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The phases of planning for infrastructure change have not varied much since humans began coordinating the construction of more than one building, road, or bridge simultaneously. Planners need to understand the current environment and conditions, conceive and compare alternatives, and confidently select a particular alternative to move forward into detailed design, construction, and operation. A few decades ago, planners based their proposals and decisions on little more than sketches, photographs, and imprecise maps that offered no more than qualitative impressions of the status of extant infrastructure.

The phases of planning for infrastructure change have not varied much since humans began coordinating the construction of more than one building, road, or bridge simultaneously. Planners need to understand the current environment and conditions, conceive and compare alternatives, and confidently select a particular alternative to move forward into detailed design, construction, and operation. A few decades ago, planners based their proposals and decisions on little more than sketches, photographs, and imprecise maps that offered no more than qualitative impressions of the status of extant infrastructure.

In the late 20th century, planning left paper behind and moved into a loose collection of mapping, database, and design tools that provided better access to precise geospatial and infrastructure data but lost a level of agility that was traditionally available to designers and planners.  In school, designers and planners are still taught to embrace rapid visualization and sketching workflows. With the introduction of digital mapping and record keeping, planning became more precise and information rich but also prescriptive and less experiential.

Recently, a question was posed to a group of urban planning professionals. It was: “What metaphor do you imagine when you perform your job?” Some interesting responses included magazine editing and acupuncture, with the common theme that planners struggle to stay ahead of the rapidity of change. Much of the discussion described infrastructure planning as a repeatable process of incremental decisions and actions within vast, complex communities in which small changes can have broad, ongoing impact. From this perspective, the tools that urban planners use should support an iterative workflow that provides the analysis and output to rapidly and reliably measure proposed changes to large systems of integrated assets.

BIM and GIS

In today’s market, the majority of software products that are used by engineers, architects, and other design professionals are focused on the creation of data about assets that don’t yet exist. These products are standardizing around the concepts and technologies for building information modeling (BIM), resulting in information-rich models of infrastructure assets and their component parts. Recent developments are showing the importance of geolocation of assets for the analysis of urban infrastructure planning and design. Historically, the focus of software for engineering and design professionals has been about the ‘model-driven workflow.’ That workflow is just beginning to incorporate context in which the model can sit and be examined with respect to other nearby assets and landforms that represent the real world.

In contrast, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have long been accepted as the standard for storing data, performing analyses, and generating reports that support planning activities. Clearly, identifying locations and system-level statuses of assets on a map are essential tasks within the planning process. Yet a closer look at the integration of GIS with planning-related systems such as financial systems and work and management systems reveals awkward communication between these tools. GIS tends to look at assets as whole features that have a single representation on a map. Finance and maintenance activities often view assets as collections of parts.

3D City Models

A niche industry that has started to emerge over the last 20 years is 3D campus and city modeling. Autodesk, Bentley, Dassault, ESRI, and Pitney Bowes Business Insight have recently joined dozens of smaller companies that are trying to provide tools for visualizing and sharing information about a city using a 3D model. Each of the solutions in this market makes claims about visualizing the future, sharing dramatic visuals, and providing a workflow for updating the city. Despite the presence of a few successful customers and many interesting demos, real uses of 3D city or campus modeling account for only a few thousand commercial seats in an industry of millions of seats of design and mapping tools.

BIM for Infrastructure

Within the 3D city modeling niche, the most popular approach to the development of a tool for planning and conceptual visualization of infrastructure-scale projects has been to focus on a geospatial technology solution. The term “3D GIS” has been around for years, and there are many valid uses for displaying infrastructure asset data in 3D. For navigation and location identification, 3D is intrinsically more intuitive to comprehend. Line of sight, skyline analysis, and shadow studies offer obvious quick-win opportunities for visualization and analysis in 3D. But these types of analyses still rely on treating assets as whole features and fail to allow the deeper investigation of assets as collections of parts, which themselves may have spatial and attribute qualities and behavior.  Detailed analysis and inspection of proposed infrastructure change is not possible with the use of geospatial technology alone.

Solutions driven from the purely geospatial perspective always lack two critical components. First, there is no existing inventory of inexpensive, attractive 3D model data for cities with associated attribution in sufficient detail to simulate BIM-quality models. Second, geospatial-oriented tools struggle to digest and make use of detailed infrastructure planning data that is edited in BIM design tools. A detailed planning and conceptual design tool for cities requires the ability to display and analyze BIM-quality models of planned assets with the built and natural context in which they will exist.

Engineering modeling products have been perceived to be weighty and specialized for so long that the real solution, while staring us in the face, has been overlooked. Engineers and designers are working on multi-country rail corridors, planning the renovation or new construction of thousands of buildings in individual cities, and refactoring utility networks to support more sustainable civilization. Small decisions within these complex systems have long-term consequences for cost, performance, and quality of life. The modern planner needs to combine geospatial context, civil terrain models, detailed structures, and aesthetic experience to allow teams and stakeholders to analyze, simulate, and explore alternatives for planned infrastructure. One solution for this problem set is a highly scalable BIM process for infrastructure.

Modeling products were originally created by designers for the purpose of detailing, demonstrating, and selling an architecture proposal. Customers drove the products to be more informative so that analyses could demonstrate that proposals met requirements. In the future, BIM will provide a collaborative platform for the interaction of planners, engineers, and architects in an environment that allows the synthesis of geospatial and BIM data while providing a video game-like experience. The environment will need to scale to accommodate reasonable performance to allow the dynamic inspection and review of infrastructure change that is proposed over regional and multinational distances. Toughest of all, this new planning environment will not look like a GIS or Computer-Aided Design (CAD) interface but will have to accommodate generations of emerging users who have played hundreds of hours of video games a year and are pushing mobile, PC, and game platforms to converge.

The infrastructure planning software market has passed the technology adoption stage when software products could happily be sold as buckets of features that an engineer or planner cobbles together, sometimes with great effort, for a makeshift workflow. The utility industry, road and highway management agencies, and the sustainability industry are driving vendors to examine solutions that are simultaneously complex and intuitive. For infrastructure, BIM has the potential to support analyses of detailed models while being intuitive enough to include navigation, simulation, and analysis capability that is accessible to the next generation of urban and infrastructure planning professionals.  Emerging expectations now include being able to view and access any type of data related to an asset by directly manipulating the 3D visualization of that asset or 3D digital model object.

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