Planning Our Cities Through Humanizing Data - Data Driven Cities From a People-First Perspective (Part 1)

Part 1 of 2

Buzz around many urban planning offices today is the question of how best they can plan for cities using the tools available to them today. Traditionally, planners have always looked holistically. Before the buzz-words “innovation ecosystems”, “smart cities”, “human centric design”, and now “data-driven cities” were on their lips, planners gathered up the available data, thought leadership and public opinion to develop options and preferred concepts for their planning districts. With these draft plans, decision makers used the insights from this process to make informed decisions to the best of their abilities, using the data and analyzed information available to them at that time. Census data, traffic movement statics, environmental impact information and building permit data, often many years old, have forced planners to work with available information, which may be argued to have skewed the final planning concepts. But with significant advances in the way planners are able to access data and information, and applying shared knowledge and insights through thought leadership today, traditional planning methodologies are being challenged.

Planners are now adding specialized inputs through a people-first perspective. Some have adapted human-centric design from the private sector to develop scenarios, tell their stories about what they need in their communities from their perspectives and to validate these through looking at the real-time, or at least most up-to-date data, to develop strategies from a people-first perspective. In the end there may still be land-use maps produced to make decisions, but they will have been informed differently and backed up by data that supports the way in which decisions were made.

At the foundation of these approaches is to have a solid understanding of the data that can translate into physical form and dimensions that are able to be understood, managed, measured and continuously improved upon. While serving the citizen at its heart, the factors for planners and decision makers remain that physical form and function will still need to be dealt with.

Planners, architects, engineers and urban designers collaborate on the built form and functions, but increasingly other specialists are brought to the table including people with titles such as Chief Economist, Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Resiliency Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Digital Officer, Chief Data Officer, and even Chief Transformation Officer, among others.

Their inputs become vital to translate the myriad of data into information that can be further tested and analyzed to create insights and informed options that eventually must become the intelligence and wisdom that decision makers are expected to possess in their final decisions around a city wide plan or project that is usually reflected in some kind of physical form or 3-dimensional action. These could include decisions around mobility; the location and type of open space; the density and types of building; and, among other things, the inter-relationships between and among buildings, streets, open spaces and their specific uses.

Experiments in how to apply the latest technologies such as the advances possible through applying 5G to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea will have generated significant amounts of data about the use and acceptance of the technology and its applications by end-users during the games. The private sector will analyze the data generated from surveying end users but also observing and monitoring them, using sensors, to create insights from its analysis with the aim to generate new and better designed products and services, ultimately leading to higher profits for these companies. Human centric-design in the private sector has become an industry standard.

The approach helps companies ensure that new products meet people’s needs first and ask the questions: what do people desire, are they feasible and are they viable? In history there are many product failures because the corporate attitudes did not adequately consult people, namely the demise of the Ford Edsel; the transformation of Coca-Cola; the challenges that faced RIM (Blackberry) and the downfall of Kodak. Can planners and urban designers learn from the private sector to ensure that their communities benefit from the appropriate use data, especially from a people-first perspective?

Cities have enabled Internet of Things (IoT) data generation through extensive broadband and Wi-Fi deployment, and the provisioning of a network of sensors through new physical infrastructure such as LED light poles or to other public infrastructure such as traffic lights, electrical power poles and transformers, public buildings, streets and open spaces.

These sensors, cameras and other monitor and recording devices, expected to reach 50 billion by 2020, can measure every environmental and public and private activity imaginable. Planners, decision makers and citizens today can get results from data about any question or activity that they wish to pursue. The cost of accessing this data, analyzing it and developing the information and knowledge necessary for making informed decisions is decreasing exponentially.

The determining factors today may be more on leadership, the willingness to collaborate, asking the right questions and pursuing the relevant options that make the most sense for the community with the support of the community and continuous measurement to ensure the results are successful and should continue on the chosen track.

Ford unveiled the Ford Edsel on September 4, 1957 after two years of polling car shoppers and bringing together the best designers that Ford could find. Unfortunately, the designers and decision makers disregarded much of the data from these polls. Coupled with an outlandish design and Ford's marketing department overpromising on the car, the Edsel became a huge flop and a study in how not to build a car. The decisions of those that designed the Ford Edsel certainly did not ask the right questions and did not include their customers in that process. Similarly, with the decisions by Coke’s leadership and other failed products, their closed attitudes of “we know best” eventually came to haunt them. Cities that have access to the data, both through government datasets and those generated outside of government, must today also have an open attitude to develop a more inclusive and holistic approach to designing and developing their communities. But data alone will not create the best plan for communities. Its application, use and attitude to work within a people-first approach to developing the options available to them may be the best directions to pursue. This includes an open, sharing and collaborative attitude that combined with useable data can result in a greater propensity for success.

The fiasco during the attack of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001 showed clearly what the lack of coordination could result in. The communications systems of the police and fire departments were not coordinated. Data and other information coming from either party made decision making perilous with much loss of life. In contrast, IBM and the City of Rio have developed a massive control center where all data and other information from cameras, sensors and other recording devices are instantly analyzed and shared among all relevant departments dealing with traffic congestion, floods and other natural and environmental disasters.

Co-Founder/Chair ICF; ICF Canada, formerly CTT/ GTMA/CEDA/Board CUI, Urban Planner & Designer, Author & Speaker on Econ Devel/ Smart & Intelligent Cities
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