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June 19th, 2008
What is the promise of the model-based future for multi-disciplinary planning projects?

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Jeff Thurston — “Multi-disciplinary projects and modeling will be critically important in the future. The need for increased transparency, more legislation, distributed workflows and processes as well as a desire to embrace and include professional experience and knowledge to deal with complex problems are all key factors involved.  A large hurdle will be in learning to work together in new ways and applying spatial tools in convergent – integrated ways. We are moving swiftly toward a model-based future.”

Matt Ball — “There’s such great promise for the model-based future for projects that incorporate multiple disciplines and have sustainability as their goal. When the interdisciplinary approach meets a collaborative model-based interface, where all inputs become a shared model, expertise and insight into complex systems will be greatly enhanced.”

This column is sponsored by www.esri.com
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Multi-disciplinary projects and modeling will be critically important in the future. The need for increased transparency, more legislation, distributed workflows and processes as well as a desire to embrace and include professional experience and knowledge to deal with complex problems are all key factors involved. A large hurdle will be in learning to work together in new ways and applying spatial tools in convergent – integrated ways. We are moving swiftly toward a model-based future.


Developing applications and awareness

I had the opportunity recently to attend a conference sponsored by the Leibniz-Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) Müncheberg, Germany. “The EU funded Integrated Project SENSOR develops ex-ante Sustainability Impact Assessment Tools (SIAT) to support policy making related to multi-functional land use in European regions. SENSOR is part of a family of large projects launched by the European Commission to build science based support tools for sustainability impact assessment related to land use. They include EFORWOOD (forestry wood chain), PLUREL (rural-urban linkages), SEAMLESS (agriculture).” This project is an example of multi-disciplinary considerations coming together and models (the tools) driving the processes.

The relationship of models to GIS is well documented. ESRI has a number of case studies online that are based on their ModelBuilder software, which is used to develop modeled solutions for a number of different disciplines – often in a multi-disciplinary approach. It is important to realise that not only are different disciplines involved in the modeling process, but also that the integration of data involved numerous sources and technologies. In an earlier ‘Perspectives’ we asked the question, How can GIS evolve to interact more with process models to provide better insight into change over time and space?.”

In a paper published in the International Journal of Health Geographics it was stated, “GIS have much more to offer than the obvious digital cartography (map) functions. From a community health perspective, GIS could potentially act as powerful evidence-based practice tools for early problem detection and solving. When properly used, GIS can: inform and educate (professionals and the public); empower decision-making at all levels; help in planning and tweaking clinically and cost-effective actions, in predicting outcomes before making any financial commitments and ascribing priorities in a climate of finite resources; change practices; and continually monitor and analyse changes, as well as sentinel events. Yet despite all these potentials for GIS, they remain under-utilised in the UK National Health Service (NHS).”

In addition, during this past week I wrote a blog entry inquiring; “sometimes I wonder about all the talk of a SensorWeb and GeoWeb – if we aren’t willing to understand the reasoning behind how wave, solar and wind technologies are so closely connected to spatial processes.” Again, alluding to the presence of models. This column previously alluded to the disconnect between the technologies and action, which often circulates around the issues of governance and political factors. Indeed, we attempted to approach that subject more directly with our column on governance.


Education factors

Educational institutions are filled with people using spatial tools like CAD and GIS. Almost every institution with a running GIS lab will have tools for building spatial models and people teaching the concepts of spatial analysis. These organisations are often centered around disciplines like agriculture, forestry, geology, hydrology and oceanography courses, to name a few. At the graduate level spatial tools are common and are used across many disciplines, and are even slowly making their way into the Arts and Social Sciences – with historical geographers having a particularly interesting relationship with them.

The training and education of students from around the world, in the understanding and application of spatial modeling has been going on for some time. It is bearing fruit and this will continue to grow.

Access to free or lower priced software through institutions, and the necessary support of projects that acquire data useful for making useful models and developing appropriate solutions is helping to enable and build capacity for this type of work. Bentley systems has been slowly feeding the growth of a SmartGeometry group, who are now using new modeling tools to develop more efficient buildings and structures, as another example.

