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Towards a sustainable future

Data is overwhelming cities, but today’s design technologies can help
them leverage it to build a more sustainable future.

A model of San Francisco created using Autodesk InfraWorks 360

The number of people living in cities will increase
from 3.6 billion in 2010 to 6.3 billion in 2050,
according to Navigant Research’s 2013 Smart
report. The race is on for cities across the
globe to provide the economic, environmental and
social resources their citizens need to thrive.
One resource at no risk of running out is data. Geospatial
and real-time information is being collected at record levels
as cities, utilities, and property owners strive to improve the
performance of their buildings and infrastructure. However,
cities have struggled to harness the wealth of data to plan for
a sustainable urban future — one that will require building in
the next 40 years the same urban capacity we have built over
the last 4,000 years. Fortunately, today’s design technologies
can help them tap into this resource to meet the challenge.

Data deluge

Significant investment has gone into gathering data as cities
have recognised the need to be smarter in how they plan, design
and manage their built environment. Navigant Research
estimates that the global smart city technology market
information and communications technologies for buildings
and infrastructure — will total $110 billion between now
and 2020. Terrain data has become incredibly more detailed
as high-resolution laser scanning has supplanted traditional
surveying techniques.

And yet, cities, much like the rest of us, are finding themselves
increasingly inundated by this data. Scandinavian researcher
SINTEF estimated that 90% of all data in the world
was generated over the past two years, and it is possible that
by 2020 the amount of new information generated will double
every 72 hours.

But a sustainable city is not just a data-rich city; it must
be a knowledge-driven city. From sensors that gather infrastructure
conditions to geospatially-located digital pictures,
the question is whether cities can process and use this data to
make sustainable planning decisions that address current and
future infrastructure problems.

The graph illustrates how monetising sustainability can boost a project’s Net Present Value.

Geospatial data is particularly important to this end.
From infrastructure location to asset condition, it contains
clues on a city’s needs and valuable insight for new projects.
When coupled with Building Information Modeling (BIM)
— an intelligent, 3D model driven process — geospatial
data of the built environment can be visualised as 3D city
models, and project proposals can be designed and analysed
in the context of these existing conditions. Combining the

two serves as a perfect canvas on which a city’s planners
and engineers can answer the two fundamental questions of
building a sustainable future: are we doing the right projects;
and, are we doing the projects right?

Are we doing the right projects?

Traditionally, cash-strapped cities have selected projects
that maximise economic activity with low upfront cost. Yet
skyrocketing maintenance costs and environmental damage
highlight the shortcomings of this approach. To
ensure a sustainable future, cities must prioritise
and build the right projects — projects that meet
clearly-defined needs and deliver long-term triple
bottom line benefits.

BIM with geospatial data enables city planners
to consider these benefits by providing feedback
on the social and environmental impacts of various
design choices. As planners sketch new transit
lines and draw new swales, they immediately
see how much carbon is displaced and water is
retained. These non-cash impacts provide a more
comprehensive view of infrastructure value beyond
just capital cost.

However, prioritising projects also requires
the ability to compare vastly different projects
with seemingly incomparable cash and non-cash
impacts. Accordingly, a number of cities and project
teams have turned to cost-benefit methodologies such
as Sustainable Return on Investment (SROI) for guidance.
SROI is a framework with a $15-billion track record used
to quantify a project’s financial, social, and environmental
impacts in comparable, monetary terms. But while SROI is
an effective means of revealing project value, it can takes
weeks and hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect the
data and run the analysis.

Pairing BIM with SROI datasets and economic smarts
produces a supercharged design process that computes a
project’s sustainable business case at the speed of design.
Known as CBA-BIM, this design process harvests the rich
geospatial and design data straight from the model to inform
the economic analysis. Consider a stormwater management
project. As green infrastructure is added to a neighbourhood
design, data on the feature’s size and proximity to buildings
is fed to algorithms that calculate the cash value of its water
quality and heat island benefits. These benefits can then be
directly compared to those of a transportation project across
town. With this new paradigm of data-powered design, cities
will be able to easily prioritise the projects that meet the most
pressing needs and offer the greatest long-term benefits.

Are we doing the projects right?

With tight budgets and the need to build quickly, cities cannot
afford projects plagued by cost overruns and delays. The
McKinsey Global Institute estimates that $400 billion is
lost annually from inefficient project delivery, but the same
amount can be saved by improving designs, accelerating approvals,
and reducing construction waste. For each of these
practices, BIM and geospatial data can play key roles.
Designing with BIM begins not on a blank canvas, but
The graph illustrates how monetising sustainability can boost a project’s Net Present Value.
A model of San Francisco created using Autodesk InfraWorks 360

a rich city model constructed from geospatial data. As engineers
create new project designs, they can run a variety
of simulations to understand and improve both its immediate
and system-wide impacts. A road, for example, can be
analysed and redesigned to minimise earthwork and relieve
traffic congestion across the broader transportation network.

For the Presidio Parkway project in San Francisco, advanced 3D visualisations were created to provide citizens and public officials a way
to ‘experience’ the project before construction

The more a project is analysed, the greater the project understanding
and the better the result.

As a design comes together, creating visualisations of the
new project is an effective way to communicate project intent
and accelerate approvals. For the Presidio Parkway project
in San Francisco, the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff
shared photorealistic animations and renderings to give citizens
and public officials a way to experience the project. By showing
the project in context of the familiar San Francisco landscape,
Parsons Brinckerhoff was able to address environmental concerns
and move through the approval processes swiftly.
Once projects are approved, project teams can mitigate
construction risks by using BIM to walk through the
construction process before contractors break ground. As
a design model is virtually reconstructed piece-by-piece,
teams can identify and resolve conflicts, as well as find opportunities
to save time and materials.

Conflicts are a common construction issue; underground
utilities are struck on average once a minute in the United
. To reduce such risks for the City of Las Vegas, the
engineering firm VTN Consulting built an expansive, geospatially-
accurate 3D model of the city’s underground infrastructure
to serve as a reliable reference for future projects.
Designing, communicating, and constructing projects effectively
will be essential for cities and their project teams to
deliver projects efficiently. As cities become more complex,
bringing geospatial data into the BIM design environment
will be crucial to make sure new projects integrate seamlessly
with the rest of the urban environment.


Tapping the vast potential of geospatial data with BIM will
be essential to doing the right projects and doing the projects
right. Together, they will be a catalyst not only to help our cities
handle the influx of urbanites, but to cost-effectively deliver the
sustainable infrastructure we need for decades to come.

Lynda Sharkey,
Technical Marketing Manager, Autodesk,
Brian Young
, Sustainable Infrastructure Program Manager,