‘Cities themselves are bringing in a lot of intelligence’

‘Cities themselves are bringing in a lot of intelligence’


In an exclusive interview with Geospatial World, Raghunath Babu Guduru discusses the role of geospatial technology and emerging trends in urban planning

Raghunath Babu Guduru
Raghunath Babu Guduru
Vice President – Geospatial Technologies
Surbana International Consultants Pte. Ltd.

Kindly brief us about the services provided by Surbana. What is the role of geospatial technology in your activities?
Surbana International Consultants was originally part of Housing Development Board, Singapore. In 2003, it was corporatised and made a separate entity. Since then, we have been offering a wide range of real estate services. Our flagship specialisation is urban planning. Surbana Urban Planning Division (SUPG) is a pioneer consulting group focused on sustainable city planning. SUPG is one of the leading global players in this niche area. GIS plays a key role in making SUPG sustainable planning process more integrated and sophisticated. Surbana realised the growing importance of using geospatial technology in urban planning domain and started to invest in GIS. Dedicated efforts and vision of Surbana leadership paid rich dividends in the form of outstanding project deliveries and creating an invaluable GIS and sustainable planning skill set. Today, after six years of a fast forward journey, Surbana stands ahead of the competition with greater confidence in providing solutions to complex urban problems. The urban planning team at Surbana now uses GIS in day-to-day operations in resolving complex urban problems using terrain analysis, spatial data analytics, 3D modelling and many more integrated raster and vector tools.

Why is efficient urban planning getting increasingly important?
In the last couple of years, or the last decade we can say, lot of regions are being developed globally – not “cities,” but “regions.” Global leaders and the United Nations have identified 22 regions which will contribute more than 70 percent of GDP to the world by 2050. Statistics also reveal that by 2025, 70 percent of the global population will live in urban areas. These areas should not just witness people moving in; these areas need systematic organisation, which is what urban planning is about. Not taking this into account will lead to chaos.

Currently, the focus in general is just on trying to build bigger cities – mega cities, but not addressing their sustainability. That kind of unplanned development leads to a catastrophic problems in future. It is not about building beautiful buildings, it is about building more sustainable communities for people to live in which shall to an ecosystem where economics, social patterns and culture are in right balance. Urban planning is not only about physically planning the communities – it is politics, socio-economics and organisation – the way we organise our life in a given place.

As governments plan budgets and forecast financial and economic development, it becomes necessary that they should also have clear development plans related to land. Only then can they visualize and simulate economic development. A well-planned land use converts into significant monetary benefits to a country, as is evident in a lot of countries. Therefore there is a need to plan it very well.

How can geospatial technology address various issues related to urban planning?
Let’s take an example of a city that is projected to accommodate a certain population by a specific time frame. This city also requires a central business district. An urban planner will pick up a land use cadastral map and start developing on that. An urban planning firm picks up that cadastral map, puts it into GIS and start planning. The benefit of using GIS is that when the urban planner moves something to another location in his plan, the system will give him an analysis of this movement because GIS is tagged with attribute data intelligence. For example, in relocating a land use type, the land use configuration will change; henceforth the overlaying socioeconomic conditions will change. Intelligent and smart methods in land use allocation for various purposes i.e commercial, institutional, residential etc., would help the city planners achieve the optimum results. It is not possible for planners to do this configuration on their own without spatial analysis tool because there are multiple parameters that would contribute to the decision of land use planning. For example, if one wants to move a school from a residential to commercial area, then the GIS system will give an analysis of this move – the distance from school to residential area will increase by say 2 km. Planners may have to calculate how many man-trips the students will be required to make in a day and will try to evolve models in such a way that there is less travel for them. If this travel can be reduced, then the carbon footprint of the city can be reduced.

If a city is on a hilly terrain, then the sustainability to create a flat terrain needs to be ascertained and also how much area to cut and fill. We can create elevation models and determine how much volume is required to be filled in. We can also simulate 3D buildings, give them elevations and see how a simulated city would look. These are some ways in which our clients can get instant insight into their future developments. Various options can be created quickly and analysed.

Conventional system planners use tools like Adobe Photoshop for such activities. However, in Photoshop, if changes are made to any element on the map, the underlying attributes don’t change. Over a period of time, when many things change, it will be impossible to study these impacts of the changes, whereas in GIS it is possible to provide an understanding of different aspects in one shot. Such an analysis can play a significant role in sustainable planning.

These are some of the ways in which we use GIS and deliver services to our clients in the GIS format. People involved in urban planning, architecture and construction should interactively design in such a way that by the day the plan is completed, the end user, a developer, should be able to get their cost of the project, sustainability of the project and timeline of the project with maybe 5-10 percent variation.

