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Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs just unveiled a software that designs whole neighborhoods

This generative design tool will give you a million urban planning concepts to consider. You still have to choose one.

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs just unveiled a software that designs whole neighborhoods
[Image: Sidewalk Labs]

When it comes to designing a neighborhood, you might say it takes a village. Urban planners, architects, developers, and city officials all have to work together to create a space that will serve its community best. And all of these stakeholders generally mean increased time, cost, and a fragmented process that leaves constituents to wonder, “what actually is the best option available?”

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Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet subsidiary focused on urban development and building, is showing how technology can be an aide in that process. The company’s product manager, Violet Whitney, and designer Brian Ho are developing a generative design tool to unify siloed planning teams. First, the tool pulls information from a variety of data sets, including geographic area, regulations, and existing development plans. It also pulls information typically used by engineers, architects, and developers, like street layouts, weather patterns, and building specs. Using machine learning and computational design, it can produce millions of planning concepts from the data.

Once that process is complete and a set of neighborhood plans is created, the tool analyzes the potential impact of each respective plan against quality-of-life measures—from whether inhabitants will get enough light and air, to whether they’ll have access to public transit or be dependent on cars. (Notably, some architects, including Studio Gang and NBBJ, are using similar software to optimize daylight in their tall buildings.)

Though the tool’s creators emphasize that “generative design doesn’t provide answers,” its analysis results in a diverse array of design permutations for a team to consider, taking into account trade-offs like daylight versus density. According to Whitney and Ho, the software also becomes smarter as time goes on, and has the ability to learn from what has worked from previous neighborhood designs.

Whitney and Ho emphasize that the tool doesn’t replace the work of a designer, writing that it’s meant to “make the design process more holistic and efficient, helping planners and the community make the most informed decision possible.” They see the holistic approach as a boon to participatory planning and an opportunity for increased community engagement, hypothesizing that the feedback community members typically share at community meetings could be input into the program—leading the tool to make more informed, real-time suggestions based on their comments.

Generative design tools have the potential to give the industry more concepts than ever before to consider. But as a designer it’s still up to you to design with intention. And ultimately, the choice is still yours.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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