Ben Guy speaking at a recent Property Council of Australia event

25 October 2011 ­– Speeding up the development process by cutting down on friction and misunderstandings between stakeholders is the dream of developers, planners and governments everywhere. It is also something close to the heart of Ben Guy, principal of Urban Circus, who has created a tool to do just that.

Graphics from Urban Circus

The company, established in 2004, is making inroads into the development process of some of our largest infrastructure and transport projects with its virtual 3D software,the Urban Engine.  By allowing designers and planners, and communities, to experience the project in the early stages of design through the creation of a virtual world, the tool is having some impressive results.

“We are seeing an 80 per cent reduction in communication time [of projects]. What was taking five meetings with all the stakeholders is now taking one,” says Guy.

“This is resulting in massive cost reductions and people are also much happier. Understanding of a development and its impact is key. There will inevitably be community resistance to a major infrastructure project when people don’t understand it. When they can see it, even if they don’t agree with everything, resistance is lowered as they don’t feel they are being hoodwinked.”

A case in point was the Glenelg Tram Overpass, a South Australian Department of Transport, Energy and Infrastructure project, which, says Guy, was blocked for some time by residents. When Urban Circus was brought in to show the project in a 3D simulation, the fears and anxieties were resolved in a community session with the virtual environment.

So what is so special about the Urban Circus product? It is all in the flexibility, says Guy, allowing changes to be made iteratively so that designers, planners, bureaucrats and community members can see the various options and their impacts.

Another example of the power of this transparency is the Windsor Bridge, a NSW Roads and Traffic Authority project, which was suffering from apparent misunderstandings between heritage experts and engineers.

“There were some heated meetings and it was starting to have an impact on productivity. The project was complex spatially and needed subtle understanding – once it was presented and optioneered in the 3D virtual environment during a 15 minute boardroom session, much of the misunderstanding and differences were resolved and they could all get on with delivery,” says Guy.

The social value of well designed urban space
Ben Guy describes himself as a public space advocate and he started Urban Circus out of a desire to see the quality of urban spaces improve.

From a Melbourne project. Graphics: Urban Circus

“I’m very big on the value of public space – it is a valuable asset and when you get it right it adds to social capital. There are so many secondary and tertiary benefits – environmental, health and social.”

Guy likens the effects to those incorporated in the Japanese concept, Ba, meaning a shared space that serves as a foundation for the creation of individual and collective knowledge.

“Part of my thesis at university was that as animals growing up on the earth’s surface we know ‘good’ when we see it. We have got that instinct for a reason and intrinsically people value good space,” says Guy.

But it is not always so easy to get it right in the design and planning stage. And there are far too many examples of where we are not getting it right. When Guy returned to Australia after completing a PhD in planning and urban design in London he began working on large infrastructure projects and quickly became disillusioned about the quality of the design.

“Designs people were coming up with weren’t great – they were having a negative impact on the urban fabric. In places such as Amsterdam, flyovers are built but there is multiple land use underneath them. That wasn’t happening here.”

At this point Guy became involved in CAD (Computer Aided Design) to show stakeholders in the projects just how the finished product would look. From there he progressed to the development of a more sophisticated 3D tool, employing software engineers to develop a product that works in a similar way to computer games, creating a virtual world.

It is its integrated ability that makes the tool particularly powerful, says Guy.

“There are some fantastic technical tools available like BIM (Building Information Modelling) but it is a technical, advanced tool, whereas ours is used at the idea stage, putting concepts into a virtual world and allowing a lot of optioneering. You can alter a bridge design and move things around to see the various impacts and explain complex spatial ideas quickly and effectively.”

Based in a Brisbane warehouse, Urban circus now has 30 employees and is working on some significant projects, including ongoing work for the Integrated Design Commission in South Australia (see our recent storyhttps://thefifthestate.com.au/archives/28835) on the Bowden New Town Centre, Adelaide, a Land Management Corporation project which demonstrates new principles of urban density.

Other projects include the South Road Superway, the Department of Transport, Energy and Infrastructure, SA; Gold Coast Rapid Transit, Department of Transport, Queensland; Gold Coast Quarry Development, Boral; ?and Melbourne Market Relocation, Lend Lease. The company has also created virtual city and precinct products for Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney to support precinct planning and management.

The company has recently released the Beta version of their software, with a free viewer and pro version (like adobe PDF) downloadable on their website (www.urbancircus.com.au). It is a non-technical 3D tool for managers and directors to use, but can also be used with BIM and civil data. The licensed version of the Urban Circus software allows clients to go much further.

So did Ben Guy envisage doing this when he was studying physics and environmental psychology?

“No and my supervisor was surprised as I wasn’t particularly into 3D at university. But it makes sense really. I have two teenage kids and university is not far away for them and I realise how important it is for them to follow their passion. I have always played with graphics and had an ability to envision space and it makes sense to bring that to others to create better cities.”

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au