GeoDesign Summit 2011: A Q&A with Participants

January 5, 2011

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The inaugural GeoDesign Summit, which was hosted by Esri in 2010, drew more than 170 academics and professionals from fields such as architecture, urban planning, engineering, conservation, forestry, geography and GIS technology. The second annual GeoDesign Summit, again hosted by Esri, will be held January 6–7 in Redlands, California, and will review the progress made. Renowned architect Kimon Onuma will deliver the keynote address. The title of his talk will be "Getting Real with GeoDesign and BIM." Founder of Onuma, Inc., he is one of the world's experts on adopting new design practices that can evolve to meet tomorrow's challenges. Other speakers will discuss how GIS is being used in design today and the even greater potential to integrate the creativity of design and the science of GIS. GeoDesign - as a discipline, a field of study and a practice - continues to evolve, and several definitions are given below. Here, we have tapped into some of the best and brightest minds in GeoDesign, asking pointed questions about the discipline, its future and its role in society.

Our panel of GeoDesign thought leaders includes Dr. Richard E. Klosterman, President, What if?, Inc., and Professor Emeritus, University of Akron, Ohio; Ahmed Abukhater, Community Development Industry Manager, Esri; Carl Steinitz, Research Professor, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University; Mike Dana, Business Development Manager, Wacom; and James Fee, Chief Evangelist, WeoGeo. They share their thoughts about GeoDesign, its role and its future.

1.    What is your definition of GeoDesign?

Richard E. Klosterman: GeoDesign uses geospatial technology to support professional and public design processes at all scales.

Ahmed Abukhater: The art and science of GIS-enabled imagination and creation of tomorrow with what we know and have today.

Carl Steinitz: GeoDesign changes geography by design.

Mike Dana: Integration of geographic context in architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) design/build/manage projects.

James Fee: GeoDesign is a method in which practitioners use technology to assist sustainable planning methodologies. It allows the creation and testing of multiple scenarios at the same time to give quicker and better results to problem solving.

2.    What role does GeoDesign play in today's environmental, social and economic issues?

Klosterman: I don't believe that GeoDesign currently plays a very significant role in my particular area of interest - urban and regional planning. Current GIS tools are good for dealing with current and past conditions but are not suitable for projecting and evaluating future conditions. Efforts to provide this capacity outside of GIS have been largely unsuccessful for a number of fundamental reasons.

Abukhater: GeoDesign is essential in measuring implications of different design scenarios on these three aspects - environmental, social and economic dimensions - by using them as measures and indicators to look at how each design decision can influence them and in turn be influenced by them.

Steinitz: The people who have had GeoDesign-related ideas have done many things for more than 1,000 years. These will continue. GeoDesign cannot and should not be monolithically defined or have things ascribed (just) to it.

Dana: GeoDesign is a framework for better-informed design, construction and management of our infrastructure. A summary of trends and projects from multiple regions of the U.S. and the world will serve to answer this question. My awareness of solar mapping, GreenStreets initiatives, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND), and the Sustainable Sites Initiative 2 is anecdotal and limited, so I don't have a context on how pervasive intelligent GeoDesign is. Clearly, there are impacts to the environment, social structures and economies based on how our infrastructure is designed, built and managed. Ideally, as we move forward, we will design and build in a manner that builds communities, works with the natural rhythms of our ecosystems, and not only minimizes economic impacts but also provides economic incentives to improve/integrate social and environmental changes.

Fee: I think GeoDesign is already a critical part of any planning exercise. However, it has not been defined as such and results in much wasted effort re-creating work already completed by others. Its role is unquestioned in my opinion, but it is still a fuzzy methodology.

3.    As GeoDesign-aiding technologies such as BIM, GIS and CAD develop, how should they be organized and integrated into the various scales of design?

GeoDesign will only be widely used in public sector planning if the appropriate forecasting and evaluation tools are easy to use and understand and are incorporated into the GIS toolkit.

Abukhater: They should be organized using a multiscalar approach to design and planning that cuts across a spectrum of scales and disciplines ranging from urban design and community, town and city, and regional planning, to planning for megaregions. One scale does not fit all. Each scale has unique challenges and demands unique solutions.

