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Habitat III must discuss the role of new technology in making cities safer and more liveable Belinda Mackay

Much has changed since the last UN Habitat convention was held in 1996. Now we have a vast array of digital tools and software at our disposal to help us manage urban growth.

For example, building information modelling is streamlining the design process via an information-based approach, geographic information systems (GIS) enables us to analyse geospatial data via interactive maps, and Infraworks allows users to analyse infrastructure plans so as to make decisions in context. And infrastructure companies are developing their own applications to enable more efficient construction. We developed the Carbon Portal – the first platform to calculate the carbon footprint of entire BIM assets – to drive down the financial and environmental costs of new assets.

All these tools have helped us address specific urban spatial issues. And an exciting development will see a new wave of urban planning focused on ‘generative design’. This technology allows all possible permutations that will meet the design brief to be explored virtually before the optimal design is implemented. While this concept started life in the world of engineering and design, it has been picked up by urban planners who developed CityCad, a conceptual masterplanning application. And with the world’s population set to grow by 16% over the next 15 years, digital tools such as these will maximise the effectiveness of the engineering response.

But innovation through digital technology is not just for the infrastructure industry. Grassroots initiatives are also crucial in sustainable urban development.

Spacehive, for example, empowers people to realise civic projects by crowdfunding. It has already been used by councils and organisations across the UK to fund projects ranging from community events to public realm improvements and new green spaces. And new tools such as SMARTA consider the seemingly involuntary community contribution to urban planning, by measuring the success of public spaces and urban plans through social media data. This has already seen success in Brisbane, Australia, where social media assessments of public spaces have been used to better inform future improvements.

The opportunity to use new digital tools to improve urban and spatial planning seems endless, but take-up of new technology is very much the exception rather than the rule. Much needs to be done to integrate the variety of new tools and techniques into the design process, with more incentives and guidance needed from governments and industry bodies. It will be a missed opportunity if Habitat III does not explore the vast potential of new and emerging technologies to ensure sustainable urban development, and sow these in to the New Urban Agenda.

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