Big Data is impacting the ways in which cities, buildings are designed and constructed.


The 21st century has seen unprecedented technological advances and an explosion of data available about our built environment and the people that inhabit it. We are in a new age of data. Online, we generate phenomenal amounts of data; on Twitter alone, 460 million tweets are produced each day. In the physical world, huge quantities of new data about physical space and the social behaviour of people in urban spaces is being generated through technologies.

Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data — so much that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. Almost everything we do produces data. This data comes from everywhere: sensors used to gather climate information, swiping credit cards, emailing, posts to social media sites, digital pictures and videos, purchase transaction records, requesting directions in Google Maps and cell phone GPS signals to name a few. This data is Big Data.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of gadgets in the built environment, such as thermostats and refrigerators, are bolstering the Internet of Things and relaying the data that they gather.

With all this data becoming available, some city governments are starting to use data to help plan and manage their cities more effectively to become ‘Smart Cities’.

A server room in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Photo: Google/Connie Zhou

A server room in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Photo: Google/Connie Zhou

The architecture industry is changing every day, and students of the art must use business techniques that were not necessary a few decades ago. Architects in the old days opened architecture firms that designed buildings with paper and pen. And most of these buildings were for people. Today, more architects are finding themselves designing buildings to hold servers and big data warehouses for companies — buildings just to hold equipment. This isn’t the only way that big data is changing the architecture industry though. With more access to more data, architects can access data that will help them design, safer, more efficient and more unique buildings. There are many ways that big data is changing what use to be a paper and pen career.

This article identifies four main approaches to working with data for architects, urban designers and planners:

  • using data to help designers meet user needs;

  • experimentation and modelling using data;

  • analysing data to improve local and national policy making and implementation;

  • and using data to improve transparency to speed up development processes.

Better data, and the volume and speed with which it is now becoming available, affords practitioners new possibilities to understand people and places more deeply to inform their design. Data also offers the opportunity to speed up and improve the design process itself. These benefits must be captured to deliver urban areas that develop more sustainably and operate more efficiently

Data and Design

Big data isn’t just changing the architecture industry, it’s changing others with it. And because of this, more and more people are wanting buildings that can provide information and big stores of data. Companies are asking for data reports to improve the performance of their assets.

How could big data on the urban realm be useful for architects, urban designers and planners? Drawing on experience from architecture and other industries, RIBA have identified four ways for designers and planners to use data to improve their work. The first relates directly to the design process, and the others build upon this process to explore other ways that city data can be generated and used to create better places.

A. Designing for citizens

Using data to better match user needs

New types of realtime data about how people use public spaces and infrastructure could allow a better understanding of user needs and help create spaces that better meet those needs.

B. Experimentation

Enhanced testing and modelling through using data

Data and modelling tools could allow designers and planners to save time and potentially money by testing designs before they enter the construction process. This could also help identify likely objections, and model solutions, saving time in the planning process.

C. City analytics

Analysing big data to improve policy implementation and planning

Cities have the potential to use the vast amounts of data they hold to improve the planning and delivery of services to citizens, by using it to identify and address problems.

D. Transparency

Reducing search and processing time through sharing data

By making more data available, the Government is making it easier for designers and planners to get critical information on development sites faster.

The impact of more sophisticated data on architectural design will be transformative. But data alone will not help architects build the perfect building.

Big Data for buildings

In buildings, data might be generated by a very wide variety of sources, including:

  • Design and construction (for example building information modelling)

  • Post occupancy evaluation

  • Utilities, building services, meters, building management systems and so on

  • Infrastructure and transport systems

  • Enterprise systems such as purchasing systems, performance reporting, work scheduling and so on

  • Maintenance and replacement systems

  • Operational cost monitoring

  • ICT systems and equipment

Data from these sources can be used to understand behaviour, assess performance, improve market competitiveness, allocate resources and so on. However, historically, it has been difficult and expensive to collect this data, and its variety of quality, structure and format made it difficult to use, sometimes for example requiring the manual transfer of data from paper records into digital systems. This meant that data applications tended to be restricted to specific technical functions, rather than being used for high-level decision making.

The emergence of the internet of things, improved data standards, big data analytical technologies and visualisation techniques are increasingly enabling these problems to be overcome, allowing decision makers to understand and interrogate complex data from a variety of sources.

Smart technologies enable the collection, storage, analysis and distribution vast amounts of data, and crucially permit not only observation, monitoring and control of individual processes in isolation, but analysis of how they interact or how a change in one affects another.

Smart buildings centre on the use of these interconnected technologies to make buildings more intelligent and responsive, ultimately improving their performance, and might include technologies such as:

  • Automated systems

  • Intelligent building management systems

  • Energy efficiency measures

  • Wireless technologies

  • Digital infrastructures

  • Adaptive energy systems

  • Networked appliances

  • Data gathering devices

  • Information and communications networks

  • Assistive technologies

  • Remote monitoring

  • Fault diagnostics and prognostics

If architects are to harness data from the built environment, even more significant procedural changes may be coming. How will firms verify the data they produce? How will they exchange data with project partners? Legally, who will be responsible for this data? What services can be sold around this data? How can firms learn from data? Will firms need to employ a data scientist?


There are great opportunities for designers and planners to use data and digital tools for better design. However, we are only at the beginning of the journey and there is further work to be done to bring built environment professionals, technologists and Government together to work out how best to capture these opportunities including making data available, and developing tools to use that data in design.

After all, the clients are demanding it.

Thanks for reading! :)

BLOGOndrej Chudy