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Britain’s Royal Architects: We Should Build Our Cities on Real-Time Data

The Royal Institute of British Architects want builders — and the U.K. government — to embrace data-informed urban design.

London map made with Stamen map tiles and OpenStreetMap. Credit: Kake Pugh on Flickr

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The Royal Institute of British Architects is out with a new report called “Designing with Data: Shaping Our Future Cities,” co-produced with London-based design firm Arup. The 20-page paper encourages architects to embrace the possibilities that the use of data holds for their profession, while calling on the British government to give them the robust, clean data needed to do so.

“Better data can inform better design decisions,” reads the report. Though city governments seem to have embraced data for their own internal purposes, the paper notes dryly, “it has been used rather less for planning and design to date.”

If the unexplored subtext here is that British architects may want to consider why they’re not, indeed, designing with data, the paper is more explicit on what government can do to facilitate the use of the best possible information. It finds considerable upsides: Data can help understand how spaces are used in real time, test designs before they go out into the field, and increase sort of transparency around sites and spatial patterns that can speed projects along.

To that end, RIBA — which, it’s worth noting, is a 176-year-old organization — and Arup propose that the UK government put new effort behind three endeavors:

Collection. A number of different governmental agencies, they conclude, are collecting data that could be relevant to city building — which makes for both redundancies and gaps in available information. “The opportunities made possible through more and better data are starting to be realised by the UK government,” reads the report. “But the focus is operational and needs to look beyond the management of cities to their design and development.”

Processing. The UK government has recently focused a fair bit of attention on open data; last year, some £10 million in public funding was put behind an Open Data Institute, co-led by World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners Lee, to explore the best uses of public data. Demanding some of their interest, write the architects, is making sure that the data planners can use isn’t locked away on paper somewhere. “Government should,” reads the report, “scope how it can standardise the digitisation of all information submitted for planning.”

Convening. There’s a need, argues the report, for a joint group made up of academics, industry, and government (organized, they suggest, by the Department for Communities and Local Government) to set a path forward for the “digitisation of planning.” Among the things the group would do, they write, would be to “collaborate with leading academic institutions to explore the research and development of various toolkits that will help practitioners collect and manipulate big data in a meaningful way.”

British architects, like architects nearly everywhere, have been criticized for treating humans as props to fill out the eventual magazine spreads of their designs, rather than as the actual point of building buildings and designing spaces. RIBA and Arup suggest that here, too, data can help, and point to the 2003 redesign of Trafalgar Square. Designers there, according to the report, made use of “170 observation points and surveys of 27,000 drivers to find out where they were coming from and where they were going.”

But the thoroughly modern architect has so much more at his or her disposal: Data from Oyster cards, mobile phones, parking sensors and beyond. What’s more, it can blend with everything from weather data to public event schedules — even Nike+ Fuelbands are mentioned — to get a richly informed sense of how actual humans actually use the city. In the year 2013, reads the report, “we can consult with more people in more ways.”

If some of this sounds conceptually obvious, even if lightly implemented, RIBA recommendations carry a particular longstanding establishment weight in the world of architecture. After all, we’re talking about a group of architects whose Royal Charter was signed by King William IV.

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Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

Tags: built environmentpublic spaceshared cityarchitecturebig datacivic techlondon

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