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To build a better city, listen to its citizens

Concordia researchers are gathering data and ideas from everyday city-dwellers to create better models for smart, innovative cities

Mazdak Nik-Bakht Concordia assistant professor Mazdak Nik-Bakht says that data gathered from city inhabitants can help inform the design of bridges, roads, bikes lanes and other transit routes.

With the goal of building healthier, more liveable cities, Concordia University researchers across disciplines – from engineering to philosophy – are looking for insights from citizens to improve community spaces that aren’t living up to their potential.

Coffee Park, a small green space with a playground and benches near Concordia‘s Loyola campus, is a good example of a public space that needs improvement. Although a designated bike path runs parallel to the park, cyclists have worn a ‘preferred’ trail in the grass that avoids a busy intersection. After dark, people avoid the premises because they are poorly lit.

Mazdak Nik-Bakht, assistant professor of building, civil and environmental engineering at Concordia, is using the park as a case study for “digital community engagement.”

Building upon a community design project initiated by his colleague Silvano De la Llata, a professor in the department of geography, planning and environment, Nik-Bakht digitally replicated the park and turned it into an interactive model which citizens can access, share and interact with online.

The platform – currently under development – has a smart engine that interprets community comments and automatically links them to the relevant component of the park, such as the trail. Artificial intelligence will then be used to analyze and aggregate the comments.

It’s about gathering input from citizens who interact with a physical system (like a park) every day, Nik-Bakht says.

“They may not be familiar with the jargon of design and planning, but they understand the system’s performance requirements, and the levels of service it provides, or should provide, better than designers who may have never been in their neighbourhood,” he explains.

Big data can also be useful when designing bridges, roads, bike lanes, public and transit routes for the betterment of citizens, Nik-Bakht says.

He is teaching a new engineering course called "Big Data Analytics for Smart City Infrastructure,” on how to use open, unstructured data to distill knowledge useful for the design and operation of urban infrastructure systems.

Decades ago, an engineer would create a model and rely on hours of simulation in order to determine the impact of a major infrastructure project. Simulations are still necessary, but new tools are allowing engineers to involve end-user data in a project as it is being designed. This collective knowledge can generate innovative alternatives and help determine the best option well before any decisions have been made.

Nik-Bakht points to Toronto’s St. Clair Avenue West dedicated streetcar line as a project that suffered by “not communicating properly with people who were not decision-makers but had power and were affected by the decisions,” he says. The project polarized the community, took more than five years to build and cost more than $100-million. Nik-Bakht says big data and analytics may have informed better decisions, increased collaboration and mitigated contention.

While researchers like Nik-Bakht are leveraging technological innovations to gain insights into better city-building, others are looking at the challenges from a more philosophical perspective.

Jing Hu The work of Concordia assistant professor Jing Hu explores whether an increase in self-reflection can motivate people to live up to their ethical standards.

Jing Hu, assistant professor of philosophy at Concordia, is also interested in gathering information from the experiences of city-dwellers, but she takes a much different approach. Her research facilitates a dialogue between Confucianism and Western ethics through the study of moral emotions such as empathy, honesty, and shame. She studies the cultivation and expression of these emotions in public lives through survey feedback and traditional philosophical research.

“Empirical information about experiences and emotions reveals a lot about how we interact with the spaces we occupy,” Hu says. “People experience space and time differently even during mundane events. If you observe people waiting for the subway, for example, some stand close to the entrance, others stand back, some will make eye contact and have a conversation with other people.”

Learning about people’s emotional experiences within cities could inform better-designed spaces that promote wellbeing, she adds.

Hu is currently working on the Shame Project. While shame can be problematic, Hu notes that in the Confucian tradition, a healthy sense of shame is associated with the idea of self-improving and achieving moral excellence. Her work examines whether an increase in self-reflection can encourage people to live up to their own ethical standard. For instance, it may motivate people to drive an electric car instead of a gas-fuelled SUV when the former is more in line with their moral values.

In this way, Hu says a dose of self-reflection can have positive results.

“If you place recycling and waste receptacles at the centre of a sidewalk or street, instead of along the edge, people may use them more because they feel the ‘public gaze’ and are reminded of their own moral values regarding recycling,” she says.

The idea is that with time, people’s actions will be guided by their own internal moral compass rather than by imposed rules. “A sense of right and wrong will be instilled in our hearts instead of being enforced externally,” Hu says.

recycling Could better placement of recycling and waste bins encourage people to use them more often?

While Hu does use data from surveys in her research, she notes that there is a lot of debate about privacy rights versus the benefits of big data, how data is being used and whose hands it is in.

Nik-Bakht concedes that cybersecurity is one of the most challenging aspects of data, such as where data is stored, how it’s protected and who owns it.

Rob Davidson is manager, Data Analysis and Research at the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), a not-for-profit national centre of expertise for the digital economy. Davidson says it’s rare that cities have the capacity or the budget to put in the framework and hire the talent required to protect data.

“There are a lot of good ideas, but no one is stepping up to plan and manage it,” he says.

Davidson says big data can be beneficial, but only if it is used to make informed decisions and in consultation with those supplying it.

“There are opportunities to do a lot of interesting things,” he says.

With researchers such as Hu and Nik-Bakht focusing on smart, sustainable, next-generation cities, Concordia is creating collaborations with partners to make infrastructure and zero energy projects a reality.

Nik-Bakht says examples of key partners could include government decision-makers, major developers, community engagement officials and service providers such as utility companies, transit and mobility agencies.

But perhaps the most important partners are the people who will be utilizing these new infrastructure projects, Nik-Bakht notes.

That’s why he and his Concordia colleagues will continue to gain insights by “tapping into the collective intelligence of human interaction,” he says.

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