Smart cities and Roller coasters: A visual treat at CASA, UCL


Olly Dawkins (standing) demonstrating the desktop roller-coaster to US Embassy’s Science/Technology Attaché (left photo), and Peter Kohler (right photo).

As the newly arrived Science and Technology Affairs U.S. diplomat in London, I was curious to gauge the scientific research and innovation landscape in London. Peter Kohler, GIS lead in Westminster Council invited me to observe a “Smart Cities” presentation by doctoral researchers at University College of London (UCL). The goal is to deliver more efficient and cost effective services for residents and businesses in one of London’s key Boroughs. The three researchers, Oliver Dawkins, Yuefeng (Jeff) Jiang and Polly Hudson at the Bartlett Centre of Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) showcased digital solutions to urban problems. As a potential partner, the Director of Growth Planning and Housing in Westminster council, was seeking a 3-D model of London, similar to that of New York City’s.  A 3-D model would help urban planners of the wealthiest Boroughs in London, visualize and plan better for city growth while preserving the area’s historical culture, 16th century Georgian homes, and overall prestige and value, whilst improving the delivery of city services.

President Obama launched the Smart Cities Initiative in the U.S. in 2015, a project that invests over $160 million in Federal research and more than 20 cities participate.  Smart cities use technology for better infrastructure to improve the life of their residents.  For example, by coordinating adjacent traffic signals to decrease local traffic, a pilot project in Pittsburgh has reduced commuting travel times by nearly 25 percent. The President’s 2016 Budget calls for over $30 million in new research and deployment investments for smart cities.

I am all about partnerships–that is the way to work in an interconnected

world. In fact, a sister city partnership called NYLON (New York-London) allows London’s urban planners to engage with their counterparts in New York City to seek sustainable city solutions. I was excited to see this in action as my previous job in the Department of State, involved launching the “Our Cities, Our Climate” initiative, a partnership bringing together mayors and city officials from around the world to discuss ways to work together to protect our planet.

At the end of the impressive “Smart cities” presentations, Oliver Dawkins treated the city planners and I to a thrilling roller-coaster ride—right at his desktop! Using a gizmo called Oculus Rift, we were led through 540 degree turns and peripheral dips and twists. I almost felt the gravitational pull, not to mention sweaty palms and pounding heart—this was a fantastic substitute to theme park thrills minus the crowds. This would be a great idea to incubate and commercialize given the “need for speed” of the Generation Xers and below. Gaming companies and theme parks closed for the winter could really benefit from CASA’s research. Last year Oliver ran workshops for young people in Stratford, East London. He used the Oculus Rift to demonstrate how they could use free software for 3D modelling and video game creation to build and explore virtual environments of their own making.