It’s a running theme in our discussion of the smart home: that it is smarter to design it properly in the first place then it is to add things afterward. The same is true for the smart city. In the Economist, Autodesk’s head of sustainability, Emma Stewart, writes about how the smart thing to do is to figure it out before you build.

The most powerful and cost-effective use of modern technology is not collecting big data once things are built, so as to enable marginal improvements, but rather generating, simulating, and analysing ideas relating to the design, or redesign, of city assets. This application is a more cost-effective and powerful way to achieve the outcomes that cities seek—not to be “smart”, but rather to be liveable and sustainable.
This is really hard. So many of the decisions that are made about our cities and the huge infrastructure investments in them are made on a whim, for political reasons, for pork, a highway here and a bridge to nowhere there. If there are data to back up these decisions, it's based on an engineer’s traffic counts or an estimator’s dollar estimates. Hard numbers.

triple bottom line

The three prongs of the triple bottom line. (Photo: Wikipedia)

But there are other costs involved with anything we do, the social and environmental costs, the effect on people and the planet as well as the profit. That’s the triple bottom line, first proposed 20 years ago by John Elkington and argued about ever since.

Critics ask “how can you put a numeric value on human life?” or “what’s the value of happiness?” In fact, you can.

If your senator wants to cancel a high-speed rail line and expand a highway instead, there are hard data on how much it will cost to treat the asthma cases that are caused by the extra pollution. If you put in a bike lane instead of a car lane, there are data that show how it increases the health of the population. You can put a dollar value on happiness, and people have been doing it for years. However, it takes time and money to do these studies, and you can’t do “what if” analyses of alternatives.

Which is all a very long-winded background to an interesting product that was announced today. Architects and engineers don’t really draw anymore; they use software like AutoCAD to build the structure in the computer, piece by piece. It’s called BIM, or Building Information Modelling. This lets them make changes and see the results on the fly; move a ramp or increase the column spacing, and they'll know immediately how much more or less steel and concrete might be needed, and its impact on cost.

AutoCASE software

Photo: AutoCASE

AutoCASE, from Impact Infrastructure, adds triple bottom line analysis into the mix. Founder and CEO John Williams explained in an interview that it “automates the process for valuing what have traditionally been considered intangible benefits, such as air pollution, property values and recreational space.” It plugs right in to the AutoCAD that many civil engineers use.

Right now the system is capable of dealing with stormwater, which at first glance I thought was a small niche in the design world. It’s not; in fact, it's critically important. As Stewart noted in her Economist article,

Whether coastal or inland, cities need to act more like mangroves and less like car parks. Roughly half of mankind lives on the coast—more people than inhabited the entire globe in 1950—and coastal flooding now represents a significant risk… So, the current buzzwords for city officials from Philadelphia to Singapore are “green stormwater infrastructure, which has the dual benefit of absorbing and filtering rainfall while cleaning the air, enhancing property values, and providing open space.
They are following up with modules for transit, roads, highways and buildings. So when those politicians want to ram another highway down our throats or rip out another bike lane, there are real data that people can show on the true costs, both economic and social.

This a difficult concept to write about for a non-professional readership. However, as an architect who was an early adopter of Computer Aided Design (CAD) over 30 years ago,when all it did was draw, I am in awe of a system that can not only quantify steel and concrete costs but that now can also produce real data on social value, pollution, health and yes, even happiness.

This is really smart.

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.