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Welcome to Newtopia



In this project we're exploring new ways to engage the public in infrastructure decision making.  One of those ways is using Virtual Reality (VR) to help inspire imagination. This video is an output from a recent series of workshops with the public featuring some of the highlights from their proposals for infrastructure in a virtual city in the future.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of engaging the public in thinking about the future of infrastructure is finding ways to help them imagine what infrastructure could be like. It's very easy, when talking about how we travel, get energy and mange water, to get stuck in thinking about the system as it is now. This can really stifle creativity and tends to only tell us what people don't like about the current system. Therefore, we've been exploring different approaches to overcome this ‘stickiness’ in the present and help people to describe future infrastructure systems that actually meet their needs.

Rather than asking people about infrastructure in the abstract, we provided them with a virtual city in which to design their ideal infrastructure systems. The virtual city, shown below, was created for us in Minecraft* by BlockBuilders CIC, an incredibly talented group of Minecraft builders and community engagement specialists based in Brighton. They have been using Minecraft to engage children in urban planning for the past four years and had some fantastic and creative responses (see here for an example). Planning infrastructure requires a rather larger scale that our participants couldn't have built from scratch so the city was built using a combination of Open Source Ordnance Survey mapping data and procedural modelling techniques. Once the virtual city is created, BlockBuilders are able to generate several different ways to view it, in plan or 3D view or in the computer game Minecraft, giving our participants lots of ways to interact with it. And the outputs are pretty impressive:

An output from minecraft showing our virtual city before infrastructure was designed

Using Minecraft proved a step to far for most people, who were far more comfortable drawing or annotating the 3D view. The realism of the virtual city, combined with its anonymity seemed to release participants’ creativity and within the space of an hour most groups had designed comprehensive and integrated transport, energy, water and waste systems.

When we talk to the public about infrastructure, they tend to claim not to be experts and to have nothing valid to say about what infrastructure should be. Based on this work, I would say that's categorically wrong; people have very clear ideas about what they want infrastructure to do. They may not know exactly how to balance the energy system but they do know that they want it to be renewable and reliable. They also want the city to be a nice place to live. The majority of groups placed a great deal of focus on green space and integrating nature into the city. I think this is because the VR tools integrated with the whole city and understand how a place would feel if they chose certain technologies or located infrastructure in certain places. They also used space really effectively – green spaces were not only places to interact with nature but also places to provide flood protection and to travel by foot and bike.

Following the initial workshops, we built their infrastructure into the virtual city to create their ‘Newtopia’. This allowed us to create a whole range of virtual tools to further engage the public and decision makers. A video fly through of Newtopia was unveiled at the Be Curious Festival and showcased at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Global Festival of Action where visitors could also visit Newtopia in (virtual) person using a VR headset. Interaction with the VR outputs gave us additional, powerful ways to engage a wider audience and stimulate their creativity.

A member of the public exploring Newtopia at Be Curious 2018

The process of using VR to engage the public has given us two outcomes that we aim to progress: firstly, we have a lot of data about what the public wants from infrastructure and we think it is very important that planners and infrastructure developers take these things into account when developing infrastructure strategies or spatial plans. They may not be able to build a mono-rail but they can develop things that meet the needs that people defined when they decided to include a monorail – for efficient, sustainable transport that connects across the city and discourages people from using private transport. Secondly, we have some very important insights into the effectiveness of new methods of engaging the public in decision making. We will be exploring how methods that provide the opportunity for creativity and imagination, including VR, can be better integrated into all stages of decision making.

*For those who don't have 7-13 year old children or relatives, this is a computer game where users can build their ideal world from scratch, block, by block.