How big data can challenge - and validate - the design process

Our cities are under pressure.

The parts of the urban puzzle that make them dynamic hubs fell silent throughout COVID-19 – the public spaces, universities, museums, galleries and sporting centres so critical to our urban narrative.

As we begin to emerge from the initial shock of the pandemic it’s more important than ever for cities to understand how their spaces work and how to attract people back.

One advantage city shapers have but often don’t use to full effect is the increasingly important interplay between design and big data.

The opportunity is to understand historical, current and future dynamics of urban places, by overlaying data sets that tell us how people use a place, how they feel about it, how it’s performed economically and how it relates to other places around it - and in comparison to other similar places, globally,” says Norion Ubechel, CEO of Place Intelligence.

The role of designers in this process is crucial because they can use this data to have much more informed and meaningful conversations with clients to generate outcomes that deliver measurable social, cultural and economic value.

Being able to look at any location anywhere in the world and analyse years of trend related data enables clients to have a lot more confidence in the decision-making process,” says Gerard Corcoran, CEO Hassell.

For episode 1 in the second season of Hassell Talks, Gerard Corcoran joins big data and human insights firm Place Intelligence’s CEO Norion Ubechel to examine the value of data in the design of places people love.

Hassell Talks

Season 2, Episode 1


Gerard Corcoran, CEO, Hassell


Norion Ubechel, CEO, Place Intelligence


Place Intelligence

I think we’ll see a tremendous adoption of big data technologies into the design world over the next couple of years and we’ll also see new ways that this information is being applied to the decision-making processes that we use.”

Norion Ubechel Place Intelligence

Gerard Corcoran:

Hi, I’m Gerard Corcoran. This is Hassell Talks. We often hear about the effect of disruption on the design industry and by extension, on our clients, the emergence of new technology, new competitors, increasingly complex projects, digitization, new skills and capabilities. We even see converging interests across a variety of creative service providers, and we see the developing expectations of our clients. The creative industries are not immune and probably have a huge amount to gain by proactively dealing with these dynamics.

One of those dynamics is the emergence of big data analytics, something which has just become increasingly available to the point of being ubiquitous. One only has to think of the Internet of Things, sensors in building, social media and telecommunications data. It represents huge opportunities and challenges for clients across a range of industries and sectors. One of the key challenges is how to take that big data and interpret it and create insights from it that lead to actions which infuse the design process and the life of buildings, places, and spaces designed for clients. To help us think through some of these issues, I’d like to introduce Norion Ubechel, Founder and CEO of Place Intelligence, one of Hassell’s key partners.

Norion Ubechel:

Thanks, Gerard. It’s a pleasure to join Hassell Talks.

Gerard Corcoran:

Well, thanks, Norion, and welcome. Our clients quite rightly want insights that explore and optimise the value that their projects create, I mean, whether that’s social or cultural or economic value, or even if we talk about beauty or wellbeing for the people that use those places or buildings. They want to do so increasingly through an evidence-supported, data-driven, but still creative, design process. So, what do you think the potential is for clients and designers who are engaged with creating those places, spaces, and cities by bringing data insight and design together? I mean, how does it play out for clients? What are the benefits?

Norion Ubechel:

What’s amazing is that many other sectors have had access to diverse sources of information that they can call on to create insights and intelligence to drive their decision-making. The built environment sector is one of the next areas that’s going to see rapid change and adoption of technologies to better understand who we’re designing for and use that data to create better places and experiences for people around the world. For example, in a recent project between Hassell and Place Intelligence, our aim was to understand the patterns of place, use, and movement at the International Convention Centre in Sydney. To do this, we used one year of mobile device signal data that was seen across the site and within the buildings to understand how people used places, how they used the retail environments, how they used the different aspects of the public realm to understand what’s driving user behaviour and linking that back to design strategy and design intent.

When clients see 36 months of footfall data expressed as an activity heat map, it reveals and confirms places that they knew were popular or places that they didn’t expect to be unpopular. The result is that we can now validate the type of designs that we’re prescribing for clients against a big data index. Really, this evidence base of being able to look at any location anywhere in the world and analyse years of trend data of how people have used that place, how they feel about it, who used it, and how it’s performed economically really enables clients to have a lot more confidence in the decision-making process and generate strategies and actions as a consequence of that.

Gerard Corcoran:

What do you think designers bring to this process? We’ve got this big data. You’ve talked about a layer of interpretation maybe, but is there anything else that you could highlight that designers can bring to this interaction between what designers do and what this big data is revealing?

Norion Ubechel:

Yeah, what’s really interesting in that line of thought is that designers inherently solve complex, multi-layered challenges through design thinking and have already been using many data sources to inform that process. And so, the intersection of big data and design thinking is where we can really unlock the power and creativity that designers bring and the influence that they bring to solutions for different client types. For example, if a landscape architect understands the patterns of footfall and user behaviour linked to audience sentiment and the types of people that are there, they’re now empowered to create solutions that match the audience that are informed by the patterns of footfall, not only in the location that they’re designing, but also in reference to other locations from around the world that they might be calling on as case studies. Designers know which questions to ask, which will inform the types of data that’s required to come up with insights.

