Home Articles Geodesign: Designing our future

Geodesign: Designing our future

Bringing together design professions, technology, geographic sciences and ‘people of the place’, geodesign, or design in a geographic space, is fast evolving as an answer to many of our pressing problems

Global population growth and climate change are driving search for new tools. With these twin challenges touching every aspect of our everyday lives – from food security to urban planning, sustainability to industrialisation – it is not surprising that they underpin explicitly or implicitly any study, research or meet on development, and weigh heavily on government programmes across the world.

The good news is that information technology has evolved so rapidly that we are on the brink of being able to model the entire earth by creating a living atlas of the planet. Geodesign has the potential to be one of these tools.

The still-evolving domain has come a long way since the first Geodesign summit was organised four years ago. As Tom Fisher, emcee and moderator of this year’s Geodesign summit, pointed out, the domain has since inspired four books, 75 papers last year, two university programmes including a masters degree programme, and one article in Scientific American. significantly, Google search results on the word ‘geodesign’, which returned only 400 items four years ago, has gone up to half a million.

What is geodesign ?
Geodesign is an invented word. The first use of the word has been traced to 1993, but it was picked up by Esri in 2005. While there have been attempts to define it as “Geodesign makes design decisions data rich” or “Geodesign takes GIs analysis into the future”, there exists enough ambiguity about the word, for experts still feel impelled to provide a definition. Here is a look at some of them.

  • Geodesign is a method which tightly couples the creation of design proposals with impact simulations informed by geographic contexts and systems thinking and (normally) supported by digital technology. (Dr Michael Flaxman, Assistant Professor in the urban Information systems Group of MIT’s Department of Planning, amended by stephen Ervin, Lecturer in Landscape Architecture and urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate school of Design)
  • Geodesign is design in a geographic space. (Bill Miller, Director of Esri’s Geodesign services Group)
  • Geodesign is a vision for using geographic knowledge to actively and thoughtfully design. (Jack Dangermond, President, Esri)

Perhaps the most comprehensive definition is from Carl steinitz, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning (Emeritus), Harvard school of Design. “Geodesign changes geography by design… It is clear that for serious societal and environmental issues, designing for change cannot be a solitary activity. Rather, it is inevitably a collaborative endeavour, with participants from various design professions and geographic sciences, linked by technology from several locations for rapid communication and feedback and reliant on transparent communication with the people of the place who are also direct participants.”

steinitz’s perspective is that geodesign involves bringing together the design professions (architecture and engineering), technology, geographic sciences and what he calls the “people of the place”, people who are going to live in the result of a “geodesigned” environment.

A major challenge arises from scale. While scientists have a universal and global perspective, designers have a local view of things, often at the level of one building or one parcel. steinitz makes the case that the most important thing that anyone involved in geodesign needs to master is how to collaborate in a multidisciplinary project environment involving architects, engineers, IT professionals and people from the geographicallyoriented sciences.

For instance, Michael Batty of university College London has come up with a mathematical model for collaborative consensus building which relies on an agent-based approach to simulate a collaborative process in which multiple stakeholders (city government, residents, property owners, property speculators and banks) come to a consensus on changes in land use. Batty gives an example in downtown London involving eight parcels of land and six stakeholders to illustrate how the process identifies properties (in this case a very underutilised piece of property in the heart of London) that are most likely to be subject to land use change and which stakeholders (speculators and developers in this case) are most interested in land use change.

Why geodesign?
Development conferences or studies are usually marked by a pervasive sense that the planet is on the brink and there is an urgent need for change, and if we don’t, the implications will be dire.

Dangermond outlines a vision of what he calls a living atlas, a smart 3D model of the world that would be transactional, so it can incorporate changes, either naturally induced or man-made in near real-time and allow us to analyse and simulate alternative designs, especially from a sustainability perspective.

David Bartlett, who leads IBM’s smarter Buildings initiative, believes that there is an “immediate requirement to significantly and urgently change the way our built environment is managed.” He is very sanguine about the capacity of our rapidly evolving IT technology to enable us to do this. With the ‘Internet of Things’ approaching a trillion objects, unlimited processing power and cloud technology, and big data enabling real-time analytics, we are rapidly approaching having enough computing capacity to capture digitally, visualise and model our entire built environment. IBM’s smarter Buildings initiative is aimed at helping to make this happen.

