Ceri Williams of designITin explains how and why to incorporate digital into city district masterplanning.

Smart buildings are no longer a new concept; their guiding principles are becoming increasingly established as they mature. Buildings can now produce performance metrics in real-time, based on user behaviour and patterns, enabling greater efficiency and improved user experience. The latest developments in digital technology present the opportunity to extend this approach to the design of neighbourhoods and cities – Introducing ‘Community Digital Infrastructure’.

Addressing the demands of Smart Places, Spaces and Buildings is inherently a multi-disciplinary challenge. The Smart building industry has to date been slow to recognise this. This article is the result of a collaboration between designITin and HLM Architects to bring two key disciplines together – Digital and Built Environment design. Masterplanning is a mature discipline practiced by Architects, Digital Masterplanning (aka Enterprise Architecture) is also a mature discipline practiced by Enterprise Architects. It is time to blend the two.

By incorporating digital infrastructure from the outset, the benefits to the community will spin out in ever-growing depth. An integrated, comprehensive, community-wide digital infrastructure offers improved access to transport, education and healthcare, alongside broader-reaching environmental benefits including improved air quality and reduced carbon emissions.

Architecture is well used to interdisciplinary working, with a history stretching back to Bauhaus. Slightly more recent advocates include Sir Normal Foster: https://www.archdaily.com/8751.... Many schools of Architecture offer degree courses centred on Architecture and combined with other, adjacent disciplines such as structural engineering, materials science, city planning and biomimetics. To date however, digital technology has not been recognised as a significant ‘adjacent’ discipline. We believe this is about to change - because it must.

While this is not a new realisation for some, it is clear that little practical action has yet been taken to integrate Architecture and Digital worlds whether in a study environment, professional development, industry guidance or inter-organisational partnering arrangements.

Digital capabilities already have a significant impact on the space user experience within buildings and across city districts. City districts always have been particularly demanding of interdisciplinary working to develop relevant and optimum Masterplans, involving transport, utilities, social engineering, environmental engineering and psychology. Traditional Masterplanning now needs to integrate Digital into the design process to:

  • recognise the critical dependence of User experience on Digital capabilities;
  • fully exploit the opportunities for space design and service integration that Digital offers;
  • minimise disruption and associated cost to retro-fit Digital capabilities in the future
  • Anticipate or hedge-bets on future Digital development and design in the flexibility to exploit it.

Digital as the ‘5th Utility’

One convenient and effective way to ensure timely inclusion is to consider digital as the ‘5th Utility’. Digital technology must be incorporated into the design and construction of streets, spaces and buildings at the same time as the other essential utilities of everyday life – water, gas, sanitation and electricity. No copper or silicon is permitted below ground – strictly fibre to all locations. The capacity of the network is future-proofed through the generous inclusion of additional dark fibre (unconnected spare fibre cabling). Ideally (and increasingly) new buildings are provisioned internally with dark fibre in anticipation of an explosion in digital traffic and building control systems integration.

Above ground, the digital infrastructure must also be conceived from the outset. Wire-less technologies, such as WiFi and 5G, are carefully designed into new buildings and public realm. High-density, high-speed internet coverage is achieved within the neighbourhood through the regular spacing of wire-less stations. Unsightly towers and microwave dishes are out – instead, the new kit is incorporated within the plant spaces of buildings – currently designed to handle the other four utilities. Environment sensors, such as air quality monitors and traffic measurement, can be integrated into street furniture.

By designing-in digital infrastructure below ground from the outset, the disruption, expense, unsightliness and waste of resources of retrofitting new technology is avoided. This integrated, and comprehensive network offers dependable, high-speed digital connections with capacity for growth.

Once this digital infrastructure has been established, the benefits of Smart Placemaking are ready to be realised, for example…

Health & Care

  • Digital ‘front door’ access to in-person and telehealth services, with continuity on and offsite. Enabling a streamlined user experience, with integrated virtual and in-person appointments, enabling patients to experience the same quality of care whether in person or online.
  • Wire-less connection of wearable ‘Med-tech’ monitoring devices indoors or outdoors providing clinicians and population health professionals with a ‘rich picture’ to tune health care.
  • Reliable connectivity enabling high quality care in the community and rapid, seamless transfers of care between the NHS and Social Care providers.
  • Wayfinding – Integrated wayfinding across district hospitals, clinical departments and other services


  • Learning – frictionless student access to learning and social resources anywhere, anytime, using any device.
  • Ubiquitous, high availability & high-capacity connectivity enabling consistent and coherent experience across both centralised and highly dispersed campuses.
  • Reliable, low-latency connections provide more possibilities for learning designers to integrate real-time, interactive learning into the curriculum.


