Smart cities: business plans

Smart cities, intelligent buildings

2 September 2016

Tony Mulhall explores the differences between smart cities and buildings, and argues for a business model that would bring them closer together

Although it is difficult to imagine a city without buildings, when we talk about smart cities we may unconsciously be talking about abstract amalgams of disparate buildings without recognising that the individual structures originated as discrete projects.

We may therefore be making plans for smart cities without being fully conscious that there is a distinct difference between how and for what purpose the building is procured, and how the city is run and whom it serves.

In commercial and governance terms, the building and the city originate as completely different enterprises. The building results mainly from a private procurement process with all the characteristics of private-sector motivation, proprietary commercial interests and confidentiality requirements. In contrast, the city has emerged from agglomeration to serve the needs of citizens, governed by concepts of communality, democracy and openness.

Unsurprisingly, digital manifestations of the city and the building are being generated separately with distinct objectives, wrapped in quite different concepts of good governance. The concern is that the city and the building may not be talking to each other with these scales or origins in mind. As a result, we may be missing out on a whole range of opportunities for their inter-operation. This article supports the argument for a new business model to integrate these 2 scales.

Different kinds of 'smart'

Images 1 and 2 provide typical representations of these 2 different scales. Image 1 is a digital version of London, based on the space syntax method of analysis developed at University College London, delivered on a 2- dimensional geographic information system (GIS) platform; image 2 is a building information model (BIM) developed on a 3-dimensional one.


Image 1: Space syntax model and Image 2: Building Information Model 

How these 2 systems interact has taken on a new urgency in the UK. The government has stipulated that all centrally procured projects should be planned to BIM Level 2, that is, a managed 3-dimensional environment with data attached but created in separate discipline-based models that may include construction sequencing and cost information – essentially, a building design-based platform geared to the requirements of building procurement.

In contrast, 2-dimensional GIS has been the typical platform on which municipalities have constructed the digital city, although this is increasingly being realised with a 3-dimensional GIS model.

Cultural difference

Despite the obvious interdependencies between buildings and cities, the following clear-cut distinctions emerge:

  • city scale v site scale
  • city planning v building design
  • public interest governance v private interest governance
  • public-sector objectives v private-sector objectives
  • public data v private data.

At the higher level, the city tends to be urban policy-driven for plan-making, whereas the building is developer- or investor-led, focusing on the creation of a secure property asset. Alignment of these interests will require the development of new business models combining the open, sharing culture of city governance with the private, proprietorial demands of commerce, ensuring necessary safeguards for both.

The business end of smart

The UK government regards the 'smart' agenda as essential to competitive advantage in the global economy. It sees the development of expertise as highly transformative in generating new services and expertise for citizens, as well as keeping the UK at the forefront of developments. But it is not just about economic development. As well as creating a new economy, the smart city agenda is about "effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment", according to PAS 180 Smart cities. Vocabulary (BSI UK 2014).

Economic drivers

At a basic level, the economic drivers for smart cities are about managing 'dumb' 19th-century networked infrastructure more efficiently through the application of sensors, actuators and a host of other digital aids to service maintenance and delivery. The benefits include reducing outages and more efficient distribution.

In smart buildings, there are clear economic benefits to be achieved, with savings on costs of up to 20% predicted through the application of Level 2 BIM. But there are the following challenges to effective exploitation of data.

  • Additional costs: ensuring that data being collected for internal use by an agency is done in a standards-based, open format; making it widely available will have additional costs.
  • Data security and privacy: maintaining data security and privacy in a way that will give confidence to those providing data and the individuals to which data relates.
  • Workable commercial arrangements: income from data needs to be distributed fairly to a number of different agencies, reflecting the costs of making it available and the value it has for others.
  • Data capture: a consistent approach to capturing data at every scale in a city, specifically data-modelling processes used by city planners and those used by architects, is currently lacking.

Professional challenges, therefore, include the following:

  • different professionals are using different data modelling systems
  • there is a scale gap between the micro, building-focused scale of the architect and the macro, city-focused scale of the planner
  • the meso scale (the street), where important social and economic life takes place, falls through the gap, though it is also where most of the city's networked infrastructure is located
  • identification of useful data; how could it be most easily collected and made available, and what exactly could it be used for?
  • limited appreciation of digital design; while architects and planners use computers, many have yet to explore the technology's full potential to enable them to design in different ways.

From BIM to CIM

It is not difficult to see the connection between digital modelling at the building level and at the city level. It has been observed that when BIM is more widely adopted, the possibility of city information modelling (CIM) will emerge.

The capacity to move beyond policy-making and to begin managing the resources of the city to achieve more with less is a goal worth pursuing through smart technologies. It would mean less waste in locations and better services for longer periods in places with extreme scarcity. So when we talk about the city and its infrastructure, the need for inter-operability at all scales becomes fundamental to effective mediation between building and city.

The UK government regards the 'smart' agenda as essential to competitive advantage in the global economy

CIM could address one of the key deficiencies in the construction and development process caused by the lack of precise, open-source data about the most basic daily challenges – for instance, how to identify the location of underground services when trying to connect to or avoid them. The repeated failure to capture such information to enable its shared use has proved to be one of the most contentious, disruptive and time-consuming characteristics of urban development.

Whoever might take on the role of CIM custodian would need to promote the benefits of sharing information with developers and contractors, and then ensure that the resulting model is shared on a commercial basis to inform and enhance future projects.

The long-term relationship between the building and the evolving city, where BIM-enabled buildings become lasting, multi-dimensional sensors, must be the goal. Clearly, there will be a requirement for planners and architects to use a common approach to enable this to happen. But there are also cultural differences between those operating at the scale of the city and those operating at building level, which will also need to be overcome.

Tony Mulhall is an associate director at RICS

Further information

Related competencies include:

Images © Space Syntax, Shutterstock

This feature was taken from the RICS Land journal (July/August 2016)