Given that 42% of the world’s energy goes into buildings, we know where Bartlett is coming from. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is an imperative for a sustainable future. The us General services Administration (GsA) has contracted IBM to create a cloud-based centralised system that will monitor building performance (including that of the White House) and feed information into a central building management dashboard. Better analytics is expected to help the government in automating building controls, which in turn will help property managers to take more active control over building performance. It is estimated that this initial project alone will save approximately $15 million in operational costs annually.

This approach can be applied not just to individual buildings, but to entire communities. The City of Boston, Boston university and IBM are collaborating on a sustainable neighbourhood project.

A new urban aesthetic
Frederick steiner, Dean of Architecture at the university of Texas Austin, makes the case that a new aesthetic for cities is evolving. His examples illustrating this trend include Bushwick in Brooklyn, an area shunned by taxis till a few years ago but now the Haight-Ashbury of the 2010s; the Chicago Lakefront; Highline Park in New York; the Cheonggyecheon Linear Park in seoul; the proposal for a linear park in Mexico City in place of a highway; the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn; and the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in seattle. steiner is of the view that how we view urban space is changing, and the emerging aesthetic is fundamentally linked to geography.

In the past, architects designed in an abstract space, but now they need to start using geographic tools. Geographic overlay maps were not invented by Ian McHarg, founder of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the university of Pennsylvania, but were popularised by him within the architectural profession. (McHarg’s book Design with Nature, published in 1969, pioneered ecological planning).

some of the tools used by McHarg that can be classified as geodesign include overlay maps, transects, diagrams, drawings, bird’s eye perspective, photography and block diagrams. The areas where steiner foresees that geodesign can contribute to the new urban aesthetic includes ecosystem services, helping designers move from sustainable development to regenerative design and designing for extreme weather events, which are becoming more prevalent because of climate change and our growing population.

so how do we make a city that feels good?
According to Bran Ferren, co-founder of Applied Minds, there are three types of design — realitybased, fantasy-based and bad design. Ferren feels the last is by far the most prevalent type of design in our cities. The challenge for designers is to convey a compelling story of why and how we need to change the aesthetic. Ferren sees this as where geodesign, by combining the location of everything with a visualisation of what it could be, should play a key role.

Demolition of an elevated freeway and uncovering a section of the Cheonggyecheon Stream has led to ecological and recreational opportunities in the centre of Seoul

Geodesign: Cases in point
To understand what geodesign means in practice, the best way is to look at specific projects.

Crowdsourcing green at the Los Angeles Unified School District
IBM has found that educational institutions and defence departments are the most receptive to the smarter Planet vision and the Los Angeles unified school District (LAusD) provides an interesting example. LAusD has 700,000 students, making it the second largest school district in the country. LAusD decided that it wanted to be the greenest school district in the us, but had no budget for such an aggressive initiative. But what they did have was a lot of students with mobile phones. students, teachers and staff became part of the solution. A mobile app developed by an IBM partner was installed on cellphones of all students which made them green monitors and reporters. students identified maintenance issues such as leaky faucets and broken air conditioning units and sent text messages and photos through their mobile phones to a GIs, which added location.

Gamification was used to encourage competition, for example, to be the best green reporter. Within the first eight months of implementing the programme, LAusD responded to more than 750 maintenance requests reported by students. As a result, things are getting fixed, and students and others have become active participants in the programme to make the schools greener. According to IBM, a total of six school districts are participating in the smarter Planet programme.

When dealing wiThentire communities, it is necessary to worry not only about enabling technology, but also about how to motivate change. Bartlett has discovered that one of the most important tools in motivating change is transparency. And when combined with gamification, it becomes even more powerful in overcoming institutionalised inefficiencies — the “we have always done it this way” attitude.

Yellowstone, the first benchmark ecosystem
In the medical profession, there are reference standards for things like blood cholesterol level, blood pressure and heart rate that define what is normal or acceptable and allow us to identify extreme values that may be symptomatic of a problem. Jen sheldon is an ecologist who has spent a lot of time in Yellowstone National Park and her idea was to develop benchmark metrics for ecological systems using an intact ecological system like Yellowstone as a reference standard. Animals are good proxies for the health of ecosystems because being at the top of the food chain, they concentrate information about their particular ecosystems. sheldon used antelope densities and modelled the ecosystem with a stack of layers. This model can quantify the impact of any development activity in an area, for instance constructing a road, on the health of the ecosystem.