Hassle-free working – seamless, hassle-free roaming between work and leisure locations, without interruption or WiFi signing in needed. The added security and reliability built into the network removes the need for additional ‘point’ and ‘hairpin’ VPN connections, portals and verifications associated with remote working. Instead, users enjoy the same experience whether in the office, at home, café or park.


  • Sharing the Event – short burst increased network capacity to allow continuous access at large events, including personal video and social media sharing.
  • Live information and alerts – Real-time, location-based alerts and offers from hospitality and retail outlets.
  • Secure Payment – Reliable, secure, wireless open-air access to street vendors and pop-ups for payments.

Getting About

  • A seamless Journey – integrated journey planning across different transport modes. Real-time re-planning of journeys that adapt to traffic conditions or delays Journeys are connected whether they are via train, tram, bus, or a new, demand-responsive service.
  • New ways to get about – the neighbourhood has the capacity to adapt quickly to the implementation of new modes of transport such as e-bike hire, car sharing, autonomous vehicles and EV charging.

Supporting governance and leadership: Smart management and placekeeping

Some of the deeper benefits of the community digital infrastructure is to be found in the opportunity the network provides in supporting city governance

The infrastructure not only enables communication but improved analysis and monitoring of the place. This infrastructure provides metrics for Local Authorities to use for positive district development which is representative of their users.

  • Feeling Safer – Citizen trust in physical safety and security measures – the correct level and location of surveillance, lighting control, and incident detection
  • A clean and tidy place – Well-maintained civic spaces at lowest cost through asset management, condition-based maintenance and services including waste collection and street cleaning
  • Preventing cyber crime – Trusted, secure connection and access without the fear of cyber crime
  • Smart traffic management – the sensors and monitoring incorporated into the neighbourhood infrastructure is used to manage traffic flow and reduce congestion. Rapid collection of data is also used to guide future design of roads, streets and spaces. This does not replace the way transport infrastructure data is collected and analysed, but a new, efficient methodology for doing so. A much more adjustable, responsive and speedy collection of data replaces the existing expensive, labour intensive and protracted process.
  • Precise environmental monitoring to inform planning and real-time interventions.

Supporting governance and leadership: Smart planning the future

Some of the most profound benefits from the community digital infrastructure can be found in its ability to inform and support the decision making of governance and leadership. Long term development plans can be drawn up with a more up-to-date evidence base, without the need to commission point-in-time surveys. Data can be drawn upon to assess areas of the city that are functioning well and identify areas that are underperforming, allowing future plans to be better tailored to suit specific needs of areas.

They can also help us work towards a more inclusive and equitable society, better informed on how we expend resources when managing, growing and adapting our neighbourhoods.

To ensure that communities are fully connected and ready for the future, we must address the stage at which digital infrastructure is considered. The 5th Utility must become as integral to the design of new neighbourhoods as the engineering of water, power and sanitation. To be successful, blending digital into the design of new communities has to become a collective, open, inter-organisational effort. We hope this will enable local authorities and other commissioning organisations to become Informed Clients when conceiving, designing, procuring, delivering and operating Smart Places

These sketches are designed to be illustrative and descriptive rather than specific and definitive. Their objective is partly to seed the inter-disciplinary conversation with relevant concepts and the beginnings of a shared vocabulary. The typical ‘tech’ vocabulary, with its alienating acronyms and product-centric expression has evolved to obscure the core concepts. It is reassuring to understand that the concepts are, in fact, quite straightforward, so jargon-busting is part of our mission here.

The Architecture and Digital communities need to share a common vocabulary based on a set of common concepts. While this publication is no Rosetta Stone, we believe it is now the responsibility of professionals in the Architecture and Digital communities to learn ‘just enough’ of each-others language to develop the sort of Masterplan that does justice to the Stakeholders served. Once we’ve established the common language, we can also work on integrating the Masterplan design process in a similar way to the emerging RIBA Smart Building Plan of Work Overlay. Like it or not, inter-disciplinary designers have to become part-time methodologists.

We invite your observations, feedback, criticism, endorsement, elaboration…any thoughts at all really. To be successful, blending digital into traditional Masterplanning has to become a collective, open, inter-organisational effort. We hope this will enable local authorities and other commissioning organisations to become Informed Clients when conceiving, designing, procuring, delivering and operating the digitally-enabled city district.

Ceri is an independent consultant and writer focused on the opportunities and realities of Smart spaces-buildings-places, Duncan is an Architect at HLM specialising in Masterplanning. If you’d be interested in continuing the conversation, sharing stories and collaborating to seed and develop best practice in these areas, please get in touch with us at ceri@designITin.co.uk or Duncan.Thomas@hlmarchitects.com.