Blending Algorithmic Generative Design and Human Touch for Functional and Delightful Urban Master Plans

This article was originally published here.

As algorithms are increasingly used for many processes these days amid digitalisation, will the human element be gradually replaced? Even as MORROW Technology prepares to unveil the MORROW Parametric Urban Design (MPUD) Tool, it appears that the human touch is still very much essential.

Urban Planning and Design in the Context of “Digitalisation of Everything”

Creating a good master plan for township and city development requires passionate and highly-experienced planners who are valued for their time-honoured professional expertise and skills. With each master planning project being unique and context-specific, digitalising and automating everything in the scope of work for planners remains an unconvincing need. 

In the digital economy, on the other hand, businesses have become more impatient when it comes to seeing performance outcomes. The same applies to the work of planners and urban designers. Hence, there has been pressure on the profession to respond to the time-pressure factor on the commercial side of things.

Image: Computational Tools that improve productivity are increasingly common in this digital era (Credits: MORROW Technology)

Unravelling the dilemma

To date, there have already been some digital tools developed in the attempt to assist planners and urban designers. They range from common computational drafting tools — which have been widely used in practice to the ambitious Artificial Intelligence (AI) application to auto-generate urban forms. However, the latter is still at the infancy stage of technological development and has yet to gain enough trust from professionals, governments, clients and the public at large for such computational tools to design large-scale urban environments. 

At the current development stage, the sweet spot is for digital tools to take the incremental step of increasing productivity when generating urban master plans and designs. This can be done by blending the human touch of time-honoured professional urban planners and designers with algorithmic generative design for urban design. For a start, suitable tasks that can best benefit from being automated by computational design tools have to be identified.

Identifying opportunities for automation in the urban planning process

Formulating master plans and urban designs are complex and time-consuming processes. In general, the planning process can be summarised into four consecutive groups of actions:

1) Firstly, the city government carries out engagements with stakeholders and the community and compiles a wish list as the base to form an urban planning brief.

2) Next, site study and data analysis to understand the existing and projected social, economic, and environmental context of the development.

3) Then, the creation of strategic, concept, and detailed master plans, followed by urban design with three-dimensional (3D) built forms and urban spaces.

4) Lastly, validation of the master plan through public feedback, refinement, and legalisation for implementation.

Professional planning consultancy firms are usually appointed to carry out the work scopes in groups 2 and 3. While the tasks in group 2 are highly analytical, those in group 3 conventionally require the element of human judgment, which is where experienced urban planners or designers with reliable urban design skills come into play.

For these reasons, getting the tasks in group 3 digitised is very likely to be subjected to debates and resistance. To mitigate this, let us further break down the tasks of urban planning and design into the three subsets of “science”, “art” and “value”.

While the subsets of “art” and “value” can be better performed with a human touch — especially by experienced urban planners and designers — some tasks under the “science” subset have considerably more potential for digitalisation. This is owing to their logicality in nature, which is something that can be translated into computational algorithms. For example, it can be as simple as setting clear sets of rules for building setbacks, typical road sectional design, typical built form configurations such as floor-to-floor height for different building typologies, and many more.

Applying parametric principles to large-scale urban design

We started with the simple and popularly-implemented concept and principles of parametric design. Parametric design itself is not a new technology, and has been used extensively in product design, architecture and engineering. Parametric architecture, for example, creates a system of “parameters” and constraints to produce a built form with repeating elements. Architects can modify these forms by adjusting parameters, such as length, width, height, and the number of repeating elements. 

City planners can apply this technology to urban design by writing algorithms that set rules and constraints for planning parameters, such as road width, building setbacks, site coverage, building height control, plot ratio, and so on. In doing so, there are two benefits that improve workflow productivity. 

Firstly, when planning parameters require adjusting, planners can tweak the input variables directly. The system should then automatically update the drawings and 3D building massings based on the changes to the adjusted variables. 

Secondly, when designers make changes to or introduce new design elements such as a road or park, the system should automatically update the related drawings and 3D building massings to maintain selected existing parametric constraints as a draft for planners or  architects. Hence, they can still fine-tune their design while spending less time on rounds of trial-and-error design testing to meet the selected parametric constraints.

MORROWTech’s Parametric Urban Design Tool

With the above objectives, MORROW Architects & Planners set up MORROW Technology (MORROWTech in short) – a tech company that attempts to unlock new opportunities presented by advanced digital technologies from the eyes of professional urban planners and designers for the benefit of our fraternity.

MORROWTech, supported by Enterprise Singapore’s Enterprise Development Grant and in collaboration with specialist IT developers, has been developing the MORROW Parametric Urban Design Tool, or MPUD. MPUD aims to improve MORROW’s in-house workflow by enhancing productivity for our urban design projects through its functions of automating certain repetitive routine tasks.

Image: A glimpse of MORROW’s Parametric Urban Design Tool (Credits: MORROW Technology)

The tool generates 3D urban form drafts with all necessary salient planning data based on the urban structure, land use, and other parameters defined by planners. The 3D urban form generated should only be treated as a draft and not be considered final. It allows planners and designers to visualise their planning data and urban structure at a glance, and in a 3D visualisation. In this way, planners and urban designers can further fine-tune the design, scrutinise the details, and add layers of human touch and with artistic design inputs.


Balancing Human and Technological Inputs

Why not push the boundary and develop a more comprehensive AI generative design to create master plans and urban designs that stakeholders can select the most ideal one from? Simply because generating an urban master plan encompasses complex decision-making processes that require a planner’s skills. This includes having a strategic mindset, an empathic heart, and artistic judgement.

For the time being, the reasonable combination could be to:

1) Let algorithms help with laborious, time-consuming tasks that are prone to calculation errors;
2) Free up the time and energy of urban planners and designers so they can focus on the tasks they are best at — strategising, planning, and designing.


