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Designing Smart Cities through Data-Driven Simulation

With MITlargethe help of big data and analytics, urban planners can now use simulations to anticipate the impact of urban development programs. Using these tools, cities can become more sustainable and strategic, while the planning processes become ever more inclusive.  

According to Laura Adler, a PhD student in Sociology at Harvard and a researcher in the Data-Smart City Solutions program:

The most fundamental benefit of simulation is the ability to mitigate the problem of “unintended consequences’ by using realistic models to predict effects on land valuation, employment patterns, and transportation mode choice. In urban planning, optimizing one system often comes at the expense of functionality in other areas: the construction of much-needed housing can lead to overburdening the local transportation infrastructure; campaigns for water conservation can, ironically, damage a city’ s water infrastructure.

Mrs. Adler presents some new tools that help urban planning researchers, practitioners, and residents envision the impacts of urban transformation:

  • UrbanSim, founded by University of California, Berkeley Professor Paul Waddell, allows users to run simulations, draw from a library of open data, and produce visualizations. The program, which is free and open source from AutoDesk, is designed to help planners understand the diverse impacts that might be expected from new forms of street design, mixed use zoning, or policies to promote urban density.
  • CityScope, developed by academic researchers from MIT’ s Changing Places initiative, is  an urban simulation tool that integrates physical representation’”using Legos’”with projections and visualization tools. Using sophisticated analytics, users can see the impacts to be expected from shifting density by manipulating the Legos, or by setting different rules for infrastructure and mobility systems.
  • Participatory Chinatown, developed by Emerson College, offers a more hands-on approach to community engagement through digital simulation. The program used a multiplayer game format to engage citizens in a number of simulated neighborhood activities inside a digital recreation of Boston’ s Chinatown.
  • AURIN, Australia’ s “urban intelligence network, is a state-run resource for the nation’ s cities and towns that provides datasets and online tools for analysis, modeling, and visualization. The program aims to support “evidence-based policy and decision-making’ in cities and towns across the country.
  • WaterSim, developed by Arizona State University researchers, helps the Phoenix metropolitan government estimate supply and demand in order to effectively manage its limited resources. WaterSim emphasizes the role of visualization in helping to make data intelligible and accessible to stakeholders and decision-makers.
  • Zofnass Information Tool, developed in Chelsea, MA, helps citizens understand opportunities for water management improvements’”like green roofs and porous pavement’”and estimate the environmental benefits from these interventions.
  • Umi, an urban modeling platform run by MIT’ s Sustainable Design Lab, estimates the environmental performance of buildings and cities with modules for embodied energy, walkability, and daylight and shading. A similar program from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, CitySim, allows designers to estimate energy demand and plan for the integration of renewable energy sources.
An example of a simulation model from UrbanSim

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