Change Leader: City Plans Undergo Stress-Testing for Sustainability
Donna Huey is a senior vice president and client technology and innovation director for Atkins. With extensive experience in consulting related to technology selection, development and implementation, Huey also chairs the company’s technical network that focuses on successful integration of digital solutions for Atkins and its clients.
She has brought her particular expertise in geographic information systems to bear on projects ranging from transportation-management systems to floodplain delineation and mapping programs.
Atkins pulled together several city-planning efforts into a method of “stress testing” to evaluate different master-planning scenarios for the least risk and highest reward. The effort factors in each city’s goals to come up with a plan to meet varied objectives.
“Cities have different goals,” says Huey. “Some might be trying for economic stability, and some might be trying to address environmental issues. Whatever the goals or objectives are, the stress-testing process, and some of the tools we’ve developed to support that, are really the next generation of master planning.”
Assessing and Proposing
Each engagement starts with a high-level assessment of key issues as well as discussions with stakeholder groups. The effort combines the challenges and solutions to propose a handful of scenarios that are explored through a workshop process. Given Atkins’ global presence, the input brought to bear is from a diverse and global perspective.
“We do what we call Co-Creation events, where we base a team in one location, and we’ll stand up satellite teams in two or three other geographies,” says Huey. “We’ll give the entire global team a challenge statement that will be worked by the local team as well as the teams for example in our India and Middle East offices at the same time. You get this influx of different ideas on how to approach the problem, and we have found real gems in that dialog and thought process between the different locations.”
The concept of resilience typically contains the pillars of environment, social and economic responses to issues of global change, but this is expanding into cyber resilience, which comes into play with an increasingly connected infrastructure.
“It’s great that the infrastructure can talk to each other and talk to us, and we can even answer each other,” notes Huey. “But it’s all pretty vulnerable to attack. I think the amount we don’t know in respect to our vulnerabilities is what’s scariest for owners and operators.”
Increasingly, stormwater solutions look to green infrastructure and the best-management practices of low-impact development to harness existing environmental processes to improve outcomes.
“You can really minimize risk by interjecting green infrastructure solutions,” says Huey. “You can interject systematic operations and maintenance practices, or you can introduce other physical countermeasures like sea walls. The right mix of those solutions is what we’re after to optimize conditions.”
Among the many evolving city-planning focuses is looking at transportation from an intermodal perspective.
“We’re starting to learn more about the customer experience with the transportation network and are beginning to spot patterns and trends and predict behaviors,” notes Huey. “We can bring that back into ‘future proofing’ to reduce frustration and improve efficiency to be a smarter and more-sustainable city.”
Atkins takes such a future-proofing approach to the assessment process. The Atkins City Simulator typically looks at a 40- to 50-year future horizon, depending on the availability of historical data. With some of the factors of global change, such as sea-level rise, it has become more difficult to plan for such things as future stormwater capacity in coastal cities. The moving targets require a more-detailed examination of the tradeoffs.
“Real, practical decisions need to made in the context of planning for floods that also factor in varying levels of sea-level rise,” adds Huey. “Typical, practical decisions like freeboard become more-complex issues when you want to create something sustainable and also get that risk/reward balance right.”
With change ongoing, fixing on the best mix of approaches with the proper future timeline often combines retrofitting existing infrastructure with starting anew.
“A new build will allow you to use some advanced materials that can give you a higher degree of energy efficiency at lower cost,” notes Huey. “But retrofitting holds opportunities of lowering costs and buying more time to see how some of these new technologies mature. More time also allows climate science to advance with better and more-accurate information to plan.”
Read the full interview here.