The role of the designer is really where cutting-edge artificial intelligence and machine learning is attempting to get to, and that is around this idea of prescriptive analytics. This is in data science where artificial intelligence can not only predict what’s likely to happen, but prescribe a solution that will work. The thing is that in an evidence-based world, where we find ourselves today, those prescriptive solutions really need solid evidence to back it up, and that’s where big data is playing an increasing role in the design process. And so, clients who are seeking to better understand how decisions are being made by designers can rest assured if designers are pulling on diverse big data from around the world, validating case studies and design precedents by mining a global index of cities and places. This is something that Place intelligence has been pioneering in the built environment spaces, how can we really understand which data layers we can bring together to create an evidence baseline that we can use to empower design and decision-making?

Gerard Corcoran:

It’s only through that engagement with the designer and the data and the client working together that I think this idea of a competitive advantage for the client starts to emerge. In doing that, they can really optimise the way that their project is being delivered, the value that comes out of it, but also for me, it’s important that it allows designers to start talking meaningfully about a more objective basis for the social or cultural or economic value that really smart and creative design can generate. It’s a different form of discussion that we can have with clients, and it’s a much more tangible basis for the relationship, which I think is a really exciting development. Norion, if you take all of that into your consideration, I mean, if you were going to pick one or two really significant opportunities that this presented for clients, moving beyond the government client and the urban design realm, what would you pick, and what would you highlight?

Norion Ubechel:

All these different sectors really have overlapping requirements. You need to understand who your audiences are, so you can better meet their needs. You need to understand how places and spaces are used, so you can optimise their outcomes. In the university sector, for example, we’ve been indexing every university campus across Australia to better understand the inner relationships between campuses and cities for example. We did a recent analysis of a major university that looked to understand how do universities contribute to their neighbours. What we did was we used de-identified mobile device data to understand the movement of people at lunchtime and where do they leave the campus and go to. In the analysis, we discovered that 25% of all people go off campus for lunch, which equals between 12 and $15 million of economic spend off the campus. So, if you’re trying to optimise on-campus economics, having this data at your fingertips becomes incredibly important.

Gerard Corcoran:

Norion, just thinking about transport for a second, it seems to me that if you’re in, for instance, a public private partnership environment, a PPP environment, this rich data overlaid with some really disciplined design insight gives you potentially more objective, more structured basis on which to infuse those PPP-type projects. That seems to me to be quite an advantageous environment for this sort of approach and this sort of work.

Norion Ubechel:

Yeah, absolutely. I think the more evidence we can bring to the equation, the better our design solutions can be. Having access to a global index of cities and places and all the data within it means that we also have to learn how to use that information. And so, part of the partnership with Hassell has really allowed Place Intelligence to better understand the types of problems that designers face to uncover the data that’s needed to solve them.

Gerard Corcoran:

I mean, what’s your view about the next few years? Where do you see the next steps going? I mean, is it more in terms of artificial intelligence dealing with large amounts of data, and then designers continuing to overlay that creative interpretation and asking of the right questions? I mean, where do you see this headed?

Norion Ubechel:

As we first make big data available in a usable format, designers will increasingly rely on these deep levels of information to inform solutions. But then of course, as we better index design typologies, we index different cities and places, and we blend all these data layers together, we can really start relying on predictive and prescriptive analytics born out of artificial intelligence and machine-learning frameworks to run scenario models. The rapid concept design process, instead of producing two or three concept design iterations, we now have ability to produce and test unlimited design iterations that may actually come out of computer software. The designer’s role is still to ensure that the human experience at the human level is inserted into those computer-generated solutions. So, if we look at the current status of digital twins and parametric modelling, these solutions are great, but ultimately a human being, a designer has to sign off that the solution is actually something that will stand up and stand the test of time.

Gerard Corcoran:

It seems to me, as long as that big data analysis is being properly interpreted and the right quality of insight is being drawn, then it would liberate designers to do great design rather than constrained designers, most importantly because it means that their engagement with clients can be clear, can be evidence-based, can be really engaging, can really drive a much higher quality of prospective outcome, which ultimately is going to be much more in line with the desires and needs of the people that have to engage with those places and buildings.

Norion Ubechel:

Yeah, we can now retroactively audit designs and design strategies from around the world. Often as architects and urban designers and landscape architects, our role is really in the front end of envisioning, designing, and documenting solutions. But we don’t have a role in monitoring, measuring, and operating our solutions. And so by accessing big data, we can now retroactively assess design solutions and design strategies over many years, allowing us to generate deep intelligence and deep insights of how those solutions actually performed. This gives clients increasing assurance that the solutions that are being prescribed are actually best practise and in the best interest of the community and audience members that will use them into the future.

Gerard Corcoran:

No, I agree. I mean, it has to be infused by that human perspective because surely, ultimately, the most powerful and enduring design requires insight about what matters most to people. There are themes that are going to be discussed and debated and acted on over the next few years. I think it’s been a great insight to what Place Intelligence does and how we work together with you at Hassell. I want to thank you for your time, and thank you for your own insight into this topic.

Norion Ubechel:

Thanks, Gerard.

Gerard Corcoran:

Hassell is also delving into issues like data-driven design in pieces we post regularly on our website. So, make sure you check that out at www​.has​sell​stu​dio​.com. You’ve been listening to an episode of Hassell Talks. If you’ve enjoyed this conversation and would like to hear more, please subscribe and check out our other episodes. Thank you for listening.

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