Dana: It surprises me that technology is still a barrier. BIM, GIS and CAD technologies continue to converge in form and function, and there should be natural transitions between these toolsets. CAD drafting should feed into both GIS and BIM models, and BIM and GIS should be able to exchange data more effectively. BIM will likely always own the data model for inside the building, but standards should be developed that allow GIS to manage BIM components at a simplified level of detail for larger-scale management and modeling projects. The limiting factors appear to be proprietary data formats and the need for a data model that can transition between BIM, GIS and CAD depending on the scale of the context and the skill set of the software operator.

Fee: I think they already are. GeoDesign isn't new (as we've seen from visionaries such as Carl Steinitz). We need to formalize the process so that others can continue to build on the work of those before them.

4.    How can the public be integrated into the GeoDesign process, and when in the process should this integration take place?

The public can - and should - be involved at all stages of the GeoDesign process: collecting and analyzing information on current and past conditions, developing plans and proposals for the future, considering the impacts of alternative proposals, and selecting the preferred solutions. GeoDesign practitioners need to be concerned with the role of not only the designer but also the public in all stages of the planning process.

Abukhater: Community input should occur in all steps of the planning process. This is part of what I call collaborative decision making, or "participatory GeoDesign." We need a collaborative GeoDesign process to establish consensus on what the initial design concepts are intended to show. To accomplish this goal, we need ongoing, iterative bidirectional public participation from the very onset of the design and planning process. By so doing, we can ensure that the final expression matches the initial design concepts, ultimately transforming a linear and dead-end process into an ongoing, collaborative assessment of different design scenarios and planning options for the selection of a viable, agreeable and implementable expression.

Dana: The public should be engaged throughout the process in various manners. At project initiation, the public should have a chance to participate, with known checkpoints throughout the project's life cycle. Both public meetings and portals could be used to capture public feedback - sketches and written information are critical to gathering this data. Application interfaces need to be simple enough to be approachable by the public and intuitive to use so that data can be collected from untrained software users.

Fee: The sooner the public is involved and the more interaction it has with the process, the quicker things will move forward and the more they will address the needs of the community. The public should be there hand-in-hand throughout the whole process. Part of the job of GeoDesign is to take that feedback and involvement and feed it back into the process.

5.    What big revelations did you take away from the 2010 GeoDesign Summit?

Klosterman: I was extremely impressed by the breadth of application areas and tools that comprise GeoDesign. However, I was - and continue to be - concerned that the main direction taken is inappropriate for public sector planning. Unless this issue is addressed, GeoDesign will continue to have a limited impact on public sector planning.

Abukhater: Different people have different definitions of GeoDesign, which is a great telling point about the need to develop a practically grounded definition of this notion that puts it in use for multiple disciplines.

Dana: The 2010 GeoDesign Summit was weighted toward academics and practitioners with a lack of technology partner participation. The dialog driven at the event bore out some large gaps in how we, as a community, view this concept of GeoDesign. Many attendees echoed the sentiment that we are already practicing GeoDesign. Perhaps. Having taken some time to evaluate this, I'm not sure that we are -  if we are, we are not doing it very well.

Fee: How much work there is still to be done. We all know we are "doing" GeoDesign, but how we formalize the process is how we'll make or break the discipline.

6.    What do you think should be the focus of the 2011 GeoDesign Summit?

Klosterman: I hope that it will begin the process of developing the tools, institutions and processes that are needed for GeoDesign to have a large role in planning and related public-sector professions.

Abukhater: GeoDesign from different angles such as technology, practice, education and research, and at different scales - local, regional and even global - with successful case studies and storytelling.

Steinitz: Diversity and experimentation, rather than definitions and agreements and group-think, which are all premature.

Dana: Theoretical to practical. How do we get better at the practice? Do we need to adjust land-use planning and zoning regulations? Can we institutionalize planning, construction and management processes built on best practices and applied science? How do we develop technological tools that are easy to use and that will facilitate adoption of GeoDesign practices?

Fee: Bringing in more stakeholders. Those who are in the CAD/BIM community and other crowdsourcing projects are key to making this a success.


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