Urban Intervention Simulation in Riyadh

Workshop with Arriyadh Development Authority

I led the development and implementation of a tangible user interface for urban planning in Saudi Arabia. The worked was developed in collaboration with MIT Media Lab, MIT Center for Complex Engineering Systems (CCES), MIT Sustainable Design Lab (SDL), and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). Below, Kent Larson writes about a workshop with staff from the Riyadh Development Authority where we test a new version of the Tactile Matrix for CityScope.

With only an hour to work, four teams of five professionals competed to develop a redevelopment proposal for a neighborhood near the city center. Data was collected and published in a series of papers on human interaction.


Exploring Density, Walkability, Energy, and Daylighting in
One of the World's Fastest-growing Cities

by Kent Larson

We recently led a workshop in Saudi Arabia, with staff from the Riyadh Development Authority, to test a new version of our CityScope platform.  With only an hour to work, four teams of five professionals competed to develop a redevelopment proposal for a neighborhood near the city center.   The goal was to achieve the highest scores for three variables:  walkability, building energy performance, and access to daylight.  As participants placed optically tagged Lego bricks on our augmented reality table, the design performance was revealed in real-time by changing color-codes projected onto the pieces, and data displayed on the dashboard.  Fundamentally, the challenge was to achieve an optimal density and mix for commercial and residential buildings.

Riyadh, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, is an extraordinary place to explore these issues.  In 1940, Riyadh was a small, compact city with a density of approximately 38,000/km2.  Today, Riyadh is a sprawling metropolis of 5.7 million, with roughly 1/8th of the density before oil was tapped and cars took over. Although the city center has high-rise commercial buildings, density steadily declines from the core. Riyadh is experienced as wide streets, traffic congestion, stand alone low-rise buildings in parking lots, and residential neighborhoods with 2-story villas separated from commercial districts. 

Officials realize that Riyadh must reduce the near total dependency on private cars, and the city has started work on an ambitious new subway system.  This will surely help, but it is extraordinarily difficult to serve such a dispersed population with mass transit.  In the long term, Riyadh must address the challenges of extreme urbanization by: 1) creating much higher density, walkable, live-work districts within the city - particularly at the new subway stops, 2) developing largely self-sufficient satellite micro-cities in the outer areas as the city expands, and 3) implementing public policy and new systems that create more convenient alternatives to private automobiles.  CityScope Riyadh is a first step towards an evidence-based, data-driven platform that cities can use to help achieve these goals.

What did we learn from the workshop?

First of all, I was pleased to see the level of engagement, as is revealed in my 30 second video (above). This team was so engrossed in the process that they seemed oblivious to the intrusion of my camera.  Afterwards, the participants reported that the instant feedback, with changing color-codes and data, was extremely valuable.  Each team could immediately understand impact of their decisions on walkability, energy, and daylight as they placed elements on the table.  It encouraged an iterative, collaborative decision-making process. In the discussion that followed, there seemed to be a general frustration with the lack of metrics for evaluating an urban design proposal with traditional media, such as plans and renderings.  There seemed to be an appreciation for the power of such a new tool, even if we just hinted at possibilities.  Not insignificantly, they all appeared to have fun in the process.

Of course, there is much work to do. It is critical that we develop real-time feedback for the impact of density and walkability on traffic congestion.  We must model a range of new mobility modes, such as shared-use autonomous vehicles.  We should work towards the simulation of possible creative interactions and entrepreneurship activities so critical to a successful innovation district.  Eventually, we should be able to predict safe and high-crime zones, or perhaps the GDP of a district.  But CityScope Riyadh is a good first step.

Note: density figures are notoriously problematic: administrative boundaries often include undeveloped land, parks, and industrial areas.   But these figures for Riyadh, even if not precise, reveal the steady trend towards low-density sprawl.