October 13, 2008
Visualizing the Impact of Urban Infrastructure Designs on Cityscapes
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor


by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Industry News

Digital Cities: Visualizing the Impact of Urban Infrastructure Designs on Cityscapes

By Susan Smith



Salzburg, Austria, is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the setting for parts of the musical and film, “The Sound of Music,” starring Julie Andrews. It is also world famous for its "Old Town" which boasts exquisite baroque architecture and is noted as one of the best-preserved city centers north of the Alps, and was listed in 1997 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


A city that takes obvious pride in preserving its inherent culture, beauty and history, Salzburg was chosen this summer to work with Autodesk as the first pilot city in its new Digital Cities initiative.

Salzburg will use Autodesk to help them integrate their city data into a detailed 3D model of their city. The model will be comprised of city data coupled with realistic visualization and simulation tools so that city planners can view, and work with the cityscape interactively, plus run analysis of the impact of future urban planning, the effects of economic development and tourism projects before beginning the building process.


“The digital city model will help cities like ours better understand the impact of proposed urban projects,” said Dr. Heinz Schaden, Mayor of the City of Salzburg, when he announced the initiative with Autodesk at the AGIT 2008 conference in Salzburg. “This type of pilot program will help us better understand how we can create an attractive and sustainable future for Salzburg and its people.”


In August, Autodesk announced its acquisition of almost all of the assets of 3D Geo GmbH of Potsdam, Germany, the privately held maker of intelligent 3D urban modeling software. This acquisition will extend Autodesk’s ability to offer software for their “Digital Cities Initiative.”

Doug Eberhard, senior director and industry evangelist for Autodesk, explained that the Autodesk vision for Digital Cities forms around four basic ideas –
  • as an intelligent and interoperable digital visual model of a city, its communities and its infrastructure,
  • it is a digital platform that allows users to aggregate or synthesize, analyze, simulate and communicate both existing and proposed environments.
  • Offers improvement to the workflow that allows agencies and developers designer professionals and the public to better communicate, coordinate and collaborate around proposed projects,
  • Provides a smarter way to plan, design and deliver sustainable projects for cities by incorporating CAD, GIS and BIM and design visualization models.

  • The variety of software tools that the Digital Cities initiative will include is broad. Particularly in the government space, Eberhard noted, there is a heavy investment in many different tools, data types and processes. “The last thing we want to do is create a new standard,” he said. “This is really about working with existing tools and content in the planning, design and even through asset management space, and creating a better environment to really bring (data) together and use it in a more engaging and interactive way, beyond what we’re getting with Google Earth and Virtual Earth today.” Eberhard is quick to point out that those are “great
    tools,” as they have helped to democratize visualization, communication and access to information but they are sort of a “one way publishing environment.”


    “They are great for things above ground, but what about infrastructure that’s below ground? Or what about the insides of buildings where we may not need to see doorknobs and the light switch covers, but where we do need more information about building interior spaces or building land use, and then we need to be able to bring in more of the details that are being created by architects and engineers in the design process.”


    Much of that information gets thrown out or flattened in the form of CAD files or basic GIS once it gets brought into a more of an enterprise environment, said Eberhard. Even within Autodesk, Eberhard noted that AutoCAD is used as a pervasive standard. Tools like Revit and NavisWorks are leveraging the use of 3D models and intelligent BIM within the design construction. Yet the deliverables that come from those models are still traditional CAD drawings.


    “It’s still wet stamped paper drawings that are the contractual deliverables for the industry today,” Eberhard declared. “The models are sort of a means to get to that paper quicker and with less risk. We’re starting to see customers who recognize the value that these building information models have for design visualization models which are exact replicas of visual replicas of the existing or proposed environment.”


    Visualization tools like 3ds Max and Maya don’t deal with real world or geospatial coordinates, but are great for visualization. The Digital Cities platform allows heterogeneous 2D, 3D and 4D temporal data to be brought together in a more sustainable way, “not for just an individual project the way it’s done today but longer term throughout an entire city or collection of cities, as you get into more regional information models.”


    The potential for being able to share data throughout the workflow is there, but will people embrace an ‘uber model’, or will they prefer to maintain they own databases and only share them when they are paid to do so?


    Salzburg is the first city Autodesk can officially announce, where PhD students at the University of Salzburg’s Center of Geoinformation (Z_GIS) are working on pulling together the data that they’ve been capturing for quite some time. They are also teaching and researching ways to work with higher detailed, higher fidelity information models that can be used in city planning and operations. Autodesk is also connected with the city IT, facility management, planning and public works departments, where they are helping to guide the development of specific tools and workflows to allow them to better manage their city. The goal is to bring content together and also share that
    content between the various departments, which would eliminate the replication of effort and information that occurs in cities today.


    “In this case everyone’s looking toward this highly detailed city model that’s a mixture of CAD, GIS and BIM and visualization data that can be brought together and shared across the city enterprise,” said Eberhard. “Being tied in with the local university helps us look at the longer term issue of educating tomorrow’s leaders. We look at gaming technology to bring it all together to help users experience it.”


    Eberhard said that as they look toward longer term management of the data, many cities and infrastructure owners have moved over to Topobase as a way to manage their geospatial engineering data that goes into designing and operating the infrastructure.


    “The next logical evolution is to be able to manage these 3D assets in the same sort of way where the Digital Cities initiative isn’t going to be the database. Engineering and design information says where it’s created, and that will still happen in Topobase with Revit, Map, and AutoCAD,” Eberhard pointed out. “But the initiative will provide the environment to be able to aggregate that into useable models that can be used for collaboration and communication both with internal teams as well as with the public and other agencies and stakeholders. It’s really building a new platform out that allows all this data that’s being created or managed in
    other applications to then be brought together, shared and visualized in a secure but highly interactive way.”


    Eberhard said this is a shift not only from 2D to 3D but more importantly to a model based design environment. Usually analysis is done at the end of a project instead of up front. Now, with the ability to bring data together in the early planning stages, effective analysis can be done that informs decision making much earlier in the process.


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