An Internet of Things for the Built Environment
This article was originally created for the RIBA + ARUP research project Digitising the Planning System. To know more click here.
At once fascinating and terrifying, the emergence of the Internet of Things seems an unstoppable drift that digital technology will impose on the way we experience the world.
For the ones who may not be familiar with the term, The Internet of Things is a digital image of the world.
In other words, every entity (product, system, person etc.) that forms part of the real world can have a digital counterpart in the Internet of Things. The key difference between the real world and the digital one is that the latter does not impose limits to the speed nor volume of interaction between entities. If humans are limited by their own specific capacity to receive, process and react to information, the entities forming the Internet of Things can exchange a large amount of data in a negligible amount of time. This makes the Internet of Things a responsive network in which systems interact and readjust themselves in relation to one another. The Internet of Things is a System of Systems. To give a simple – and rather simplistic – example, if the water distribution system could interact with the traffic management system, the latter could divert or reroute traffic to avoid the danger of driving through flooded areas as soon as the first system communicates to the second one of the presence of an issue. Humans can also divert traffic in flooded areas, but not as rapidly or efficiently. An intelligent system of systems is faster and more efficient than human control. If we could introduce a systemic and responsive approach to the management of specific sectors such as food, energy, social welfare, housing or crime prevention, the use of resources would be improved, limiting waste and contributing towards a more resilient and balanced society.
Focusing on the impact on the built environment, how could we unlock the efficiency hidden in the integrated management of buildings and infrastructure together?
First we need to gather the data that will let us represent the built environment in the digital realm to create a digital image of the real system. The task is challenging to say the least. Some sectors, like the energy supply and property markets, already have robust and efficient data management systems, more or less ready to be shared; others, like the construction industry and the planning system are quite far behind. One solution could be to use planning applications to gather data in a standardised format across the country.
The online planning portal could quite easily become a digital building site.
The design and access statement will be replaced by a single project database populated with information about location, massing, building design, materials, CO2e, structure, services, energy performance, occupancy, programme, resources, jobs… et c. If planners and applicants shared the same database structure, applying for planning would become as simple as uploading the content database into a wordpress blog. This could also make the planning system faster and less overloaded. The key to achieving this is defining the specifications of such a database in order to capture the complexity of the built environment: GIS data, to define the location of the building on the planet; geometrical data, to define its volumetric massing and deal with right of light issues; an overall 3D model of the borough, to allow swift evaluation of the impact of the proposed development on the Local Character, to ensure compliance with Conservation Area guidelines; and an articulated palette of facade materials, to simplify the evaluation of Local Amenity and Planning Conditions. Through this, Unitary Development Plans could not only be written or illustrated but built in a digital space to highlight opportunities for things like Public and Private Partnerships etc. Additionally, augmented reality simulations would allow planning committees to speed up their decisions avoiding the confusion often caused by drawings and renderings.
Our recommendation is to re shape the planning system as a digital building site through which applicants are asked to share their BIM database according to a standard form. This would make built environment cross-system integration more efficient.
The change we propose is at once revolutionary and conservative. If an expanded BIM model is a bit more refined than a design and access statement, filling in a form is still filling in a form!
A BIM based planning system will allow the creation of an Internet of Things for the built environment through which policy makers will be able to improve the efficiency of
– housing: mapping occupancy and driving council tax variation
– energy: mapping bills and driving retrofitting
– employment: mapping unemployment and driving development
The technology is ready. The question is: are policy makers capable of driving innovation or will it be down to the private market of system consultants to show the way?