Designing for the urban environment

3 mins read

What does the future hold for cities in a post-pandemic world and how can technology be used to design better urban environments?

As we look back on the last year of the coronavirus pandemic, we have witnessed ghost like towns, strict stay-at-home instructions, offices left empty, shops closed, and deserted streets.

As we make our way through the government’s recovery roadmap, we urgently need to reconsider the design of our cities. Urban environments are a complex web of infrastructure, with massive transport systems and rapidly growing populations. The World Health Organisation (WHO) projects that 70% of the population will reside in urban areas by 2050.

To deal with this, it is time to turn to technology to design urban environments in a smarter way.

Streamlining movement

As we return to a new sense of normality, it will be more important than ever to manage the flow human traffic in a more controlled way, as well as the way citizens’ move around cities, particularly in passenger and commuter environments.

One way to do this is by using modelling and simulation. This enables city managers and engineers to test different situations and rules, including social distancing measures. Once they have done those kinds of assessments, they can then also use that same technology to design a one-way system to limit the spread of diseases.

Virtual twin technology can really help here. Virtual twins are sophisticated computer models that allow cities to track thousands of parameters – ranging from the description of the existing assets of a city to information related to traffic, pollution or population. Virtual twins do not only gather data; they also represent relevant and representative models of the physical world for collaborative decision-making purposes that are indeed real. With virtual twins, city planners and managers can run “what if” scenarios in the virtual world, allowing them to envision what will happen if they make a decision and receive feedback from multiple teams.

Smarter design

One change in city design that we will see because of the pandemic is that architects and urban designers will think about how to include elements of epidemiology and demographic science in urban design and architecture. New types of projects will emerge to ensure better air quality and resilience for city communities, possibly including other factors such as support for biodiversity.

Using a virtual twin to model elements like the airflow around a building’s ventilation system, the flow of pollution outside its proposed location, and the impact of various materials on the surrounding environment will help support this evolution beyond the current crisis. The global pandemic has acted as a trigger for a radical change that has been some time in the making – and the lessons we’re learning will transform the way we look at city planning and management not only in the near future, but for the long-term as well.

Considering the return to normality, Dassault Systèmes recently collaborated with the Philharmonie de Paris to simulate safety measures within the venue. With the support of simulation technology, the Philharmonie was able to simulate airflow within the building and assess the impact of mask-wearing inside.

The Philharmonie devised multiple scenarios to highlight the concentration of particles emitted by a member of the audience coughing with and without a mask. In one of the scenarios, it found that there was a lower risk of virus particle propagation when audience members wore masks, making them an important barrier to spreading the virus further.

As more public spaces open, the public’s continued safety is non-negotiable. Virtual twin technology will be crucial in building back more resilient cities. As this technology is designed to create a fully functioning virtual environment, the scenarios can all be tested without any impact on the real world.

Furthermore, this technology can be applied to all sorts of buildings, from hospitals to office buildings, providing facilities managers and city planners with one system to test out many environments.

Building resilience

In the future, city resilience will entail more than simply preventing the next COVID-19 crisis. It will be about building resilience overall across multiple domains, including the local economy, the built environment and the population. We have been working with Singapore to create ‘Virtual Singapore’, which has provided a real head start. The city already has a digital 3D map with all the different public agencies’ data, as well as geometrics and data that shows the impact of external factors, like the climate, on city infrastructure and citizens. With this smart city approach, Singapore is perfectly placed to make better decisions, especially during and after a pandemic.

Ultimately, local authorities need to ensure that their services can be delivered in the proper manner without creating a second wave of contamination.

Every element, from how catering is handled in schools, to the rules applied to protect citizens and employees on public transport, all add complexity to the city’s decision-making.

Understanding what is happening in the field – through a virtual twin of the city, a collaboration platform and the ability to gather analytics – is a critical entry point for making those decisions now and in the future.

Author details: John Kitchingman is MD, EuroNorth, Dassault Systèmes