DISRUPTION 1: Urban Design


Disruption was historically associated with bad behavior; we all remember those “disruptive” students at school. But today it has evolved to have a different meaning. From a business or organizational perspective, “Disruption” is defined as changing the traditional way that an entity operates, especially in a new and effective way.

Today, disruption is ubiquitous. Profound transformations in industries such as transportation, hospitality, and music continue to occur through disruptions sparked by Uber, Airbnb, and Spotify. The design industry is no exception. Tradition it seems, must be challenged if a design process is to be robust.  Disruption is inherent in the process of design.

For several years, DPAI has been involved in “Virtual City”, a research project with McMaster University, IBM, the City of Hamilton, Civicplan and others to create a functional, virtual replica of parts of Hamilton. These virtual models can be navigated in 2-D or visitors can be immersed in Virtual Reality. Embedded in the models are bus schedules, tree species, existing built fabric, complete with materials and textures, and an accurate daily cycle of the sun’s path. Cars and pedestrians roam the streets based on actual traffic data. Soon we will be able to include dynamic computer simulated wind, air quality, and temperature data to assess the environmental impacts of a change to the built fabric.

Unlike the cumbersome, expensive, and time-consuming practice of wind tunnel testing, unlimited iterations of a proposed building or park can be studied “live” with this technology. The designer can see the impacts of their design as it is being designed in it’s virtual context. Through web sharing of the model, the visual and environmental impacts can be experienced dynamically by many groups of people simultaneously. Public consensus at this scale could have a profound impact on any political issues surrounding a proposal.

As a public engagement tool, this technology has the capacity to seriously disrupt both the traditional development and planning processes. Imagine a proposed building, twice the height permitted by zoning, is empirically and publicly demonstrated to have only positive impacts.  Conversely, what if a permitted height is shown to have unacceptable impacts, pressuring developers to reduce the density on which the economics of a development were based? Land values could be affected on a hyper local level. Feedback will be received through a demonstration version of Virtual City this fall, to allow improvements in the platform.

By no means is our team alone in this kind of research. Design through virtual environments is a rapidly expanding field.   As more data becomes embedded in these increasingly realistic virtual cities, urban planning and design will be transformed into a more participatory and science-based practice.

Could virtual reality hold the answer to a truly democratic and participatory urban design process? Only time will tell…

David Premi,

Principal & CEO, dpai architecture inc.