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How augmented reality can help create sustainable, environment-friendly smart cities

Augmented & virtual reality can help develop public spaces with holistic approach to environmental preservation, good governance & assets management.

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New Delhi: With people feeling the heat of climate breakdown and the government planning to create sustainable cities that provide a decent quality of life to citizens, it is essential to use smart technological tools to cope with environmental hazards.

Smart cities aim to incorporate climate-resilient infrastructure by instilling technology add-ons that enhance convenience and aid in governance.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), along with location or spatial intelligence, can help develop public spaces with a holistic approach to environmental preservation, good governance, assets management, public safety and health, transportation, as well as preservation of an area’s cultural heritage.

AR is crucial for all future spatial planning projects because it provides context utilising, which we learn and adapt to better models. It puts problems to scale and allows the cumulation of perspective and healthy discussions on complex issues to survive.

Also read: Scientists, gamers turn to virtual reality to make people care more about climate change

Why India needs to have climate-resilient smart cities

The Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2015) had predicted that India and other tropical countries will have increased impact of climate change, including a rise in cyclonic events, storms and extreme rainfall.

It is to note that several Indian cities are in coastal areas or geographically-vulnerable regions that are prone to natural hazards.

Spatial density and urban planning greatly influence the energy consumption of infrastructure and mobility. Indian cities do not have provisions for adoption of building by-laws and development control rules that promote energy-efficient and climate-friendly structures.

Existing regulations like Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC), 2007 also haven’t seen wide implementation in commercial projects across the country.

A technical report released by the Telecommunication Engineering Centre, under the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, in January last year defines a smart city as the “new utopia, the city of the future where technology becomes the interface — the arbitrator among citizens, governments and institutions”.

The report focuses on the use of Information and Communications Technology and Internet of Things to effectively plan cities in the future. The government’s receptivity to technology should be also viewed as a roadmap for incorporating innovation in the field of AR and VR in its spatial planning projects.

Smart applications for city design 

As governments across the world push for a more participatory planning process to engage residents in important decisions, new AR and VR technologies offer a more accessible medium for engagement.

Not every resident will understand a blueprint of a new park that is being built, but most will have an opinion when they are walking on it. Cities will soon have ‘digital twins’, a 3D digital map providing interactivity with immediate objects and environmental variables.

Officials and volunteers can help transform fieldwork and community engagement through AR in an orderly fashion.

Singapore has invested $73 million in its Virtual Singapore project which would serve as a digital three-dimensional city model that can be used as a test bed by government agencies, businesses and researchers to build a more resilient city.

Closer home, Amravati in Andhra Pradesh became the first city to be born with its digital twin using Cityzenith’s Smart World Pro software. The proposal for building this new city includes a digital twin user ID scheme for every citizen that will serve as a single portal for all government information, notifications, forms and applications.

Town planning and space design have always been riddled with opaqueness and redtape, and technology is trying to turn this on its head. Instead of churning out consultation letters and papers on city planning, it can be fruitful to use data visualisation tools and location intelligence to nudge public attitude, understand apprehensions and desires while designing community spaces.

Also read: Smart city technologies can tackle India’s urban explosion. But key questions must be asked

Location intelligence

A city stores data on every possible element that needs to be tracked and analysed — from air quality, break-ins as well as devastating wildfires. Releasing these data in a timely fashion can help control circumstances that may go out of hand.

Location intelligence studies geospatial data relationships by wading through obstacles of demographic concentration and congestion to present analysis and insights about infrastructure and location.

Cities benefit from location intelligence during contingencies since real-time testing and training processes could be weaved in via this method to guide healthcare professionals, firefighters and police officers on emergency management.

In 2016, as a part of its City Science initiative, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab had collaborated with the City Science Lab of Hamburg on a project called ‘Finding Places’. The researchers used optically-tagged LEGO bricks, simulation algorithms, and augmented reality to model potential locations for refugee accommodations.

Residents could move the gridded LEGO bricks to control locations and attributes of accommodations, and visualise results. Participants in this project identified 160 locations, and the government quickly authorised 44 and constructed 10 accommodations, thus compressing a process that could have taken years.

New forms of city architecture, new ways of public participation

India launched its own spatial planning app Gram Manchitra in October 2019 to plan, develop and monitor developmental activities in real-time. Its foundation was based on National Informatics Centre’s GIS Bharat Maps — which is an integrated base map service that uses a 1:50,000 scale reference data from the Survey of India (SOI) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), among others sources.

The maps incorporate 23 layers of administrative boundaries, information on roads and railways, forest layers, and settlement locations.

Immersive technology also helps in realising ambitious and innovative design concepts like the ones floated by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. He polarised the industry with his concept of hedonistic sustainability which believes that modernistic design can balance the fine line of preserving the environment while also not minimising luxury and comfort.

He has floated some mind-boggling ideas and even driven a few into fruition, like the combination of a waste-to-energy power plant that emits no toxins with a man-made ski slope in Copenhagen. Last year, Ingels disclosed his design for floating cities that could withstand hurricanes.

A lot of legal and bureaucratic hassles can be prevented along with efficient utilisation of taxpayers’ money with the use of immersive AR tech in studying the feasibility of architectural city designs.

We can avoid the rise and fall of cityscapes like the recent Maradu flats demolition in Kochi, Kerala for violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms.

Immersive tech and 3D rendering can help identify and fix flaws as well as evaluate sustainability in different environmental conditions to aid the screening and approval process of large commercial projects.

As 2020 begins and plans are afoot to launch Smart City 2.0 in India, the project should be carried out not only as a futuristic connected hub of cities but as a mission to create sustainable and democratically-designed spaces.

The author is a public policy and corporate affairs consultant based out of New Delhi. All views expressed are personal.

Also read: Modi govt vowed 100 smart cities in 5 yrs. Nine months to deadline, only 30% funds released


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