We can make a distinction between training and education, but the truth is, we need both. You don’t get a driver’s license for a car without training, so why should one expect to excel with spatial tools unless trained first? The modeled future will demand that we understand both. This is analagous to a pilot understanding the limits of the aircraft he/she is flying.

Data is important to learning how to model. To put it bluntly – more companies ought to provide more data to institutions for students use. This would greatly enhance and expedite the development of geospatial modeling both in application and form, for the future. But this type of support also needs to recognise that integrated solutions as demanded in the marketplace today require not only data, but that students also understand the devices and technologies gathering that information.

Strategies need to be developed for multi-dimensional applications and their teaching which include all necessary resources to grasp the nature of the problem and the solution. We often hear businesses complain that graduates do not have adequate knowledge and skills to meet the challenges of the marketplace. New approaches for teaching, research and education that include data, technologies and conceptual knowledge would help to overcome this. The fact is, you cannot find many courses teaching integrated geospatial thought.


Competitiveness and participation
We are rapidly approaching the point where an understanding of modeling and working within multi-disciplinary frameworks will be essential. As terminology and vocabulary has shifted toward ‘value chains’ – ‘workflows’ and ‘partnership’ there has been a corresponding increase in the level of multi-disciplinary approaches.

These are the tools that modern, growth oriented and service oriented companies will increasingly use. As they build out future networks, designing information workflows and processes, these tools will play an important and central role. Geography and spatial information is not just moving mainstream, it already is and now that is expanding. We do need to equip the younger generation will these tools and knowledge, if they are to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Leading economies will be using them.

 

There’s such great promise for the model-based future for projects that incorporate multiple disciplines and have sustainability as their goal. When the interdisciplinary approach meets a collaborative model-based interface, where all inputs become a shared model, expertise and insight into complex systems will be greatly enhanced.

It’s the model as a hub for activity that gives this vision its promise. With a central and shared model, everyone is interested in interacting with it, to both receive information or post their own information. And the interaction means that the model will live on and be updated as the real world evolves.

Barriers to Collaboration
Without the barriers of different data formats from software tools that are involved in urban and infrastructure planning, the use of information technology for collaborative planning projects could be so much better than it is today. Non-integrated software formats don’t equate with projects that are sustainable, because the individualized tools each leave something out when the data is combined, and the model lacks the intelligence with which it was created.

Individual workflows for specific disciplines, as well as specific or customized software interfaces, are likely a necessary and ongoing thing, because each discipline has its own outlook and data set that needs to be synthesized. Having customized tools for the task needn’t be a barrier for sharing and interacting with the same model. In essence, the shared model becomes the interoperability piece as the model is able to ingest all formats.

Models Lock in Knowledge
Without locking in the knowledge of many disciplines within the model, the project itself becomes disposable. Just think of all the buildings that were designed and drawn, with their models simply discarded or never updated. The idea that a model lives alongside the existing structure or location, means that it can collect ongoing updates over time, increasing the utility of the model and aiding understanding.

Bentley recently acquired Common Point and its ConstructSim technology that plays heavily in the plant design space as a collaborative design tool. This technology is an excellent example of how the virtual model of a complex system plays heavily into daily operations and construction. The collaborative design tool has inputs from many disciplines within the plant, and the highly-detailed model become very critical from construction to ongoing maintenance.

This class of toolset is ideal for the very complex plant space, but it would also certainly have a role in larger built environments such as campuses or transportation hubs. In these very large facilities, the complexity of maintenance tasks are similar to that of a plant, just at a much larger scale.

The approach of a centralized and collaborative design model should be translatable to larger-scale endeavors and geographies. The benefits of the collaborative design approach are proven at the plant scale as a superior communication and analysis medium that saves time and money during the construction process and increases efficiency and safety ongoing. Similar results could easily be achieved at multi-disciplinary models of larger scale.

 

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