Smart Co-design. An interdisciplinary approach to urban planning via Augmented/Virtual Reality and process mining

Authors: Barbara Piga, Marco Boffi, Nicola Rainisio, Gabriele Stancato, Paolo Ceravolo, Gabriel Marques Tavares

In the field of urban planning and design, citizens’ involvement has undergone a constant evolution. This has taken place in quantitative terms, with an increasing number of citizens involved in each urban transformation, together with a greater number of initiatives for collaborative approaches (Davies et al., 2012). Such evolution is also qualitative, as more attention is nowadays devoted to disadvantaged social minorities and citizens are more often considered as partners rather than passive observers (Bisschops & Beunen, 2019). In this context, the opportunities offered by ICT solutions have represented a natural field of expansion for these practices. This process has been further strengthened by the rapid and widespread diffusion of mobile devices, which allow building networks interconnecting different actors, at the same time and in different places, among them and with the city. Moreover, such interaction between urban planning and ICT has produced several innovations in terms of services offered to the citizens (Dunn, 2007; Piga et al., 2021).

Yet, the role of the social sciences has so far been partial in those initiatives, despite the proximity of some research issues. In particular, environmental and community psychology developed several theoretical concepts and measurement tools relevant for this field. Thanks to their implementation, the relationships of individuals within a community and with the physical environment in which they live can be effectively described. This union between the physical and intangible components of the places we live has rarely been effectively integrated into applied tools (Boffi & Rainisio, 2017). At the intersection of these different perspectives on experiential urban planning (Piga, 2017) lies the starting point of the collaboration between the Università degli Studi di Milano and the Politecnico di Milano.

It was further developed thanks to the “AR4CUP: Augmented Reality for Collaborative Urban Planning” projects (2019 and 2020), part of the H2020 EIT Digital (Digital Cities) funding program whose Italian partnership was led by the Politecnico di Milano. The objective of the project is to support the design of urban spaces, through an app (AR4CUP) that makes people’s urban experiences evident and quantifiable using synchronous behavioral data (Seeber, 2014).

In a nutshell, this smart co-design approach fosters the inclusion of the urban communities perspectives in the design process. Mixed Reality is exploited to combine real and virtual environments (Carmignani et al., 2011). The result is a combination of information coming directly from the real environment with information coming from design artifacts: data are collected recording the user response to this mixed reality in real-time. Indeed, the app has different functions that enable its application throughout an entire co-design process:

  1. it shows, on-site through Augmented Reality and off-site through Virtual Reality, urban and architectural proposals geolocated in real dimensions before their actual implementation; it also allows to explore the current condition of the neighborhood;
  2. it collects data from citizens’ reactions to proposed urban transformations or to the current environment, combining emotional, cognitive and behavioral factors through scientifically validated instruments;
  3. it develops automatic data analytics to study the user’s behavior, to verify its conformance with the design goals and to identify space utilization not explicitly considered by the design plans;
  4. it represents the outcomes in various forms, including charts and maps of the places as they are subjectively perceived.

The app and its outcomes are conceived as a tool for facilitating the interaction among stakeholders of urban transformations (e.g. Architectural Firms, Real Estate Developers), institutions (e.g. Local Public Administrators, Regional or National authorities) and citizens (e.g. dwellers, commuters, tourists). It eases the creation of a shared representation of places, combining together objective environmental features and subjectively perceived values. Such common ground is crucial for informing designers and decision-makers about citizens’ needs, which might impact on the project development. In addition, it is a way to effectively inform citizens and actively engage them in the urban transformation from the very beginning of the process.


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