In your view, how adaptive are the governments towards the use of geospatial technology in urban planning?
While the governments are vocally very adaptive and express their keenness in adopting the technology, at the implementation level, the governments are not quite there because very few governments globally see it as an important issue. It is akin to global environmental issues – while the governments talk a lot, there is not much action when it comes to implementation, funding, policies or regulations. Of course this is changing. There are some governments, like the city of Doha, whose urban planning divisions are very keen to make their city prepared for the future. They are bringing in a lot of regulatory aspects which will help the cities grow and expand in a systematic pattern. Similarly in Rwanda, there is a city called Kigali. 15 years back, Rwanda was known for wrong reasons; it was known for genocide. The city undertook concerted urban planning initiatives in 2008 and has now evolved as a role model for a many cities. Taingin Ecocity in China too has evolved to be one of the most talked about eco-cities in the world.

Leaders in governments should understand that having realistic and intelligent digital city models will not only help the urban planners, it would be helpful in improving the quality of life of the residents. A reliable city digital model shall be helpful in traffic management, city security, disaster mitigation, environmental monitoring and various other mobile applications.

It appears to be easier for smaller, upcoming cities to implement effective urban planning using GIS given the small base, whereas it is a more urgent need for the established, bigger cities to have efficient urban planning to meet the demands of their ever-burgeoning populations within their limited resources. How can big cities leverage on the technology?
For big and established cities, geospatial technology can help in process of planning. Planning does not just imply creating a plan, it is a socio-political awareness that has to come across to all sections of the people.

If we consider cities in developing countries with huge populations and limited infrastructure, we can observe that these cities have very good potential as a region rather than a pinpoint area. However, most of the activities get focussed around select areas and agglomerations form on these single pointed areas. What can be done to ease such cities’ congestion is to shift people’s attention to some other, spread-over areas is by creating better infrastructure in surrounding areas. Growth can be voluminous, but it should be within expected range; infrastructure can then be developed. Similarly, where the issues of migrant influx into big cities are concerned, one can look into the issue of why migrants will come in the first place – for better livelihood and for better economic prospects in a given area. If such areas are created somewhere else, migrants will go there. City development organisations can create development centres, industrial corridors far off from the main city and still within the same region. We suggest to them to create sustainable infrastructure, not widen the existing road because no matter how much you widen the road, it will get chocked up again. You take reasonable things to a place outside the hub, locate them somewhere else and then create connectivity for those areas. These are the aspects of urban planning that can be addressed through geospatial technology.

How does the geospatial planning division work for urban planning at Surbana?
Under urban planning at Surbana, we have the core urban planners and people from transportation, utilities and land survey. Each of these divisions approaches the respective departments in the government for their data. The geospatial team receives the inputs from all the teams and creates a centralised database. Our approach is that GIS is not just a tool; it should be a platform to work together. People think of GIS as a software and tool whereas it can be a platform for different streams to come together. GIS gives us a platform to explain various concepts to our clients.

What are the current trends in urban planning in Asia Pacific? How is the uptake of geospatial technology in the process?
Urban planning is being considered to be increasingly important nowadays in the region because it is being felt that it is not so simple anymore to manage a city. GIS is becoming indispensible to urban planning because everything is becoming geotagged. Various aspects related to city management, like pollution levels, are being managed through sensors. These sensors are geotagged and the location of these sensors is known to the systems. This refers to numerous cities in the region. Several IT companies are presenting various concepts of smart cities. There are multibillion projects based on the smart city concept in this region that these vendors are aspiring to get. And one underlying aspect in all these smart concepts is ‘location.’

GIS plays a very critical role in the smart city concept. Sometimes business intelligence is used for activities where data mining is very intensive, eg traffic data. All this intelligence comes through intelligence of location. There are several software for business intelligence which have whole GIS engine built into it but had never been their focus area. They were selling business analytical software but had been unknowingly using GIS.

The awareness about geospatial technology in urban planning is on a rise. The IT companies I earlier mentioned too are paying a lot of attention to urban planning with GIS and about the future of cities. However the use of GIS in urban planning is in nascent stages. It has the potential to be real time, in the sense that everything can be tracked, every object identified and everything be available online.

The trend is towards the unconventional. It is going in a direction wherein cities themselves are bringing in a lot of intelligence and intelligent objects like sensors which are tremendously useful now. Integrated systems are also being used, especially for monitoring the traffic. There are central command stations for every city traffic monitoring. They employ GIS to track every vehicle – not literally tracking, but when it comes to certain locations they get to know the moment of the fleet and how the vehicles are moving.

The use of geospatial technology will go up tremendously in urban planning; it will make its presence felt in different forms like business intelligence. Conventional GIS systems will slowly fade out. People will use their own Web services which will do the same things in different forms.

What are some of the current projects you are involved in, which are significantly utilising geospatial technology?
Surbana Urban Planning Group (SUPG) is currently undertaking a couple of prestigious sustainable city planning projects in China, Middle East, India and Africa. It is mandatory at Surbana to deliver the data to the clients in GIS format.

We currently involved in a planning project in Doha City which is hosting the football World Cup 2022. This project aims to develop a detailed master plan for a large municipality in the city. We will do the detailed infrastructure, landscape and architecture plan. GIS is being used as an integration platform for various vertical and horizontal activities. It is being planned to integrate GIS and BIM and provide a one-point Web-based system where a project can be visualised through a dashboard.