On Urban Intelligence Platforms



In this session we explored how culture and perception shape urban modeling technology, and how this technology in turn shapes cultures of perception. We were joined by Daniel Fink and Jamie Farrell, masters candidates in SMarchS Architecture and Urbanism respectively.

How do we map information onto space? What do our choices about modeling urban environments express about our psychology as a society, or the limitations of our technology? Daniel's presentation traced the historic origins of urban cartography, and how our 'omniscient' cartographic perspective bled into protocols for urban data management and processing via the cybernetics movement in the mid 20th century. We explored how the seemingly 'avant-garde' artistic visions and improvisations of groups like Archigram intuit developments in technology that shape our awareness and understanding of space.

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Archigram Image, 1969.

Today, the commodification of our built environment is an extension of these conceptualizations of space, where real-estate and land value are mapped onto two-dimensional layers of stacked information visualized from a bird's eye view. This "omnipresent" perspective enables top-down decision-making and design protocols that arguably reflect a perspective of centralized (read cybernetic) control over urban systems and environments. The conceptual framework upon which geographic modeling software has been operating on for the last several decades culminated in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software, and industry standard for contemporary geographic and urban modeling.

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A GIS framework. Layers of information are stacked in two dimensional space.

A GIS-centric typology of 'stacked' layers of information is visible not just in how we model geographic space, but also extends to how we build logical frameworks for software design. The concept of the "urban intelligence platform," likewise represents a software model for the display and exchange of information about urban development. Here, the modes by which we process data and information are directly borrowed from our models of geographic space. While historically operating in 'stack' mode, emerging software, platforms and modeling techniques are rapidly exposing alternatives to 21st designers. Not only is our computational capacity able to easily handle the challenges of 3-dimensional building space, the way we impregnate these models with information is changing the fundamentals of how we understand spatial interactions between data layers. What are the implications of modeling space in this more nuanced manner?

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Conceptualization of a typical software applications "stack".

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Typical stacked server rackspace at Google.

Enter "Voxel Theory," a key programming element in the gaming industry in which information is no longer layered and stacked, but condensed into 3 dimensional cubes that arrange in varying degrees of resolution. Voxels or 3-dimensional volumetric pixels, are the backbone of information architecture in games like Minecraft, as well as 3D printing. Voxels enable fine-grained resolution of data and information, possibly more complex than what is immediately legible to the human eye. Each voxel contains 3 dimensions of information, and as a sort of 3D cellular automata, promises the possibility of automatic arrangement according to specified design parameters. These design parameters may be algorithm or machine-learning based, where subsequent decisions are made by a computer.

Changing the way we understand the built environment has implications for how we build our technology, and vice versa. In our excursions on games like Minecraft, we might imagine how to adopt this technology for "real" urban design. Furthermore, adding dimensions of information to each cube in the voxel framework may open up new avenues for BIM that incorporates high-resolution performance metrics, or data vectors whose interactions we can map to each other in more sophisticated ways. How might this change the values we use to configure built environments? Is floorspace traded by the square foot, or by the cube? Could we program each cube to contain a volume of data that has a specified market value? Could that market value be directly calculated and posted in real-time to a public market? Can we envision open-source communities that design and trade voxel-space, like online communities already do on minecraft?

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Sir Carma, "Seeing Life in Voxels," 2016 https://www.artstation.com/artwork/WPQDX

Likewise, voxels also have powerful implications for platform-based design, particularly in Virtual Reality spaces. Could we imagine teams of designers collaborating in 3 dimensional space? Is that a redundant or enhanced mode of design? As software continues to infiltrate the design process, it is possible to imagine countless possibilities as well as the constraints they pose. The question moving forward will be how to design software systems that consider the ethical and pragmatic implications of our digital assumptions.


Catch the interview with Daniel and Jamie here:

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