Geodesign in land use. Geodesign brings people together so that participants from different backgrounds and points of view can run what-if scenarios based on their assumptions and assess the consequences of those assumptions

Wildlife connectivity analysis
Ryan Perkl of the university of Arizona has generated a “last of the wild” map, or landscape integrity model, for the state of Arizona which identifies areas that have remained relatively undisturbed by human development. Perkl then conducted a connectivity analysis to create a “wild ways” map showing corridors linking the undisturbed areas, which can identify areas of high connectivity importance. For example, there are two national parks near Tucson. The connectivity map can determine probable routes the wildlife might use for moving from one to the other. This enabled authorities to identify areas where further development would seriously affect connectivity between the two parks and to simulate the impacts of different development plans on connectivity between the two parks.

A new innovative planning protocol that incentivises conservation
Al Reynolds presents a new and innovative scheme for Rural Land stewardship (RLs) that challenges the traditional paradigms of regulation (e.g. zoning) or land acquisition (e.g. Nature Conservancy) by incentivising the protection of the habitat without public funding or regulation. Rural land stewardship is a private/public process based on scientific data and market-driven incentivisation. The currency in this programme is a stewardship credit, which is calculated using a multilayer natural resource index system that gives a higher score for land that is ecologically good for endangered species. In the past, the presence of endangered species reduced the value of land. RLs reverses this trend: land is more valuable if it hosts or provides good habitat for endangered species. Endangered species become an asset instead of a liability.

An area where this approach has been applied is in southwest Florida. several years ago, the Florida 2060 Project attempted to project a picture of what the state would look like in 2060 based on current trends. This particular part of Florida was projected to be overrun by urban sprawl with almost 70% of the study area developed by 2060. A new town called Ave Maria, home to 5,000 people, was developed in the area under the RLs programme. Ave Maria turned out to be one-tenth in size of a traditional town with a similar population. In addition to reducing urban sprawl, the RLs programme protected several panther corridors. Based on this experience, Reynolds argues that traditional zoning doesn’t make sense in the modern world and that we need to replace regulatory regimes like zoning with processes like the RLs programme that are based on scientific data and market-driven incentives.

Creating a 3D digital model of the entire LA community college system
Michael Rendler is the Director of e7 Architecture studio which is a non-profit organisation working with the Los Angeles Community College District. LACCD is the largest community college district in the united states and serves more than 250,000 students annually at nine colleges in the greater Los Angeles area (see interview on Page 38). With the goal to become one of the greenest community college districts in the us, LACCD initiated a project nine years ago to create a model of all the buildings and infrastructure on its campuses to facilitate sustainability analyses. The models, created by LACCD students, adopted standards wherever possible to ensure a uniform representation. The buildings were captured as georeferenced BIM models and stored in and served from a geospatial database (Oracle spatial). Real world coordinates enabled the model to be easily integrated with geospatial data from a variety of sources and to be used for a variety of purposes including visualisation, energy performance modelling and predictive maintenance.

Modeling an entire city
sheyla santana is the executive director of Geoconsulting, a training and consultancy company in geotechnology in Brazil. santana is also part of a geospatial group called GeoproEA at the school of Architecture at the Federal university of Minas Gerais which is creating an intelligent digital model of the entire city of Belo Horizonte, a city with a population of about 2.5 million. The city model includes both buildings and infrastructure. While the buildings are captured as 3D BIM models, the infrastructure data, including electric power, water and sewer, telecommunications, transportation and public services comes from a unified infrastructure database in the state of Minas Gerais. Initially, the model will be used for energy performance analysis, but the long-term vision is to enable a data-driven planning process for the city. For example, to be able to assess densification options from a serviceability perspective, planners need to know if an area is zoned highrise residential, if the existing transportation, electric power, water and sewer infrastructure is adequate or needs expansion and if so by how much and at what cost.

Intelligent digital model of the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil, developed by GeoproEA
As population growth and climate change drive a search for new tools, geodesign is fast evolving as an answer to many of our pressing problems. With technology on the brink of creating a living atlas of the planet, and analytics and simulation technology already being used to intelligently model different aspects of our world ranging from undisturbed natural environments to neighbourhoods to cities, the need of the hour is developing converged solutions involving GIs, BIM, 3D visualisation and animation.

Today’s technology makes all this possible. Current applications include emergency management, sustainability analysis and facilities management. But it is not hard to imagine many other areas where geodesign based on intelligent digital models will play an increasingly essential role in enabling us to manage our built environment more sustainably.