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Eberhard_Doug.jpgAutodesk has outlined a vision for highly detailed 3D digital cities that would become collaborative environments for secure integration of CAD, building information modeling (BIM), and geospatial information. V1 Magazine editor Matt Ball sat down with Doug Eberhard, Autodesk’s senior director and industry evangelist for digital cities, to discuss the digital cities idea, and how these systems could help foster a holistic approach to city management.


V1 Magazine: You’ve been involved in the visualization and simulation world for quite some time, most recently as chief technology officer at Parsons Brinckerhoff. Can you speak a bit about the evolution of the visualization and simulation approach based on this experience?

Eberhard: PB acquired my firm 16 years ago. We produced photorealistic renderings to help sell our engineering services, and it was very evident that these renderings were effective to communicate and sell projects. The visualizations weren’t just pretty pictures, they were accurate representations of the projects that we were bidding on.

Several years later, we were doing some 3D work, but more in a painterly kind of world. We started using models, view matching the models to photographs, and now the renderings had some geometric accuracy and measurability, rather than just measuring pixels.

We got into building models where you could animate them and view them interactively, where you didn’t need the base photo. The model was the rendering. This model-based design was used for visualization, comparative analysis and collaboration. This evolution of a model-based approach has been building for many years, and certainly we’ve seen its use in several industries.

V1 Magazine:
One of the more compelling and high-profile projects that you worked on is the 4D simulation for the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

The World Trade Center project is program construction management for all the projects, at $21 Billion dollar total program costs, but all with different owners. Each owner was doing their own models, but we were responsible for bringing it all together in a temporal aspect. This is a 16-acre site with nine mega-projects being build in the same space.

A 4D or temporal 3D model was the only way to be able to see the project over time. We married the project schedule with a 3D model and took it into the interview, again using models and visualizations to sell our consulting work versus having the client say that they wanted a model. What happened is that in the interview, it wasn’t just look at this pretty picture, we showed the model linked to the schedule and we actually found some opportunities to avoid costly conflicts later in the process. We were able to show some optimizations of the schedule, when to take away temporary rail lines and when to pour foundations for the memorial.

Here’s a case where the model is a “smart model” because it talks back to you and tells you things that you don’t know. The model showed us things that nobody knew. You can say that we would have figured that out at some point, but it showed us things years in advance that allowed not just us as a consulting firm, but many other contractors, construction managers and clients to see. The visualization made it very clear what had to be done.

Having all the stakeholders in the room at one time allowed not just finger pointing, but adjustments to the schedule. The model, and the visualization as an output of the model, drove a much more informed decision making process predicated on their belief that the model was accurate.

There are a lot of tools today that allow you to whip out quick models and make them look very real. So there can be a danger in that, and that’s why professional modeling standards and model validation are a necessary process. It’s important to have a strong foundation in order to believe what you are seeing.
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V1 Magazine: How do you envision project-oriented models being incorporated into a digital city model?

Eberhard: As we think about digital cities, in many ways it’s doing BIM, 3D/4D modeling  and clash detection, in the planning process and not just the design or construction. The models become the accurate base for new design and construction to happen, when currently it’s the other way around. Contractors are required to develop as-built drawings, not the designer or architect, and typically it’s just a redline marking on the drawings in a 2D environment that just gets shelved.

We’re starting to see the architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) industry come together to build and share models, and the model becomes the as-built. While there are different changes that will happen in the field, they may be at such a low-level of detail that we may not need the information in a digital city model.

If say hinges or the finish on a door changes, we don’t need to update that in a digital city model. But if there are changes to the shell of a building or the electrical, sewer and water networks, where the building sits, how tall it is, then that becomes a new deliverable. Does it cost any more money to output that information if the AEC industry is already building these models? We just want a derivative of the model.

When we’re working with an existing environment for new development, having an accurate 3D model allows planners, architects and agencies to be able to build things quickly and accurately with informed decisions.

V1 Magazine: How will the software tools evolve to interact and create this new model-based future?

Eberhard: The new model-based approach is forcing us to look at how we do CAD, building information modeling (BIM), GIS and design visualization modeling and using the best from those. Design visualization modeling like Autodesk’s 3D Studio Max is so good for making models look good, but you never develop a set of design and construction documents out of Max, because that isn’t what the tool was built for. Max has rendering technology and visualization techniques that people really want, because they want to see what things will look like before they buy it.

V1 Magazine: Who owns the model and how do you achieve consensus and collaboration on the shared model so that the large city model is a sustainable entity?

