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Future cities, smart cities and building information modeling

Cover Story-BIM

BIM for smart cities should not be only looked at from cost savings and streamlining perspective 

As of April 4, 2016 all government construction projects in the United Kingdom mandate BIM Level 2. Scary for some, an opportunity for others, a step, a stride even, towards better places for us all (if somewhat gradually). Better places to work, to travel along, simply to be in. So, the theory goes, for this is the era of better information management, for buildings and for the wider environs, brought on by an unprecedented ability to capture, store and analyse data, and to make, autonomously or otherwise, decisions based on the data and the insights they afford or reveal.

Increasing technological convergence and wider mega-trends such as urbanization, population growth, climate change, de-carbonization and the privatization of public spaces and services provide both the opportunity and arguably the compunction for those with the capability to do so to make our human space better.

As the old adage has it, everything happens somewhere, so no one is better ‘placed’ than geographers and geo-scientists to make our space better. So, again the theory goes! But how, who with and what does better look like along the journey?

BIM - Collaboration among stakeholders and across phases is the key word
BIM – Collaboration among stakeholders and across phases is the key word

Improved asset performance

The UK’s Digital Built Britain strategy launched in February 2015 is essentially the extension of the now-mandated BIM Level 2 to support inter-connected digital design on the one hand and full building lifecycle operation on the other — in the latter case with the hope and expectation that current costs can benefit from similar savings already evinced with BIM Level 2 since 2011.

It is anticipated that the resulting built spaces will themselves be digital, delivering improved asset performance and reduced operational cost as a result of the ability to, for example, track in near real-time the way in which and the extent to which buildings and other infrastructure are used. Therein lie energy and maintenance savings through smart utility networks, smarter facilities management dynamic environmental controls through IoT. And during design and construction, it is expected that construction disruption and waste will be reduced with schedules streamlining in response to operational and external factors.

For the citizen, the frustration of interacting with public sector controlled physical space often stems from limitations on access, often themselves a result of unscheduled or unnotified closures, be it transport networks, buildings or public spaces. And the same problems occur in the private domain too. Which is why, the hope is that all major projects will adopt BIM as a matter of course.

Maximum social gain

So, BIM can and should be about much more than cost savings and streamlining of construction processes; it should be viewed almost as a holistic philosophical approach to engagement for maximum social gain. Collaboration is the key word — collaboration in the planning process, engaging with various stakeholders and communities of interest, collaboration in iterative design, integrating all the various disciplines, collaboration in construction, collaboration with owners and occupiers, facilitating effective use and maintenance of the new space. The hard knowledge of geography that informs our collective sense of place serves to frame this collaboration.

The digital models implicit within BIM, and on which perhaps there has been too much focus, are nevertheless key to engagement and development, providing not only the detail but also the context. It is then that the importance of place and of the assimilation of data about and around a given place self-evidently demands the wider perspective that GIS and similar visualization and analytics tools bring to the asset management party. While the type of data that goes into design and build of the digital and physical asset will be unfamiliar to most in GIS, the emergence of standards, such as, CityGML and ISO19157 increasingly allows seamless integration of selected data sets across the different tool sets.

Harnessing Big Data

The approach to data itself is changing too. Never mind the need for a single source of truth to guide management and maintenance of buildings, transit and systems and public spaces, the citizen no longer expects anything less. Indeed facilities and networks are planned and designed against usage/access models and constraints and when operation limits performance against these metrics the public will point the finger at inefficient operation and poor design. Harnessing Big Data, be it from IoT/sensorweb technologies, CCTV, social media, SCADA, FM or other systems, to inform operations and notify owners, occupiers and users is integral to effective public service and maintaining goodwill. Whether or not GIS is the milieu for that integration and the database the analytics engine for insights, everything still happens somewhere and the beneficiary (the owner, occupier or user) gains greatest understanding when that geointelligence is visually conveyed.

