Imagine walking through a virtual model of the whole of New Zealand? That’s the call from prominent engineering firm Beca – and now the government needs to step up.
Groundbreaking interactive tools to help communities plan south Auckland parks or the Dunedin waterfront renewal are providing models for a much more ambitious project.
A leading engineering firm says we need a national digital strategy and a “digital twin” model of the whole of New Zealand, to pull together the country’s fragmented building plans.
Thomas Hyde, the Chief Digital Officer at Beca, laid out the proposal at the big ReBuilding Nations infrastructure conference in west Auckland this month.
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He warned that no government agency had stepped up and taken the lead in building a digital twin of the whole country – one that would allow planners and engineers to anticipate the effects of new roads, waterways, buildings and other infrastructure.
“The government Covid infrastructure stimulus provides the biggest opportunity since the great depression of last century to significantly improve the built environment,” he said.
“If we have this precious environment to live in, how do we unlock the power of the potentially unlimited digital resource that is available to us to create the most liveable and sustainable human experience with our built infrastructure?”
Hyde pointed out that his teenage daughter and her friends could already create virtual worlds on Minecraft (“there’s the occasional angst when what they’ve built gets eaten by monsters”) so it was perfectly conceivable that New Zealand could do the same with its infrastructure.
Creating a national digital strategy and a digital twin wouldn’t be easy, Hyde acknowledged, but New Zealand was sufficiently small and nimble to do it faster than other countries.
“It’s going to require strong collaboration between the private and public sector to make it happen, but the potential economic and social benefits are enormous.”
– Thomas Hyde
Singapore already has a physical model of its whole city; now it’s building a $70 million detailed digital model. In the UK, too, there is a Centre for Digital Built Britain which plans to do something similar – over the next 30 years.
“I think we can take a similar but very practical approach given our small size, and relative few layers of governance, and make progress in a much shorter timeframe,” Hyde said.
Hyde said there was no point talking about how many billions of devices were connected to the internet, and how much cloud storage, network speed and processing power there was – because however every 18 to 24 months, it got twice as powerful. “Digital is the only resource available to us that keeps doubling that way.”
“There are things like ‘urban development’ that just don’t have equivalent terms in Samoan.”
– Luke Fitzpatrick
“The opportunity is to put the same importance on the creation of a national digital asset as we will on building new physical assets,” he said. “It’s going to require strong collaboration between the private and public sector to make it happen, but the potential economic and social benefits are enormous.”
Beyond the digital infrastructure, engagement with communities was critical, continued Hyde. Government agencies needed to make sure they involved everyone who was affected. At present, it was often just the idle, wealthy who had time to complain about the cracked footpaths outside their homes.
“That’s as opposed to those in the rest of the city who might have a greater health and safety need, but we’re just not hearing about it. So we’re asking, how can we use digital strategies to connect with those who are most affected?”
Beca was behind Project Tala, a Samoan language chatbot designed to enable Samoan-speaking New Zealanders to contribute to plans in their neighbourhood.
They worked with an engineering intern, Luke Fitzpatrick who helped conceive Tala and is a fluent Samoan speaker – though he acknowledged formal Samoan was more of a challenge.
“And there are things like ‘urban development’ that just don’t have equivalent terms in Samoan,” Fitzpatrick said.
In Dunedin, plans to dramatically revitalise the city’s waterfront were brought graphically to life with interactive technology, helping engage the community in the proposal.
Beca is a foundation supporter of Newsroom