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Centre for Digital Built Britain


CDBB Week 2019 showcases CDBB’s diverse range of work and engagement with our industry, academic and policy networks. As part of Friday’s #CDBBWeek2019 Digital Roundup, the Centre invited a number of researchers from CDBB funded research networks and early career researchers to shine a light on their projects supporting a digital built Britain.

“It is the breadth of the task and the research questions we need to ask that makes developing the CDBB research agenda such an exciting and challenging proposition. If we are to understand fully how the buildings and infrastructure of the future are going to deliver better services to our citizens, we need to take a truly multidisciplinary approach. We need engineers and architects to work with economists, linguists, social scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, mathematicians and computer scientists – among others – to understand both the impact of the built environment on how we live our lives and how to design, build, operate and integrate assets that can deliver better outcomes for us all.“ Dr Jennifer Schooling OBE, Chair of the CDBB Research Strategy Advisory Group

City Digital Twins for urban planning and management: Reflections on the complexities of an interdisciplinary approach

The governance of urban planning and management is situated at the nexus of different disciplinary approaches to both academic and policy research. Engineers and architects have been mostly concerned with the physicality of solutions, while social science research focused on unravelling the socio-political systems underlying technologies of governance. The advent of digital tools has disrupted these traditional disciplinary lines, necessitating the development of truly interdisciplinary approaches to understand the complex interplay between governance systems, processes and data-driven solutions in the urban context.

Bridging the gap

Our project entitled: “The local governance of digital technology – implications for the city-scale digital twin” aimed to bridge the worlds of policy-making and urban modelling to understand the implications of existing urban governance systems on the design and implementation of City Digital Twins (CDTs). We conceptualised CDTs as next-generation urban models which need to be developed to address shortcomings of the current approach of using predictions derived from urban modelling to support city planning and management decisions. We thus had to develop a research design that speaks to both technical experts from academic and policy circles, as well as decision-makers and local activists shaping everyday policy-making in the city. We had to balance, on the one hand, a research that deconstructs how different stakeholders reach decisions, for example in transport policy; while on the other, simultaneously re-construct a new (CDT-enabled) governance vision of real-time data-driven decision-making.

Futures methodological approach

The research team thus developed a two-pronged strategy to engage with different local and regional authorities, urban modelers, employers (companies), and community groups. First, we focused on mapping different stakeholders and power relationships between these groups. Second, introducing the evolving concept of CDTs (including potential impact on data collection, processing, and role as evidence in policy-making), we asked respondents to participate in a ‘futures’ methodological approach to imagine alternative scenarios through technology – an approach gaining favour in participatory ethnographic research.

Developing this experimental approach meant facing a series of different challenges. In many cases, respondents warned us from the start that they were not ‘data people’. Digitalisation was regarded as belonging purely to the technical sphere that was incomprehensible to the everyday politician, government employee or citizen. It became clear that one of our tasks as inter-disciplinary researchers is to dispel these concerns and break the myth of the black box of digitalisation. Similarly, we had to negotiate speaking to modellers and analysts fixated on a solutions-approach to addressing wider socio-political issues affecting their everyday tasks.

Interdisciplinary approach

Ultimately, recognising the siloed nature of policy-making at the local level became crucial to developing an interdisciplinary approach to the digitalisation of urban planning and governance. Data collected within the project became richer as we embarked on speaking to new groups, tracing grounded interventions, and collaborating with local institutions. These strategies will provide us and others with some bearing on how to create new epistemological pathways for interdisciplinarity as a practice in academic and policy research. As cities continue to grow alongside technology advancement, it is vital to address the dynamic socio-technical systems changing citizens’ everyday lives.

Dr Timea Nochta - Research Associate in Urban Systems and Infrastructure at the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) and CDBB Early Career Researcher 

Contact: @tnochta and see