Adding an intelligent data ecosystem to urban planning: a dynamic knowledge graph approach

Ahead of appearing at our Urban Intelligence event on Thursday 7 July at 3 pm BST, Dr. Aurel von Richthofen and colleagues argue for data interoperability and compatibility to enable sustainable city planning.

Hou Yee Quek, Franziska Sielker, Markus Kraft, Jethro Akroyd, Amit Bhave, Aurel von Richthofen, Pieter Herthogs, Claudia Yamu, Li Wan, Timea Nochta, Gemma Burgess, Mei Qi Lim, Sebastian Mosbach, VSK Murthy Balijepalli

In the 21st century, the advent of faster, cheaper and smaller electronic devices available to a mass consumer base across the globe has altered the prevailing urban dynamic and by extension, city planning processes. The extensive diffusion of internet users and sensor technologies deployed in the built environment has led to the accelerating velocity of data processing capabilities and production of large data streams that can be aggregated, processed and analysed. A hope of urban governments is to develop towards more efficient operations, decision-making and smarter cities.

Adding a Technological Dimension

Given the growing spotlight on the potential of planning technologies such as Digital Twins for urban planning and smart city design, we see some challenges of employing these digital planning tools. In order to understand urban development opportunities today, we think that it is time to add a technological dimension, an intelligent data ecosystem, to the trifecta of economic, environmental and social sustainability goals that guide city planning. This raises questions on the conundrum of interoperability and compatibility through the lens of two different technological approaches.

Today, city administrators and politicians have recognised the potential of technological solutions and by extension, smart cities to address urban sustainability issues while enhancing the quality of urban life across scales. To this end, they have often initiated, advocated, and endorsed new technological endeavours in public, private and research institutions across diverse disciplines such as Germany’s third iteration of Modellprojekte Smart Cities and Singapore’s Smart Nation initiatives. This generates a growing diversity of digital solutions ranging from interactive online dashboards for city statistics to proprietary optimisation tools for city logistics, building management and infrastructure planning.

Interoperability and Compatibility

Although the ever-growing diversity, range and extent of compatibility between new and old technologies means that real-world problems are being solved at unprecedented speeds, these solutions have also generated numerous heterogeneous systems that are often not interoperable or compatible with each other. Interoperability is defined as the ability of tools and systems to understand and use the functionalities of other tools, while compatibility is defined as the capacity of different tools to work together in the same environment and data format without further modifications. Interoperability and compatibility enable collaboration and more efficient decision-making processes, which lead to greater resource efficiency and innovation in an era confronted by resource shortages and sustainability issues.

With Industry 4.0, the complexity and choice of tools will inevitably increase as the efforts of various public, private and research organisations remain fragmented. In the current state of an ever-growing heterogeneous, distributed and dynamic digital ecosystem, large isolated data siloes are formed and have inhibited knowledge sharing and collaboration processes, leading to the increasing importance of both interoperability and compatibility today. To raise awareness, stakeholders of smart city initiatives have to recognise the pitfalls of a disjointed dynamic digital ecosystem and follow up by formulating strategies on how the various digital systems can be integrated to become interoperable and compatible.

Cities Knowledge Graph

An example of such a semantic system is the Cities Knowledge Graph project, a dynamic knowledge graph, built inside the World Avatar. The Cities Knowledge Graph supports the urban development process (city planning and urban governance) in three ways. Firstly, the World Avatar automates aspects of data gathering and processing in order to generate useful information and knowledge about cities. Secondly, tools, concepts and targets from different city planning departments and distinct knowledge domains are integrated to formulate more comprehensive complex definite planning questions. Thirdly, the World Avatar conducts advanced scenario planning, supporting planners to analyse different variants of their proposals.

The Cities Knowledge Graph in the World Avatar supports the identification, evaluation and proposal of planning issues and their solutions, which are generally communicated through visual mediums. At present, smart city stakeholders and citizens have begun to acknowledge data not as an absolute solution, but rather, as a supplementary tool to support more informed policy decisions. However, this shift from a technocratic perspective to a more humanistic perspective of cities is inadequate. Such digital tools must also consider the entire planning process.

Digital Twins

Current urban Digital Twins are only successful in identifying key planning issues and have yet to be able to make recommendations or proposals. This is troubling as such an action of proposing solutions is a key deliverable of planning processes, which arguably is more important than identifying planning issues. Moreover, existing integration approaches employed are focused on visualisation rather than interpretation of the immense noisy raw data streams generated. Such visualisations are often only a more efficient and swifter method to represent existing data and have yet to generate additional information or insights beyond the given dataset. In addition, models are always merely an abstraction of reality. Even if the data are updated and analysed in real-time, the proposed solutions by urban Digital Twins should only be considered as guidelines into the future. These Digital Twins must also be continuously updated and adapt to an ever-changing, complex reality with “wicked” urban problems, where addressing one problem may create another problem that cannot be predicted by even the best experts.

In the ongoing pursuit for smarter cities, the rapid pace of isolated siloed technological developments and their growing complexities and pitfalls have become too significant to ignore. Hence, technology must be deliberately included and discussed as an explicit new dimension with the three urban sustainability goals to facilitate urban Digital Twins for urban design, planning and governance purposes, which will enable a smarter, more sustainable and inclusive city.

Dr Aurel von Richthofen of Arup Germany and the ETH-Singapore Centre will speak at our online event on Urban Intelligence: how are cities using evidence and data to improve decision-making? On Thursday, 7th July 2022 at 3 pm BST.  Get your free ticket here.

This text is based on this pre-print: Quek, Hou Yee, Franziska Sielker, Markus Kraft, Jethro Akroyd, Amit Bhave, von Richthofen, Aurel, Pieter Herthogs, et al. 2021. “The Conundrum in Smart City Governance: Interoperability and Compatibility in an Ever-Growing Digital Ecosystem,” no. 287 (December): 27.