The Design-First Approach to Smart Cities

Image 1: Singapore as a smart city (Credits: GovTech Singapore)

Our world continues to be more urbanised. Therefore, it remains crucial to implement sound urban planning to ensure sustainability. As urbanisation requires the use of resources that can often be limited, the environmental, economic, and social sustainability must be taken into consideration.

With the optimal use of technology in the framework of a smart city, it strives to overcome these challenges while enhancing liveability for people. All it takes is three simple, but well-thought-out steps for urban planning with a design-first approach.

Smart cities – their beginnings and appeal

The vision, definition and practices revolving around smart cities have continuously been shifting over the recent years. In the stages of infancy, cities focused on deploying advanced digital technologies, and have only become more human-centred recently. But first – what is a smart city?

Although there is no authoritative definition of what constitutes a “smart city”, there is a general consensus that a smart city refers to deploying sensor networks and digital technologies to collect and analyse data. This provides insights about the city and supports decision-making by stakeholders. As such, smart city technologies should be deployed to enhance the living, working, learning, and commuting experiences for all stakeholders in a city.

From a sustainable urban development perspective, the proliferation of smart city technologies has resulted in an exaggerated belief that they can be relied upon to solve many urban issues, and are thus keys to sustainability. In fact, smart city technologies are like vitamins. They are only beneficial when taken as supplements to our health, for boosting the performance of our bodies and minds.

Therefore, they need a foundation to develop from, which in this case is a physical urban environment. However, it has to be a well-planned and thoughtfully-designed one in order to catapult the technological contributions.

Inter-relationship between physical urban environment and smart city technologies

Image 2: The use of smart mobility apps to avoid traffic congestion (Credits: Smart Cities World)

If a city is not well-planned, smart technologies’ effectiveness will be limited. For example, consider a city where the population outgrows the city capacity. Smart mobility apps – providing optimal routes to guide drivers to those that help them avoid traffic jams – could very well end up creating traffic congestions along those routes earlier deemed as optimal.

There are only marginal gains bought about by smart city technologies in their modus operandi of gathering and analysing live data, predictions, manipulations, and optimisation in such urban areas. Therefore, improvements in traffic conditions by simply tapping on route-optimisation apps are limited. However, if a city is well-planned and the infrastructure and amenities appropriately designed, smart technologies can help scale up the city’s sustainability performance.

Let us take the same example of smart mobility applications but this time, deployed in a well-planned city with coordinated land-use and road systems bolstered by comprehensive public transport networks. Smart mobility solutions can multiply their added value not only by improving traffic flow, but also by enhancing the convenience for people commuting around the city. Commuters can even be nudged towards more environmentally-friendly transportation modes by bundling multimodal transport options (including public transport, on-demand services, and last-mile solutions) in their route optimisations.

Smart technologies require constant communications and inter-connections from sensors and networks, to operation centres and users’ smart devices, and so on. Any breaking down of any links in the technological chain may have significant impacts on the city’s operations, if the so-called smart city is overly reliant on digital technologies for its essential functions and yet is poorly planned. However, for smart cities backed by fundamentally-sound physical urban plans, the negative impacts to their urban functions due to incidental technological breakdown can be minimised.

Design-First Smart City Technology Framework

In view of the proliferation of smart technologies and the race towards smart cities, it is not without first fully understanding the fundamental principles of urban structure, components and their interrelationships, the team at MORROW takes a step back to reposition the role of smart city technologies in the whole urban development process. In doing so, the design becomes the main focus, and not the technology itself. Planning and designing emerge as the crucial first step to come up with well-conceived master plans, in order for cities to be functional, efficient, beautiful, and environmentally sustainable.

Such urban master plans will then be supported by infrastructure development, and the deployment of new digital infrastructure (such as data centres, sensor networks, operation centres, etc.). This will result in well-planned and functional cities that serve as strong and necessary foundations for smart technologies to flourish and be able to optimise their potentials in supporting sustainable development. This is when the smart city can be considered a success, as it serves all stakeholders in the city with convenient live-work-learn-move experiences in the synchronised digital and physical realms.

Image 3: MORROW’s Design-First Smart City Technology Framework

MORROW has put together this approach in the Design-First Smart City Technology Framework, with liveability and sustainability as key objectives. This helps us to structure our approach for the urban plan and architectural design. In the meantime, it allows for the understanding, and keeping track of smart city technological advancements and their potential impacts (be it negative or positive) on the current planning and urban design practices and climate change.

Through this Design-First Smart City Framework, we believe that sustainable and liveable cities cannot be achieved by simply applying as many smart city technologies in an ad-hoc manner. Instead, they should include these carefully thought-out steps below:

  1. Having a well-conceived plan for the city, with sound urban structure to support the strategic urban development. This should leverage the natural resources that the city already has. For example, eco-tourism for a city endowed with natural landscapes and scenery, or tech and innovation for a city with aspiration to grow their reputations and attract global talents in these sectors.
  2. Integrating land-uses, transport networks, and other physical infrastructures as part of a coherent urban ecosystem. For example, a city focused on eco-tourism should be planned with land use, road and other infrastructure services sensitively to the existing terrains, to avoid cut-and-fill and damage to the existing natural ecosystem; whereas one that concentrates on innovation should be equipped with stage-of-the-art digital infrastructure as backbone, as well as promote innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of trial-error-retrial-success.
  3. Strategising and carefully selecting smart city technologies to facilitate the growth of the niche sectors in the city, such as “smart eco-tourism” or “smart innovation” city as highlighted in the examples above.

With this approach, smart city technologies can be carefully curated and meaningfully applied in a targeted manner to be in sync with the well-conceived urban plan for sustainable and liveable cities.