Eberhard: In a perfect world, it should be a city agency who is responsible for mandating or legislating the sustainable creation and management of that city model. As you see in a lot of geospatial information systems for cities today, it’s actually consultants that build those and many times maintain them, although it’s the city that may keep a copy or host it on a website. It’s interesting to look at how traditional geospatial works in cities. If you go down to individual buildings or projects, they’re usually storing paper, CAD drawing and plan documents for a project, but all the detailed information is sitting with an architecture or engineering firm.

Within an individual project, you can ask who owns the digital content or the model. It’s usually a shared ownership. Each entity that was responsible of designing, building or maintaining it, will have rich information specific to their involvement into the project, but they’ll share the right amount of information back into the shared model space.

At the city level, again in a perfect world, it should be the city planning department, public works or another agency that owns and updates the model. From a modeling standpoint, ideally one agency would be the point for combining the models, requiring a set standard, and developing specifications for all new projects that would happen in that city.

V1 Magazine: There’s some fuzziness between CAD, GIS and BIM. Essentially they’re each an interface to the model, but they’re each highly engineered and tailored to specific workflows. Do you have some thoughts on where these different interfaces might lead?

Eberhard: The different disciplines that are part of the lifecycle of a project, some will work in CAD, some will work in GIS and others will work in BIM. The design visualization field is usually brought into the early stages to present and sell a building concept. All these different data types have been working together for some time, but it’s often by brute force that we bring one data set into another. There’s never been one environment where you bring one into another. You often have to pick what format is available based on your expertise, because the design or sketch is a deliverable rather than the data itself.

When you look at these four different technology areas, each one of them has specific strengths. CAD is still the environment where plotting, drafting and final drawing is done, yet you still see a lot of design done that way. GIS is better at constraint-based modeling and layer-based modeling, and you can spit out pretty maps and web-based mapping environments, but you don’t use GIS for design. BIM has changed the paradigm because you are modeling your design and can generate 2D drawings, but it won’t always output all drawings, so you still have to rely on CAD. The design visualization people are asked to produce a video or some animation and renderings of a project to get it past the planning agency or sell it to investors or buyers.

Design visualization is often where all the data comes together. They ingest all the information and decide what to keep and what to throw out. It varies from project to project, but most of the city models are running through 3ds Max as the final visualization filter. It does all the texture baking, it does the lighting, it makes the model look good, but only as good as the data that comes together.

In this sequence, you could swap CAD and GIS around, because many times when a project is done it’s delivered as a CAD drawing and not a geospatial drawing. BIM is feeding into design visualization, where the models can be drawn into design visualization seamlessly. BIM is bypassing design visualization tools to some extent now.

These tools are changing and it’s also changing the business model. In the area of digital cities, it’s not just about building models, visualizing them and collaborating with them, although that’s definitely a big part of it. It’s creating a new business model or marketplace.

V1 Magazine: How do Google Earth and Virtual Earth models factor into the digital city vision?

Eberhard: Virtual Earth and Google Earth are about providing a spatial aspect for local search. Inevitably their business model is around local advertising. A model marketplace is actually about being able to sell and buy models. While a city agency may be managing the model of a city for planning and economic development and tourism, what about all the firms that have created these models?

There are ten different city models for New York City that are owned by different people. When you get down to engineering or construction-level accuracy, most of those models get thrown out, and you have to build a new model for a specific area of a project. Models often get put on the shelf, because the deliverable was a drawing.

In the future, maybe these models could be sold back or used differently. This type of modeling marketplace would provide a place where models could be bought, borrowed, licensed and used in different ways. It’s professional-strength city modeling versus the environment that is out there today.

provide a place where models could be bought, borrowed, licensed and used in different ways. It’s professional-strength city modeling versus the environment that is out there today.

SketchUp and Google Earth work very well together, but it’s not an engineering-level model. It’s one thing to see a building from the air, but when you get down on the street, they just don’t hold up.

V1 Magazine: In the Autodesk toolbox, will there be some necessary realignment for a digital city workflow?

Eberhard: We are talking to model builders, city agencies, planning departments, and leading universities. We’re essentially canvassing the entire lifecycle from planning, design, construction and operations workflows. The digital, social, professional and deliverable workflows are all being considered, and how we can improve our own interoperability within those. We’re looking at open standards and the information investments that our customers have to develop a platform that will make digital model creation more seamless and in some cases automatic.

In some cases, it’s suggesting a different approach to projects. It amazes me that every major project doesn’t start with a geospatial base drawing, because it will inevitably have to sit somewhere, and yet that’s rarely done. In environmental planning work that’s predominate, but in AEC they are more CAD and BIM-centric.

Do you bring geospatial into BIM or do you bring geospatial and BIM into design visualization or do you bring design visualization and BIM into geospatial? There are fuzzy areas between these traditional silos. We’re looking at all of that and talking to customers and cities to find out their pain points, and discovering how to streamline the project process.