So far, so good — in summary, loads of data, all georeferenced, all accessible by advanced analytical engines that can present the relevant information to different audiences according to their needs — what’s not to like! Well, sadly there is a but…
Ambition is a wonderful thing, especially when coupled to a blank sheet of paper. So, if you were in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, UAE, you would indeed benefit, albeit subliminally, from an array of joined up systems in a genuinely smart city.  But if you are in a city that has grown and been continuously rebuilt since Roman times in a largely organic manner you may occasionally wonder at responsive street, building or transit lighting but mostly you really wonder how it functions at all.

A single source of truth

Multiple administrations, overlapping utility providers and a legacy infrastructure — some of it centuries old — provides a challenging backdrop against which to deliver the city-wide benefits necessary for smart cities of the future. Even to get to a single source of truth is hard, but, as Crossrail has shown it is possible to bore a large hole through the middle if you can collect and maintain the right data!

BIM, Asset Management and Smart Cities - Courtesy: AGI Foresight Report 2020
BIM, Asset Management and Smart Cities – Courtesy: AGI Foresight Report 2020

At the same time buried asset information is amongst the most elusive when it comes to a wider smart environment with security often cited as the reason whereas often it is concern about data quality, accuracy and provenance. Without a collective vision for BIM across public administration, buried assets (utilities, telecoms, transport, drainage), construction, architecture, engineering and transport, it is hard to imagine substantially smart cities emerging but entirely plausible to see smart buildings, smart enclaves and smart public spaces.

Equally without BIM or a BIM-like philosophical epiphany amongst owners, occupiers and the FM community, the fear will remain that a building can be designed smart, built smart and handed over smart, but that traditional operation and maintenance models pay little or no heed to the new handbook, the better building information management model. As the BIM Report 2016 notes “other parts of the industry are behind”, could this be because the industry at the heart of the emergence of BIM has traditionally had limited touch-points with the FM industry. We are on a journey, partly of convergence (as, for example, the 2013 BIM4FM Group survey illustrates) in which the different strands of expertise from architecture, BIM, GIS, IT, engineering, visualization and asset management are coming together to achieve better outcomes for everyone.

Those better outcomes — earlier, better dialogue, more timely interventions, etc. — are data driven. Big Data, small data, structured/unstructured data, satellite imagery, M2M, even voice are all sources of data that, if accessible, modern machine learning and natural language processing algorithms can use to derive new insights and automated responses, often in near real-time. Home automation via NEST and automated building ventilation systems, predictive and responsive traffic signals are operational exemplars of how buildings respond to changing conditions thanks to “self knowledge”.  The condition-based maintenance that follows can drive down asset cost, improve carbon performance and maximize accessibility. There is a reason to read the manual, FM man!

Of course, no building or city is an island (with the odd exception!) and so no single BIM instance should be an island. At the risk of repetition, everything happens somewhere, so it is important that no silo is left unlocked and that the technological backbone (Internet, geolocation, interoperability and standards, search/semantic Web, anonymity and security) can bring about the interactions for a genuinely smart city unencumbered by data access or technical constraints. These are big asks of custodians, of politicians, of technocrats and of the public, with an inevitable tension that will require public consent and to which practitioners and implementers must develop answers. This becomes so much easier to convey within our geographical frame.

BIM is not CAD, Courtesy: AGI Foresight Report 2020
BIM is not CAD, Courtesy: AGI Foresight Report 2020

So, BIM is a thing, no question. Is it delivering value? Again, no question. Is that it? Absolutely not! In the interests of digital inclusivity, the relatively rarefied world of BIM and related disciplines including GIS have a very long way to go indeed in delivering to their philosophical potential. Will that see them embedded within workflows and processes that form, deliver and sustain the smart city? Quite possibly. Does that diminish their role and our responsibility today to ensure the widest understanding and adoption? Of course not, we have a challenging journey ahead, one full of opportunity for those within, but, ultimately, for everyone.

This article is written by James Cutler, CEO, emapsite and has emerged from ongoing discussions on the key issues raised by the AGI Foresight Report 2020 and in particular with Dr Anne Kemp, as Chief Editor.