The transformation of architecture in the age of smart cities


When it comes to civil engineering, the standards of excellence have to be extremely high. And as buildings and cities enter the virtual world, digital architecture is becoming as essential as physical architecture.

Yes, architects are still needed to design physical infrastructure, but a different kind of architects now take a prominent role in the build of digital environments and their underlying IT-based systems.

In the age of the Internet of Things, buildings and cities are now expected to be ‘smart’ and provide digital utility in the form of service to users and operators.

“Our group is recognised globally as leading on the design of the digital built environment,” says Robert Morgan, a principal consultant at multinational engineering firm Arup.

Morgan works in Arup’s digital group on projects including the company’s role as master development consultant for Qatar’s multibillion dollar smart city project, the planning of a new baggage handling system for a major airport operator, and the legacy transformation of London Olympic Park.

>See also: Building the data foundations for smart cities

Arup has had to adapt the way it works and the tools it uses to manage the complexity of modern construction projects as they become more reliant on technology.

For major infrastructure projects, the company has used IT modelling tools such as Avolution‘s ABACUS to take the complexity out of what Morgan calls “an interconnected system of systems”.

The tool also provides clarity around the total scope of IT required for the project, in terms of the elements to be provided by different contractors and parties.

“Traditionally in construction, building systems, security systems and fire systems haven’t been considered as IT systems,” says Morgan. “But these can all be integrated and, more importantly, associated data made available for mining and providing insight to building operations.”

Arup applies a suite of modelling tools, including ABACUS, to plan these complicated integration projects with confidence.

The only way the company can do this is by managing these many systems, and their web of inter-relationships, in an enterprise architecture modelling tool.

“When you create design information in Visio and Excel, over time the content in different documents diverges and produces inconsistency that can lead to confusion and errors,” says Morgan. “In ABACUS you change the name of a system in the repository and all diagrams and any catalogues are updated instantaneously.

“If this saves the design team a day of work each time, then over the duration of the project this can add up to many weeks of painstaking updates. Most importantly, it dramatically reduces manual errors and achieves a level of quality that is expected of Arup by our clients.”

The ability to plan systems with this level of accuracy and to edit and adjust as needed also allows Arup to provide budget-related information more intelligently.

Supporting quantity surveyors in estimating capital budgets has historically been very difficult for IT infrastructure and systems.

Arup’s understanding of procurement packaging – combined with the capabilities of ABACUS to clearly indicate the scope of systems and system components provided by a building contractor – has addressed this problem.

“We are able to assign properties to systems and tag them to indicate parties responsible for their design, supply and operation,” says Morgan.

Architecting smart cities

Arup has used ABACUS to create schedules of smart city services and the relationships with the hundreds of systems needed to deliver them.

For the smart city project in Doha, one example of a service was the “visitor augmented reality tour”. The idea was to provide the ability for tourists to download a tablet app that shows how the city looked 150 years ago – overlayed onto the new buildings that had been constructed.

Another was “personal advertising services” based on using multimedia display screens needed to run digital advertising throughout the city.

Using catalogues in ABACUS, the Arup team is able to rationalise these systems and make sure they’re creating an efficient architecture, says Morgan. This takes into account both back-end IT infrastructure, including data centres, responsibility for design and supply, and the users of systems.

“It is all colour coded visually in ABACUS, which very quickly demystifies this very complex IT landscape,” says Morgan. “The other really powerful aspect of this is that when you start looking at the model it becomes clear there are many other opportunities for rationalisation and improvement.

“For instance, we were able to identify that many systems were using an access card as a form of user credential. This enabled us to consider consolidation to using a single common smart card that worked with multiple systems and which residents could use to access other value added services.”

The information in the ABACUS repository has also been used to ensure project management runs efficiently and provides information for inclusion in design guides used by specialist designers and engineers.

“We can issue the building contractor with a brief telling them to deliver these systems and how they integrate to each other,” says Morgan. “This provides clarity that a defined subset of security systems are integrated via a common platform used by operators in a centralised command and control facility. Or that metering information from utilities infrastructure needs to be openly accessible to the database of a specialist energy management system.

This de-risks the procurement and installation process during construction, and allows Arup to avoid costly mistakes that can add up to millions of pounds in savings.

Blueprint for a smart city

This detailed digital repository can be used as a blueprint for other projects, and be developed, tailored and improved.

Arup has a smart city reference architecture captured in ABACUS – a suite of smart city services and associated systems.

“We can walk into a workshop and say ‘These are the typical building blocks for a smart city – how should we tailor them to meet the objectives and priorities of your project?’ This saves an enormous amount of time, for both us and our clients.”

And when handing over a completed project from builder to operator, the ABACUS model can be used to provide details of assets, where they are located and how they are linked in to the infrastructure.

“What building information modelling does for property management , enterprise architecture tools can do for IT service management,” says Morgan.

In 2011, Arup used ABACUS to collate information, knowledge and documentation as part of the 2012 Olympics handover to the London Legacy Development Committee. It produced a map of the relationships of assets, contracts and associated operations and maintenance information.

This wasn’t just IT systems, but heating ventilation and air conditioning, security systems and all types of physical infrastructure in the built environment.

“We pulled the information in within a couple of months and it was used for many years as a single source of knowledge,” says Morgan.

>See also: 5 ways to ensure the success of smart city projects

In 2013, the Arup team took on the challenge of developing the enterprise architecture to support the baggage IT asset replacement programme for a major UK airport operator.

“It was a business critical, multi-million dollar system that required replacement,” says Morgan. “We worked with the organisation’s enterprise architects to come up with a high level design. They wanted to optimise the new system and to understand where efficiencies could be introduced.”

The Arup team used ABACUS to map across multiple layers to understand the operational and business processes, and the underlying infrastructure including sensors and actuators.

Morgan is confident that planning using modelling software such as ABACUS will become increasingly important in a world of cloud environments and outsourcing.

“How does a business obtain a clear picture to make sure IT services are provisioned appropriately? If you accept that the world is moving to a more complex IT environment of multiple service providers, you have to have a supporting tool to clearly track the interdependencies – otherwise you’re just guessing.”

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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