Advancing the Smart City movement through big data

smart city illustration
By Jenn McArthur

Across the globe, researchers, industry experts and government officials are engaged in what is known as the Smart City movement. At heart, the movement focuses on how digital technology can be used to improve efficiency, reduce environmental impact and enhance livability in urban settings. From social media to self-driving cars, advanced building control systems to coordinating distributed renewable energy with the larger power grid, a wide range of technological applications are being explored.

To achieve cities’ ambitious social, environmental and economic goals, it is critical that we develop big data applications that enable the collection, interpretation and analysis of the information emerging from the built environment. This information can then be used to develop predictive models and identify optimal courses of actions, allowing us to make informed decisions about how we plan, design and manage buildings, districts and cities. In the not-too-distant future, data management and analytics systems will be able to respond automatically to the needs of the city and improve residents’ quality of life.

Imagine if during peak energy use periods, instead of starting up more fossil fuel generating stations, a small amount of power was drawn onto the grid from parked electric vehicles. Or, what if traffic flow could be managed though automatic adjustment of streetlights and preferred routing to onboard navigation systems based on real-time information. Or imagine, in a less advanced scenario, a facilities manager arriving for work each day to an automatically-generated report, highlighting the top ten issues requiring urgent attention to provide the safest and most comfortable work environment possible for building occupants.

The relationship between information and urban settings is the central focus of an entirely new field of research called Big Data and the Built Environment. Until recently, there was a knowledge gap between big data experts and their counterparts in building and city planning, design, and management. Computer scientists have expertise in cloud computing and can manage large data sets, but typically don’t understand the broader context of building performance. On the other hand, building management companies and utilities collect enormous data about their assets, but lack the expertise to develop analytics to inform operational decision-making. Architects and engineers could similarly use this data to design better buildings, drawing on the lessons learned from current building performance. Bridging this gap is essential for developing a Smart City.

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

The latest environmental engineering news direct to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.

downtown toronto
Ryerson University in Toronto, hosted the world’s first Strategic Workshop on Big Data and the Built Environment.

Canada is a world leader in this field, and its expertise was on full display in mid-June at the world’s first Strategic Workshop on Big Data and the Built Environment at Ryerson University, sponsored by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Ryerson University, and the Canadian BIM Council (CanBIM). Researchers, industrial partners and government leaders came together for a two-day event in order to map out the future direction for research and capacity-building across the country.

Through keynote speeches and invited presentations, curated group discussions, and a plenary session, thought leaders from all aspects of this field participated in working sessions to address several key questions: How can we use big data analytics to inform decisions? How can various building design and management platforms be leveraged by big data applications? How can advancements in big data transform the way we plan, design, build and operate buildings, infrastructure, neighbourhoods, districts and cities?

A range of experts participated in the workshop, including 26 academic and 27 industry participants. The majority of academics were from Canadian universities such as Carleton, York, University of New Brunswick, École Technologique Superieure, University of British Columbia, and Ryerson University. There were also researchers from international institutions such as Carnegie Mellon and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Industry leaders from FuseForward and Pomerleau helped to guide the workshop programming and were planned by various other industry partners such as Cisco, Perkins+Will and Arup, along with professional associations such as Toronto District 2030.

An exciting outcome of the event was that it led to the establishment of the world’s first research network in this area: the Resilient Facility Analytics Network. This is an international collaboration of researchers and industrial partners forming Centres of Excellence on various campuses across Canada and engaging in knowledge advancement and shared projects in areas such as the management of facilities, energy and construction.

There are already several projects underway. The Network of Living Campuses brings together researchers at Ryerson, University of British Columbia, Carleton and York who have been developing campus models for energy analysis and facilities management. This offers easy access to an opportunity to develop data solutions for managing the built environment that can work on a larger scale. This evolution is critical if we are to eventually apply our research to a district or city.

It is an exciting time in the Smart City evolution, and the pioneering work underway in the field of Big Data and the Built Environment is likely to be a critical element of how we live and engage in urban settings.

Jenn McArthur is Assistant Professor in the Department of Architectural Science at Ryerson University. She was lead organizer of the Big Data and Built Environment Strategic Workshop which took place on June 16-17 at Ryerson. For more information visit:

No posts to display


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here