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Modelling liveable futures

Imagine a computer game in which you are an urban planner, siting new developments, plotting transport links, keeping track of energy and water use and waste cycling: balancing material production with environmental capacity and quality of life. Perhaps it looks a little like the popular Sim City, launched in the early days of personal computing and now in its fifth incarnation. This one is much more powerful, though. More important, all the data is tuned to the city you live in, whose possible futures you can see unfold as you play.

This, or something like it, is part of the vision of Peter Head, who left engineering company Arup a few years ago to found the Ecological Sequestration Trust. They are now well advanced on building an interactive systems model which could make the connections in planning infrastructure that have previously been hard to see. The model is set to be tried soon in demonstration sites on several continents. If it is adopted more widely, in a world where urbanisation is proceeding apace, the results could be far-reaching.

The project rests on two plausible claims. The first is that global problems and global change must be addressed at the level of actual projects. Head is committed to the transformation in energy, economy and infrastructure that Future Earth also intends to explore. But it is not possible to plan that at a global, or even national scale, he believes: “Doing this at a regional scale is the only way we’re actually going to deliver”.

The second claim rests on the transformation we are already seeing – in availability of data, and the computing power to use it. That began with satellite borne instruments for global observation, our modern macroscopes, but is now complemented by the billions of sensors that adorn our life on the surface. Together, they mean we can now build, “the world’s first comprehensive fully integrated resource and economics systems model for urban planners”, according to the project publicity.

The contradictory metaphors that have attached to the technology can make it a little hard to envisage what this will be like. The systems model will be a “platform”, which will be made available to everyone as an open source package, via “the cloud”. It could come in a game-like format, and the project plan calls for a version that can be used in schools. But the grand vision is that it will be tailored to local needs, and used to guide real, large scale investment. In Head’s scenario, “Imagine a website where you have a spinning globe. And on this website you can select any region of the planet…   and then you can download from the cloud an integrated systems platform to enable you to start planning your region in a way which is productive. This is now a doable proposition.”

Head, who has had a long career leading massive civil engineering projects, has allied with an impressive list of modellers and systems analysts to take the project forward. The International Centre for Earth Simulation in Zurich contributes expertise in global modelling. Hannes Kunz, President of the Institute for Integrated Economic Research, is feeding in ideas about how to go beyond conventional analyses of costs and benefits, and development of the complete package is led by Nilay Shah of Imperial College London’s Centre for Process Systems Engineering.

Together, they are building on existing global systems and climate models, as well as models in more restricted domains including agriculture and land use, using work done at Lund University, a forestry model run by the European Forestry Institute, the SYN-CITY urban model developed at Imperial, and work on energy systems, operation of utilities, industry, and raw materials use.

The final product will be “agent based” – meaning a model in which the way the system evolves is shaped by the action of many independently chosen actions. With a target of five million agents, that means it will be able to take account of individual behaviour in a large city, as well as the effects of large decisions about infrastructure.

An artist's impression of the visualization system in action.
Image: Geodan

The first experiments using the system will be on a smaller scale. The first local implementation is set to be in a small town in China, a country where Head sees great scope for wider use of his approach. A key feature of the plan, which will also be tested on a small-scale (with a $200million budget) in China, is that the system’s integrated model will help guide investment choices.

In principle, the money realised when projects come to fruition can then be used to fund wider adoption of the system. “The platform can become a procurement tool for every project,” Head told an audience in Copenhagen last year. “Pension and sovereign wealth funds are heaving with money which they would like to invest in good projects but no one is bringing them good projects.” In practice, the first investors are likely to be development funders such as the World Bank, and the UK Department for International Development – supporting a flagship project in Africa, possibly in Accra. Other demonstration projects are under way in Ulan Bator in Mongolia and in the UK county of Dorset, so the project’s patient negotiation of alliances is certainly delivering a diverse set of partners.

Each working system will be different, with a “plug and play” approach to different models that either already exist or are developed locally to supplement the data incorporated in the common platform. The most important issues will differ from place to place – water in one, perhaps, pollution in another – but they will always be interconnected. And different aspects of the locality, and different potential users will be provided for by tailoring interfaces the team have christened “cockpits”. Head likens them to different computer dashboards. Ultimately there could be twenty different ones, designed with help from their users. The urban planners’ cockpit, for example, is being designed with the Royal Institute of British Architects

Each system will also allow inputs from city-dwellers, including aspects of local culture. History, including family history, will be represented in whatever form people choose to upload it.

With so many elements, it is not possible to predict how the project will evolve. As the basic platform will be an open source release that will in any case be in the hands of its users. “We see ourselves as starting a journey here that the world can take on”, says Head. But he is clear about the significance of the starting point: “The big innovation that the Trust has bought is the ability to create a systems model that connects human systems, ecological systems, and economics for the first time.”

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