The current process has been called the DAD method (decide, announce, defend), but that’s changing. By communicating early and often, you eliminate a lot of backlash. Digital cities allow you to share projects with the public in a robust and meaningful way. It’s not just how we build smarter models in a smarter way, and share those models in a smarter and more collaborative way, it’s how we get input from various stakeholders and aggregate that back in.

V1 Magazine:
The longevity of a digital city model is also a key component. How do you maintain a model so that it is not a one-off digital creation, but a model that is sustainable for a long period of time?

Eberhard: We don’t talk a lot about digital sustainability? We talk about green strategies, which is very important. How do we make our cities and our lifestyle more sustainable and the lifestyle choices that we make. In cities we look at our building and planning policies. If we look at the planning to operation profession—the lifecycle—we have very unsustainable digital practices. We don’t share information or we share it in unsustainable ways.

You may have a rich model, but I’ll only share paper drawings. So many times we had to recreate information that already existed in digital format, but if the client didn’t require it, or it wasn’t paid for, it didn’t get shared digitally.

This isn’t a technology issue. Technology can always be better, will continue to get better and needs to get better. This is a professional and a social issue of getting beyond the contractual, legal and liability issues of sharing data. I think there’s more liability in not sharing this digital information, and yet it’s the other way around. We need to get the insurance industry, public agencies and professional practice in alignment. We need to look at professional intersections as well as the digital side.

The digital cities process will inevitably inspire and require a more sustainable digital process and practice. Part of that is the move from 2D to 3D to 4D. Digital prototyping is a concept from the manufacturing industry. You’re building a digital prototype of what you’re going to make, and you figure out the design, evaluate any problems, how to assemble, and bring together all the pieces together just-in-time to make it economically feasible to manufacture. Cities are no different, they’re just a lot bigger.

V1 Magazine: How do you envision collaboration to occur with digital city models?

We’ve talked about building models, smarter models, being able to integrate analysis and information and being able to share them. When we think about the tools and technologies around collaboration these days, we look at telepresence and how the world is changing there. When we look at web collaboration tools like Buzzsaw, it’s still a document-centric collaboration, you share files and you’re looking at individual drawings. We’re moving, as you’ll see with ConstructWare, from document to database collaboration. We’ve seen this in GIS for a long time.

The digital cities shift means a movement from document to data to model-centric collaboration. You see this in BIM modeling today with Navisworks as the predominant tool. You share models, and you can even share models in a way that your piece will expire at a specified time and you’ll need to update it with a new piece.

When we talk about digital cities, how do we share models with the world? We’re going to need security around models. You can take two pieces of seemingly harmless information and put them together, and they suddenly become very dangerous. Data owners need to be able to choose what they share so that they not only respect privacy concerns, but they also can comply with regulations and protect intellectual property. 

People may still work in silos, but we believe that creating partitions that make it easier for organizations and communities to collaborate and share data is necessary for this change to occur. We still need to evolve our legal contracting and professional practices. The good news is that it’s happening all over, and our digital cities vision is really about pulling together in a sustainable way, and in a way that makes economic sense. If we spent all the money building accurate detailed models of our world, we probably wouldn’t be able to afford to build that world. There has to be a balance between the digital side and the real side of things.

V1 Magazine: Cities are one of the areas where we can make the greatest changes to increase our efficiencies and have far less of an impact on our planet. Autodesk seems to be on a green mission. How do digital cities contribute to sustainable development?

Eberhard: It’s exciting to see that with LEED, and other sustainable metrics and scorecards out there, how these models can be used as a dashboard in many ways to watch over our carbon footprint for a city. How green are we this month, are we greener than we were last month?

Think of all the green issues that can be facilitated in a model, from recycling, energy use, smart grids, transportation emissions, to global warming. Think of taking a community center and plugging it into a digital city model and getting your whole carbon footprint read out, a sustainability report card directly from the digital city model. We see that vision coming to fruition, and it’s already happening at a micro scale. We see LEED energy tools within Revit for example, but take that BIM idea to the city scale.

Can we afford, and should we, have every wing nut on every fan shroud for every air conditioning unit in every building in one big city model? And yet all those air conditioning units and the energy that they use relates not just to the building, but to the city overall. How do we capture and retain the right parts, and allow the other parts to live in their respective worlds in that planned operating life cycle? How do we keep the good stuff and how do we recycle the right parts?

There are different definitions for sustainability, and it’s interesting to balance them all together. In a general sense, it’s leaving the world not the same, but improving on it for future generations. It’s not making it any worse, because at the rate it’s going it’s continuing to get worse. What can we do in the digital world to make our cities and our children’s worlds better, because we’ve done better things digitally to allow reality to reflect that same care and analysis?

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