Spatial information systems are destined to reform standard practices and ideologies in architecture and  structural engineering that date back to the Pyramids

Producing a single, accurate digital map of proposed urban developments requires collaboration on an unprecedented scale

by Davina Jackson

The Commonwealth Government is considering a proposal for two new national research co-ordination organisations to support a future industry of professionals applying automatic digital technologies to create and manage smart cities.

Emerging tools include GIS (geographic information system) mapping, GPS satellite monitoring, satellite video imaging, 3D laser and radar scanning, photogrammetry, remote sensing, free agent modelling, cellular automata, mobile telephony and tracking, auto-pilot systems (reminiscent of navigating the Star Trek Enterprise), serious gaming, evolutionary (SimCity) modelling, virtual prototyping and algorithmically generated building models.

Many of these next-generation 3D spatial information technologies were originally developed in the aerospatial sector and are now flowing through to built environment professions via the geospatial and digital industries.
Applicable to major ecological challenges in global urban development markets usually worth trillions of US dollars a year (before the global financial crisis), the phenomenon is attracting various labels – including “data cities”, “smart cities” and “digital eco cities”.

Spatial information systems are destined to reform standard practices and ideologies in architecture and structural engineering that date back to the construction of the Pyramids.

Future growth of Australia’s urban development services exports will depend on educating new generations of digitally agile and globally competitive urban professionals.

Intended to accelerate multidisciplinary uses of spatial technologies in research organisations, the Data Cities Research Scheme for Australia was submitted to the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research (DIISR) last January, as a proposal for development following a NICTA-commissioned international study report in late 2008.

Consideration has been delayed by the funding rebids of several relevant Cooperative Research Centres, notably the recently refinanced CRC for Spatial Information at the University of Melbourne.

Peter Hitchiner
Peter Hitchiner

The scheme proposes a new cross-departmental Commonwealth Data Cities Research Council to oversee a Sydney headquartered secretariat serving all Australian research organisations. A proposed name for the secretariat is the Data Cities Research Alliance.

Government agencies expected to take seats on the council include Geoscience Australia’s Office of Spatial Data Management, Infrastructure Australia’s Major Cities Unit, the Council of Australian Governments’ Planning Officials Group, DIISR’s Office of the Chief Scientist, the Australian Research Council and Commercialisation Australia.

Supporting the proposed Data Cities Research Alliance is a reference panel of leaders of several state government entities and nine peak industry organisations, including the Spatial Information Business Association, the Urban Development Institute of Australia, the NSW Urban Task Force, the Australian Spatial Consortium, the Australian Institute of Project Management, the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute, the Australian Information Industry Association, and the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association.

A key political context is that for several years (dating back to the Howard Government), DIISR executives have been working with built-environment industry groups to produce a plan to improve the capabilities of future property developers, project managers, surveyors, planners, architects, engineers, environmental consultants, landscape professionals and builders.

A “Strategic Plan 2009-2014” has been released for stakeholder comments by the Built Environment Industry Innovation Council (BEIIC), which currently shares a joint technical advisory group with the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) Industry Innovation Council.

The plan identi?es 10 action areas and pathways intended to generate outcomes that include integrated, seamless and collaborative delivery; attracting and retaining skills capacity and talent; a profitable and rewarding built environment industry investing in research and innovation, and world-class urban development exporters.

Progress of the BEIIC strategy may be hampered by last year’s break-up of the Australian Council of Built Environment Design Professions (BEDP).

Without three former members – the Planning Institute of Australia, the Australian Institute of Architects and the Consulting Engineers Association of Australia (which now have joined a Built Environment Meets Parliament alliance) – the built environment sector no longer has an umbrella organisation of design professionals focused on advancing an integrated practice of building information modelling.

This is a new design system whereby multidisciplinary teams collaborate simultaneously to build one mathematically accurate digital simulation of a proposed urban development. It promises to save time, money and construction resources by reforming the traditional consecutive processes of drawing buildings, and by computer-testing the model to avoid mistakes on site.

In macro-economic policy terms, the collapse of the BEDP represents a classic industry failure – the criteria needed by governments to justify funding ?xes to private-sector problems. However, the Commonwealth already has poured millions of dollars into rescuing the property and construction sector from the ?nancial crash of 2008, so its reaction to a further request for $12.5m (over ?ve years) for a new Data Cities Research Alliance cannot be certain.

Guiding the data cities proposal is Sydney ICT consultant Peter Hitchiner, from a team which established the Cooperative Research Centre for Smart Services. Hitchiner, who is also the current Sydney president of Engineers Australia, said: “We need stronger leadership and intelligent collaboration of R&D to deliver effective solutions for the major ecological challenges of urbanisation. Access to reliable data – facts – will be critical.”

Another supporter is Senator Kate Lundy, who recently told an international geospatial conference in Sydney that there will be many bene?ts for citizens from online access to spatial information systems.

“By mapping data you can turn seemingly arbitrary statistics into a rich, interactive and highly personalised experience,” she said. “We have new opportunities for a more inclusive, transparent and collaborative democracy where citizens can move from distant observers to engaged participants.”
Both the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Information Industry Association are forming new committees to engage major business organisations with opportunities to grow the smart cities sector.

The chairman of the Data Cities Australia Reference Panel is Peter Seamer, chief executive of the Victorian Growth Areas Authority, and the deputy chair is Warwick Watkins, chief executive of the NSW Land and Property Management Authority.

They and senior planning bureaucrats in other state governments are aiming to launch a series of comparative case studies in 2010 towards a new system for online planning of future growth centres – integrating new tranches of data about natural environmental systems.

Davina Jackson is catalyst of the emerging d_city global data cities network.