Developers, real estate investors and councils are catching up to the benefits of tech to plan and build our future cities, places, and spaces. Jason Hawthorne explains how PropTech is positively disrupting an industry that has traditionally relied on drawings, PDFs and email.
About the author
Jason Hawthorne is Founding Director of VU.CITY.
Even before the forced mass adoption of digital in the pandemic, so many of us across all industries were alive to the benefits – there is a plethora of game-changing technology available that makes our lives easier and helps make smarter decisions faster and more efficiently.
Nowhere is this more true than in the property, planning and development sector. Project teams spanning architects, engineers and developers are now able to use fully realized digital twins of cities, accurate to centimeters. The models provide incredible virtual reality experiences that throw you directly into the digital twin and provide the ability to view new development plans as they would look in real life. New technology has also enabled major improvements in the way in which research is conducted, analytics are collected, and construction is considered.
Yet the property industry has been slow to take up tech, even when it is now readily available. The default way of designing, presenting, and submitting new planning applications remains through dry planning documents that inevitably end up hidden away on a council’s website.
But this doesn’t need to be the case – if we’re going to build better cities then let’s adopt tech en masse.
What are digital twins – are they the sim cities of planning?
Smart cities are the latest buzz term in the industry. They encompass a wide range of new technology, from automated cars to intelligent, AI-controlled public transport – with homes and offices ever more connected via the Internet of Things (IoT).
So much of what makes a city ‘smart’ is linked to the way in which it is quite literally built, it’s all about infrastructure, better buildings and well-thought-out spaces. Building them requires a vast amount of spatial data, collected from a wide range of sources. Collecting this data is one issue to overcome (through the growing number of sensors and IoT it is getting easier!), but the data needs to be standardized and presented well to make it understandable and useful.
It’s here that a fully realized, 3D virtual city can come in. A detailed ‘twin’ of a city can show data in real-time, visualizing the energy use of buildings, their occupancy, the potential for more accessible solar panels on all the flat roofs in an entire city, even understanding how adding two more storeys on all residential buildings could solve our housing crisis. Bringing all the data together into one model could mean you can accurately pinpoint the most appropriate brownfield sites or new recreation spaces all based on accurate use patterns.
If this all sounds a bit SimCity – then that’s the point – why open yourself to the risk of a poorly planned neighborhood when you can test the solutions virtually first? This way, architects can use the twin to assess impacts ahead of time and improve the designs before costs spiral as construction begins.
Turning virtual into reality
The influence of gaming does not stop here. These digital twins form the basis for the introduction of more complex, and exciting technology. Virtual Reality (VR), so far mainly familiar to many of us via PSVR & Oculus for gaming, is now readily available to help build better cities.
Working on developments in VR gives planners, developers, and architects the ability to move away from decisions made using two-dimensional images or fly-throughs – decisions that directly impact people’s quality of life, job prospects and health.
It is now possible to walk down a street virtually, and view everything in context and at human scale, whether it be from your front door or place of work. And all of this can be done before a single brick is laid.
The next generation of people living in these homes and using these new places are digital natives, meaning it is vital that we engage with them in a way they understand and bring the planning and development of our towns and cities into the 21st century.
Classic gaming (remember those arcades?) was very much a ‘single-payer’ experience. However, the way tech has evolved now means it is an incredibly collaborative pastime that encourages teamwork and group problem-solving. Modern gaming tech actually opens up communication and improves understanding among disparate parties.
And it is this that the property sector should be taking on board so it is able to communicate complex development and construction plans better to all stakeholders and most importantly the citizens themselves.
For those unfamiliar with the industry, think about the time you were walking down your street or through your town and thought: “what on earth is that huge crane helping to build?”
There’s no doubt that major developments affect us all – so wouldn’t it be good to have your say on where the new supermarket should be, how a new office building should look or ensuring the design of a new school encourages everyone to walk there?
And you have the right to do so – no major development is meant to take place without the proper involvement of the local community, whether it is being brought forward by a council or a developer.
The problem is that much of this consultation is lost behind a jargon-filled, document-based system that fails to properly engage with the end users of the spaces. Why build spaces for a group of people who have never had the chance to see, understand or influence the proposals?
Can this tech reveal the map for levelling up?
Building the cities of the future that best supports our everyday wellbeing requires smart tech. Identifying the right places for investment is so important as we look to level-up the country. Proptech can help us deliver innovative projects across the country more effectively.
Real estate is one of the world’s most valuable asset sectors and done well, development can boost local economies and stimulate further investment. We’re all aware of how important Fintech has become to financial and asset management. Proptech should come to dominate the development industry in the same way – and the time to facilitate and drive it forward is now.
Maybe when we look back at the way in which we used to build cities, it will be like replaying an early level of a video game – it’s only then that we’ll realize just how much easier, better and more efficient it is with the best equipment, tools and inventories!