power to assemble vast sets of disparate contextual data to describe far more than the geometry of a single site. Now one could design in context of what already exists. The proliferation of mobile simultaneously allowed these models to bust through office walls and onto the construction site, with construction techniques like GPS machine control and pre-fabrication. These promise to tackle the now stereotypical delays in construction, thereby de-risking projects, and opening the door to private capital, thus far a skeptical and impatient observer of the infrastructure sector.

These breakthroughs are permitting us to address many of the symptoms of inefficient design and construction, but not the underlying causes for our feeble and unsustainable infrastructure. It would be the equivalent of a doctor prescribing Lipitor™ to someone who is obese. It’s expedient, even necessary in the short-run, but hardly a systemic solution.

Indeed, one of our customers, MWH, is being asked by the City of LA to play doctor to a complex interaction of symptoms. LA’s impressive water conservation efforts since the early 1990s have been wildly successful: Los Angelenos now use the least amount of water per person of any big city in the United States[1]. They’ve worked so well, in fact, that they’ve created an unintended consequence. With sewer systems designed for higher flow rates, the dropping water levels are creating larger waste-to-water ratios. Sewage, especially when it’s slow-moving, feeds bacteria that corrode water pipes (one bacteria is actually known colloquially as “concrete eater”[2]). So lo and behold, water conservation ends up corroding pipes faster, causing greater leakage rates – undermining those very conversation efforts. Lipitor™ ain’t going to cut it.

The good news is, we as human beings have a unique advantage for rewriting the future. Scientists now recognize that the frontal lobe – that which distinguishes us from other animals – “empowers healthy human adults with the capacity to consider the self’s extended existence throughout time” [3]. In other words, it allows us to imagine the future, which other species cannot do.

Of late, much of our imagination has been captivated by the rhetoric of “smart cities”. But it is the real-world infrastructure known to civil engineers, not the digital infrastructure of hardware engineers, where ideas become designs, designs become projects, and projects become systems. If the City of LA – and others facing the same challenge – is to successfully tackle the collision of water conservation and pipe corrosion — it needs evidence-based simulation tools sophisticated enough to handle multiple variables and systems at once.

In other words, what makes humans unique – our frontal lobe’s ability to imagine, coupled with technology that allows that imagination to “play” within real-world constraints – is also the thing that will allow our progeny to survive and thrive in an increasingly urban habitat.

 

This article was originally featured on The Economist Intelligence Unit.

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