ESRI UC Q & A: What is the Concept Behind the User Conference Theme: GIS–Designing our Future?

…from the 2009 ESRI UC Q & A

Our world is increasingly influenced by human activities. There is a growing awareness that population growth, land use development, and natural resource utilization are now affecting the environment and the ability of life on the planet to be sustainable. As geographers, we know that our world is also a highly interconnected network. What we do in one place often sets off a chain of consequences. This is evidenced by global climate change, loss in biodiversity, and the increasing conflict between human land use and the natural landscape.

uc20091Clearly, we as humans need to better understand these patterns; the connection between our actions and the consequences they create. Taking responsibility for our future will require new approaches that integrate our best science and technology with our most creative thinking.

GIS and Designing our Future

For decades, GIS technology and GIS professionals have helped integrate, analyze, and visualize geographic information and knowledge. This has resulted in thousands of GIS applications benefiting nearly every field. However, GIS has fallen short in the area of being fully integrated with how people do design work and make decisions that change geography.

People who do this type of design work come from many different fields (planners, foresters, engineers, and dozens of others). While they use a wide variety of design techniques and methods, they all use geography as a common framework.

Geographic problem solving is complicated. It requires geographic information as well as a creative design process that synthesizes this information and creates a plan. Traditionally, geographic design (regardless of scale) used maps and sketches as a basis for laying out alternative plans. These maps were typically evaluated and communicated as part of a process for decision making. Obvious examples include land use or transportation planning, however this approach to design and decision making is used in nearly every field and organization.

Design and Human Behavior

Many consider “design” as something that pertains only to the world of the specialist (architects, artists, engineers, etc.); however, the concepts and processes of design apply broadly to almost all human behavior. Human beings design all sorts of things, from their careers to relationships and even their lifestyles. We design our living spaces, combinations of clothes to wear, how to present ourselves, and how to get our ideas across.

Good design starts with a conscious process of getting clear on the end objective (i.e. the creation of some sort of entity or outcome). This is typically followed by visualizing and evaluating the consequences of alternatives. Usually, this process is iterative and involves inductive and deductive reasoning together with a creative act or inspiration that results in a solution.

Design with Nature

Many ecologists, environmental planners, and geographers have long advocated integrating geographic information into the planning and design process as a basis for creating better land management and sustainable environments. Ian McHarg popularized this idea with his book Design with Nature. The principal idea is that people who make geographic decisions should consciously and systematically consider all the factors—physical, social, economic, and biological—as part of their decision making process. These factors should guide both where and how development should take place and also be used to evaluate alternative plans and scenarios.

GeoDesign Process

In the 1990s, Dr. Carl Steinitz, a Harvard professor of urban planning and landscape architecture, outlined a conceptual framework for how GIS could be integrated with geographic design and planning. His methodology includes six steps:

Step 1. Inventory and measurement of geography

Step 2. Geographic analysis (landscape process modeling)

Step 3. Suitability and capability analysis (creating interpretive maps)

Step 4. Designing alternative plans (using sketching for laying out plans/scenarios for the future)

Step 5. Evaluation of impacts resulting from alternative designs

Step 6. Decision making regarding the best plan

Today, GIS supports the creation and management of large collections of geographic data (step 1) and the ability to model landscape and cultural processes using advanced models (step 2). This modeling and mapping capability can also be used to determine the most suitable and capable locations for selected facilities or land use (step 3).

However, it is in designing alternative plans (step 4) where existing GIS technology is limited today. Creating something like a land use plan or forest management plan requires a design process where alternative combinations of spatial uses can be easily sketched out and quickly evaluated. These designs need to consider the suitability and capability of the geography as well as the optimal spatial arrangements created by a designer.

GIS Technology and GeoDesign

This year, ESRI is extending our GIS technology to better support the geographic design process. Specifically, we are adding tools to do interactive design sketching on top of GIS output maps (i.e. step 4 in Dr. Steinitz’s model). This will give users the ability to do not only geographic design and sketching, but also easily evaluate and refine these designs based on feedback given by the spatial analysis and reporting tools of a GIS (step 5).

We believe these design and sketching tools will provide a strong and necessary first step for supporting a new GeoDesign field. This GIS-based approach will strengthen the ability to directly integrate geographic knowledge into the way we plan, make decisions and evaluate consequences. It will extend far beyond the traditional design community, affecting virtually all organizations making geographic decisions.

GIS Professionals will be Required

Clearly, widespread adoption of this GeoDesign vision could significantly affect our future. This will not happen automatically, nor will it be driven simply by the creation of this new technology. It will take vision, the development of new methodologies, continued dedication, and hard work to extend GIS into this new field. The results, however, will be important. They promise to change our process for designing our future with methods that integrate all the factors necessary for creating a sustainable world.

For more information on GeoDesign, read the following articles in ArcNews: