Minecraft for Grownups


Vidya Helps Municipalities Make Public Consultation More Dynamic


Having your say as a citizen is an important right for every individual. Nowhere is it more meaningful than in your own community, where municipalities regularly engage members of the public in the decision making process. Public consultation helps planners of cities, towns and neighbourhoods define issues, identify solutions and prioritize actions and resources.

The traditional public engagement process typically involves a series of public meetings and face-to-face briefings held in church basements and community centres, where options are presented and citizen feedback is gathered. Meetings are often long and drawn out affairs.

John Lewis, CEO of Vidya is all too familiar with these marathon-style meetings. First as a city planner, and later as a grad student at University of British Columbia, Lewis found himself working on a variety of urban and rural land development projects requiring public consultation. He soon became frustrated with the de facto approach.

"Over time, it became clear to me there was a disconnect between the technologists (planners, architects and engineers) and non-technical citizens who were participating in the consultation process. When we relied on paper-based schematics of land development plans, people had a hard time interpreting the technical drawings. When we invested in building elaborate visualizations of a project to make it look like a real place, the information was more digestible, but took a long time to build and people would look at it and say 'well I guess all decisions have been made.'"

The idea came to John to build a new approach, one that put the average citizen in the driver's seat, giving them the freedom to change what they didn't like about a land development project.

It took nearly a decade, and a move to Waterloo to take up a Professorship at the University of Waterloo for John to begin to make that vision a reality. "Finally the hardware had caught up to the idea we were conceiving. We were absolutely at the right place at University of Waterloo to build our technology."

Vidya's software, called IRUS (Interactive Real-Time Urban Simulator) uses geodesign technology to model urban space and landscapes in three dimensions and change those spaces in real time. Using game-like design principles, IRUS is available online, allowing people to engage with the platform 24/7, and includes analytics and real-time checks and balances, for instance engineering considerations, good planning practices and policy, that serve as limiters when people are in the system making changes.

"Working with our clients, we are also now building into the software elements such as carbon controls, stormwater, and active transportation so that as people make changes to land development plans they can see the implications of the changes they are making. For instance, it's one thing to want to add more vehicles on the roads, but then you have to take into consideration the carbon load. Our system makes people aware of this ripple effect in real time."

Vidya, which recently moved into the Waterloo Accelerator Centre's start-up incubator, is already gaining traction with more forward-thinking municipalities. "Public engagement is conducted today using surveys, focus groups, trace paper over maps, foam models and even Lego. So transforming the public engagement process into a virtual world is pretty revolutionary thinking for most planners," admits John.

But there are forward thinking cities that are embracing the IRUS concept. John relates a story of one municipal government that wanted to reach out to community with respect to municipal planning. They wanted to hear what they were doing right, and where they needed to improve. Their original idea was to build a physical model of the entire town, which would have taken a lot of time, was hugely cumbersome (8 feet x 8 feet) and would serve only a handful of people at a time. Instead, they worked with Vidya and the IRUS online platform, to create a 3D model of the community, with embedded comments fields and survey. "We essentially married up survey capability with online crowdsourcing and it was enormously successful," says John. "Even seniors were on the system having a great time. One younger user called it 'Minecraft for adults.'"

Vidya is now fielding international interest in IRUS from countries such as Saudi Arabia. "Around the world, countries are recognizing they need to reduce automobile independence, lower their carbon emissions, manage their groundwater better, and generally manage their cities better," says John. "That's going to demand a radically different approach to urban design. We believe we have the answer."