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Three design techniques for 'future cities'

John Drever | 15 Jan 2015 | Comments

As engineers we spend considerable time trying to understand user requirements. Having a good set of requirements makes our lives easier because we can then follow standard systems engineering methodologies to ensure that we create something that the user wants and needs.

Over time systems have become ever more complex and interconnected and now involve users in a much richer way. As a result we developed the notion of identifying the need for ‘capabilities’ rather than ‘systems’. So instead of having a conversation about “I want a new X system” we now talk about “I want the capability to do Y.”

Interestingly, this approach can potentially be applied to help us develop the cities we live in. But when we come to think about city development both the scale of the systems engineering challenge and the complexity reach an order of magnitude greater than even the most complex of military, aerospace or IT systems.

For example:

  • The ‘user needs’ are the needs of the entire, extremely varied population
  • All the systems are interconnected in highly complex ways.
  • The systems we create need to consider both the physical form of the city and the character of its citizens.

Below are some thoughts around techniques we may have to develop in order to address these complexities.

1. A ‘systems of systems’ approach for cities

Fundamentally, cities can be considered to be ‘systems of systems’ i.e. a collection of independent systems (transport, core infrastructure, IT etc.) that together form a new, more complex system (the city as a whole).

In other realms of engineering we have developed various methods to talk and think about a system of systems. These each provide a platform for systems engineers to talk to users about their requirements in a rich and meaningful way and then translate those into a language that system designers can use.

By adopting this approach in the city space we can develop a way of describing cities, their functions and form, where planners, architects and engineers can all understand their ‘view’ into the city as a system of systems.

Taking this approach provides enormous potential benefits for the development of cities, including:

  • reducing the risks of integration and interoperability issues between city systems
  • improving the re-use of systems to perform other city tasks without having to buy additional systems
  • improving the management of obsolescence and system replacement.

2. Using surveys as a city requirements sourcing tool

Cities are so complex, and the stakeholders’ demands so diverse, that the requirements analysis processes we would normally employ need to be supplemented with other innovative methods.

One such method is to use surveys to understand citizens’ aspirations for their city. This approach obviously cannot reach all citizens, so this technique needs to be used with great care. However, it can uncover some great results, particularly where citizens have the opportunity to offer free-form or open comments in the survey.

3. Developing a city capability framework

When we set about building new city infrastructure we need to gain an understanding of the ecosystem in which it will operate. This ecosystem may also require change as a result of the new build.

Using the implementation of a new mass transit system as an example, we would need to:

  • understand the impact to the Governance of the City
  • add this new mass transit system into the city information management system in use
  • understand the impact on protecting people, their property, the environment and infrastructure
  • ensure that this change to the transport system has a detailed project plan and is part of a wider city transport plan
  • manage the introduction of the new mass transit system as a programme
  • create a new operations enterprise as part of the programme with standard operations, HR, finance, commercial, governance and reporting functions that would transition to ‘business as usual’ status on completion of the programme.
  • sustain all the systems that combine to become the mass transit system over time.

Here is a model I have created to help me think about cities in this way. For those from a defence background, I have used the Defence Capability Framework (DCF) as inspiration!

Cities capability framework
Cities capability framework

The concept of applying systems engineering to the evolution of our future cities is still very much a work in progress. However, I believe that by adopting these three techniques we can better address the complexities of a city and therefore develop our cities through the application of a systems engineering approach.