Digital insight: Deriving real value from data
Advice on the challenges and opportunities that come with using a digital approach to built environment design
Question: What are the challenges and opportunities you see with adopting a digital approach to built environment design?
One of the things that makes digital both exciting and confusing is that digital technology simply creates an opportunity to solve a problem. It isn’t a very clear process; should you start with the problems people have and ask how technology can solve them or ask, what technologies do we have in our toolkit and what problems can we solve with them?
When I started in my role as team lead, I tried to develop a seamless approach to digital that could be written as a manifesto: “This is how we enable digital innovation.” The reality is that doesn’t exist. But one of the beautiful things about Arup, which as a company is steeped in a unique culture and heritage, is that we are very good at taking two disparate specialties, people who normally don’t work together, and giving them the opportunity to collaborate and innovate. So that’s the approach we’re going to embrace with digital and the built environment.
Question: When we talk about data-driven design, it’s not so much about the data, but the insights, is that correct?
Yes. For example, I’m a runner and I bought this smartwatch because I wanted to know my heart rate — I didn’t know what I’d do with that information, but I figured I’d do something. This thing captures my heart rate, plus my heart rate variability, my elevation, how often I run — all these different things and it says, don’t run today, run tomorrow. And that is much better information than just my heart rate. The heart rate is the digital data. Don’t run today, that’s the insight. That’s the leap we need to make. The watch company had software developers, product designers, running specialists, and doctors who worked together to turn heart rates into insight. That’s how you get data to work for you — you bring together lots of different experience.
Question: Where do you think digital applications in the built environment have the biggest potential for impact soon?
I think one of the biggest areas is advisory services to municipalities and city governments. We talk about having a positive impact in the built environment and you can link the built environment and the structure of cities to housing crises, opioid crises, immigration crises, poverty, sustainability and climate change, and all kinds of societal challenges. There is data already available on all of this. As an industry we need to view datasets and mathematics and statistics and probabilities alongside our knowledge of the built environment and become better at bringing it together to be able to advise municipalities on better policies.
I’m working to build interactive reports that explore what we can infer about the NYC building stock. For example, there’s no piece of data that tells you what floor the electrical generators are on in a building. But whenever there’s a generator, electricians need to service it, and they must file a permit for certain kinds of work, and they’re required to indicate a specific floor on the permit. By pulling the permits from the open data portal we may be able to know where the generators are; if they’re on the first floor in the basement, we know that’s a flood risk and those buildings aren’t as resilient as they could be.
We need to start to use data in ways not originally intended and combine that with our knowledge in order to get the best insights. Arup engineers know that a commercial building in Manhattan built in 1965 is 98% likely made of X material and has a load capacity of X. We can add our domain expertise to our ability to clean their data, to provide insight, to start to advise on policy, regulations, strategies, planning. That’s how we get real value from digital.