When two leading infrastructure and transport companies – Costain and Thameslink – wanted to be sure their designs for major London railway stations would maximise pedestrian flow and passenger comfort, they turned to a team of computer scientists at the University of Sheffield.
“One of our areas of expertise is computer simulation,” says Professor Mike Holcombe, Director of the Advanced Digital Research Centre (ADRC) and an international authority on how technology can help shape and inform the design of smart, or future cities.
Using powerful algorithms and insights into how people and crowds behave, the ADRC’s team of simulation experts, led by Dr Daniela Romano, are able to show what can happen in busy stations and how to avoid the risk of overcrowding.
The simulation creates moving images on the screen, reminiscent of the best digital game platforms, which provides a visually rich picture of how people behave as individuals and groups and interact with a constantly changing environment.
“It enables the designers to look again at their ideas and to build in better solutions that help reduce the risk of unwanted events happening, while minimising their impact should they occur,” he said.
“We are also applying the principles behind this sort of simulation to design very sophisticated and predictive economic models,” Professor Holcombe added. “I was recently invited to show the forecasters at the Bank of England how our model worked and what its predictions would be for quantitative easing.”
The results were much more accurate than the Bank’s own forecasts, but its mandarins have yet to embrace the new technology. Professor Holcombe continues: “The Bank’s forecasters have been using the same models for decades and are reluctant to change the habits of a lifetime. The difference with our models is that we start from the bottom up, we work with the participants themselves, rather than assuming that everyone behaves rationally and that markets are inherently stable.”
Professor Holcombe is also researching the evolution and development of smart city thinking. “The idea of smart cities is not a new one, but is increasingly a reality as more and more information – known as Big Data – is now available for government, councils and the private sector to use to understand and influence their clients and voters. There is a huge amount of information out there, but nobody knows what it all means.”
He cites the case of a large medical administration company with files on more than 39 million patients. “At the moment they can read about an individual’s illness or disease, but they aren’t able to look at global outcomes – they can’t see how effective the service is in treating back pain for instance. We can help them sort that data and to analyse it in a way the helps inform decision makers.”
Professor Holcombe and his team are also working with Alpha Rooms – an on-line travel agency that was set by one of his graduates and now employs 90 staff and boasts a turnover of £90 million. “The company is interested in how it can access information from social media and other Big Data sources in a way that enables them to target their potential customers much more accurately. For instance, they may discover from evidence on social media that a person is a keen mountaineer – that information would enable the company to provide the customer with the kind of holidays he might be interested in. And we can help him to do that using very clever techniques.”
All this expertise is now being drawn together to establish an Advanced Digital Research Centre, modelled on the hugely successful Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). “Our aim is to work closely with companies so that we can understand their immediate needs and help shape their strategic direction, if that is needed. We will be building on our expertise in simulation, data analysis and testing, and developing flexible funding mechanisms that allow us to do both short term and longer term projects with partners in both the public and the private sector.”