1st July 2016

Collaboration and Inovation in the Evolution of Cities

Nicholas Lawrence

Since the birth of our species, we have mostly lived in rural environments, first as hunter-gathers and then as agrarians. But roughly 10,000 years ago we began experimenting with a new way of living: the city. In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. By 1900 that had increased to 14% — cities were becoming more powerful than ever.

Nathan Koren is an architect, transport planner, software entrepreneur and is the co-founder of Podaris, a cloud-collaboration platform for urban infrastructure planning. Essentially it’s a shared collaborative canvas upon which policymakers, planners, engineers, and public stakeholders can co-create their ideas in a fully transparent, real-time environment. He holds an architecture degree from Arizona State University and an MBA from the University of Oxford. With a specialty in automated transport technologies, Nathan has been involved in groundbreaking transport innovations projects around the world, including the Heathrow Pod.


Photo of Heathrow Pod at terminal 5


Since the launch of the Programme in May, Podaris have been researching into potential ideas, opportunities and issues. We got a chance to speak to Nathan about why the world needs Podaris, how he came up with the idea, complex challenges they’ve had to face so far and more. 


Why does the world need Podaris?

Cities work better when everyone works together. This is a simple and obvious thing to say, but it’s very difficult to put into practice.

Just getting different professions to work together — planners, engineers, architects, developers, infrastructure technology vendors, and so forth — is incredibly challenging. They’re all working in different silos, like the proverbial blind men trying to understand an elephant. Except that in this case, each of them has created incredibly sophisticated tools to examine their particular part of the elephant in microscopic detail, and developed specialised domain-languages that are mutually unintelligible to each other.

Getting these different professions to agree on what they’re doing is plenty challenging — but is still not enough. Urban infrastructure projects also need broad public engagement, input, and consent. This means that the blind men must explain the elephant in a way that makes sense to the public, and also be able understand and incorporate the public’s feedback.  

Sometimes projects are well-coordinated between both the professionals and the public, and don’t have serious mistakes or unplanned delays per se. For very complex projects, however, this coordination often requires a very slow, deliberate, and inflexible step-by-step process. The professionals spend years figuring out how they’re going to explain the elephant to the public. The public spends a year telling the professionals what they think about it. The professionals go away and spend more months or  figuring out how to incorporate the public feedback. Repeat this a few times, and it’s easy to spend years and sometimes decades stuck in the feasibility studies alone. This is inefficient and expensive — in terms of both coordination costs, and the opportunity cost of waiting an extra decade or two for infrastructure whose value would be beneficial today.

All of this adds up to a very big problem. The McKinsey Global Institute has attempted to tally the global cost of these sort of mistakes, delays, and inefficiencies. They came up with a number of more than half a trillion pounds per year. So it’s really a problem that needs to be solved.


Railyway tracks


How does Podaris fix this?

Podaris is a cloud-based collaboration platform that puts everyone involved in the infrastructure planning process on the same page — all the professionals, and all the public. It makes the planning process completely real-time and transparent, in a shared collaborative environment. If one professional makes a change to the project, the other professionals know about it instantly. If the project has been shared with non-professional stakeholders — that’s policymakers, neighbours, public interest groups, and so forth — then they know about it as well, and can give their input immediately. All of this is done through a variety of different web-based interfaces, each appropriate to the technical sophistication and role of the collaborator.

 Basically, it reduces the feedback loops from months or years to milliseconds. This will make project-planning both faster and more transparent and inclusive — which simply hasn’t been possible until now.


How did you take on such a complex task?

For one thing, we’re only focusing on one class of infrastructure right now: fixed-infrastructure transport systems. That will include tramways, metros, cable cars, automated transit networks, hyperloops, that sort of thing. Later on we’ll extend our capabilities to include road-based transport, then water and electricity and gas and communications infrastructure, etc. But by starting in a niche we can make our job somewhat easier.

We’re also helped by the fact that for now, we’re only focusing on the earliest phases of project planning: feasibility or even pre-feasibility studies. There aren’t really any good software software tools for coordinating this stage of an infrastructure project. You couldn’t do this with desktop software, because the earliest stages must be collaborative. So today it’s mostly done by sketching on napkins in pubs, having unending meetings, and emailing spreadsheets around. Our web-based tool makes this all a lot faster and easier, and is a reasonable package of work for a startup. 

Ultimately, we’ll make our job easier by not trying to be all things to all people. As a project moves from feasibility studies into detailed planning and engineering, the individual tasks get a lot more complex — and there start being good tools to deal with them: various GIS, CAD, BIM, simulation and analysis, and project-management tools. We don’t want to compete with them; we want to integrate with them. Podaris will evolve into a universal cloud-based synchronisation layer, which can ensure that the critical elements of the project can be kept up-to-date across all collaborators, and all software platforms, at all times. Essentially, we’ll evolve from a high-level sketching and feedback tool into a parametric inter-application protocol.


View of the Podaris software system


 How did you come up with the idea for Podaris?

I was watching the development of cloud collaboration tools such as Github. Github allows hundreds of thousands of software developers, from many different disciplines and with many different interests, to rapidly and transparently collaborate on highly novel software engineering projects of astonishing complexity. What if some of these cloud-collaboration techniques could be applied to the urban infrastructure and engineering as well? That was the thought which led me to Podaris.


How are Ordnance Survey and the Geovation programme helping you?

Everything we do is intensely geospatial, and Ordnance Survey have been at the forefront of geospatial understanding for literally centuries — its an incredible privilege to work with them. Part of their investment in us involves provided us with a developer with great expertise in both web applications and GIS. He will be helping to incorporate Ordnance Survey mapping capabilities and datasets into our software (although we can’t use Ordnance Survey data exclusively — we need to support mapping underlays from any and every provider.


1 Sekforde Street


Podaris’ “minimum viable product” is online today at https://app.podaris.com. It’s already been used to design a people-mover system for an airport in America, but we’re waiting on several upcoming features before we make the big push to get it out to our prospective customers. In the meantime, you can sign up for a free account and we are always happy to hear your feedback!