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Using data to transform the way we interact with our cities

By integrating technology into the landscape, data can be collected in a non-intrusive way and help to inform how public space responds to the citizens that use it, says Neil Manthorpe, associate director of design at Atkins.

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Using data to transform the way we interact with our cities

As designers, we all want to create places that benefit the end-user. And thanks to new and emerging technologies, we can now embed digital ways of working into the world around us. It means we can create public spaces that benefit our daily lives and use information to deliver tangible benefits to people.

 

What is often missing is a true understanding of the connection between these two elements – the human and the digital. Using cameras and sensors attached to cities’ existing infrastructure, we can collect anonymised data to track the way people interact with the world around them. But, as designers, what value can this big data bring to the spaces we create for people? Is it about creating virtual replicas? Interactive stakeholder engagement? Accurate monitoring of how infrastructure is performing?

 

Or is it about using these insights to create an environment that responds to people’s needs?

 

A responsive city

 

By integrating technology into the landscape – embedding sensors and cameras into the infrastructure itself – data can be collected in a non-intrusive way, to inform how the public space responds.

 

A recent competition in Croydon in the UK invited designers to consider just how technology could transform the public realm within this major south London borough. One submission, named ‘Unhindered’, explored how technology could create high streets fit for the future. Using technology and data insights it not only created responsive designs but incorporated the specific human needs that the designs were responding to.

By overlaying data and facilitating a dialogue through the #Connect platform, Thames Water, Southern Gas Networks and Croydon Council delivered over £680k of benefits.

Using infrastructure that collects data on passenger movements, it imagined a high street that could predict when someone wants to sit on a bench, rising it up from pavement-level. It could analyse bike movements, responding to their need for somewhere to park when entering a shop. Meanwhile, pavements could automatically widen to accommodate more pedestrians, while LED crossings would appear during peak foot-traffic.

 

While this sounds pretty futuristic, it’s clear that the focus isn’t on just creating a high-tech high street; it’s about making a high street that responds to people’s needs.

 

Putting it into practice

 

While the above is an imaginative concept, there are already examples of where data has been used to benefit local communities. Looking to Croydon once more, a project called Collaboration in Croydon saw a platform created to enable data sharing between the utilities and the local authorities, to drive new insights and efficiencies in delivering street works.

 

The result? By overlaying data and facilitating a dialogue through the #Connect platform, Thames Water, Southern Gas Networks and Croydon Council delivered over £680k of benefits and reduced disruption by almost 100 days – from working together on one street works location alone.

 

Looking ahead

 

By embedding data collection into our infrastructure in the present, we can ensure cities are ready to respond to the needs of the future, putting flexibility and adaptability at centre stage. One great example can be found in the world of transportation.

 

Sensors could be installed along the road edge to monitor the ways people interact with the road network – from drivers’ speeds along certain roads and cyclists’ movements to unmarked but frequent crossing spots for those on foot.

What is often missing is a true understanding of the connection between these two elements – the human and the digital.

Once collected, this data can be used to inform the way driverless vehicles are designed, with consideration for the ways the shared road network is used by others.

 

All in all, using big data is all about finding solutions for people, and positively impacting the way they move around and experience our cities. We aren’t just creating places, we’re shaping the way data and digital tools can improve the places we live.

 

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