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Using a Real Life SimCity to Design a Massive Development

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596 acres, 50,000 residents, $4 billion dollars and even a 1,500-boat marina: Everything about the proposed Chicago Lakeside Development, developer Dan McCaffery's massive micro-city being built at the former site of the U.S. Steel Southworks Plant, is on a different scale. It follows that the design process for this mixed-use project requires a different set of tools, in this case, LakeSim, an advanced computer modeling program. Developed as part of a collaboration between the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and McCaffery Interests, this program functions like a customized SimCity, analyzing and simulating weather, traffic patterns and energy usage to help architects and designers plan for a site that may eventually contain more than 500 buildings.

"A lot of the Big Data approaches tend to be statistical in nature, looking at past data," says Argonne scientist Jonathan Ozik. "We're modeling a complex system of interactive components, running the data forward, so what we end up having is your SimCity analogy, energy systems interacting, vehicles and people moving. What we're doing here is using a complex systems approach to tackle the problem."

According to Ed Woodbury, President of McCaffery Interests, the program will be valuable going forward, as the master plan evolves and adjusts.

"As we figure out what makes the most sense to develop on site, LakeSim will help us determine the right size and shape of the infrastructure," he says.


The challenge for planners is predicting how so many different systems and variables will interact. LakeSim gives them a framework to analyze these systems over long timelines and run millions of scenarios much quicker than past models — hours as opposed to days — asking "hundreds of questions at once," according to Ozik. The program is a step forward from similar modeling software, especially valuable at a site that in most respects is being built from scratch.

"There's no infrastructure there whatsoever," says Bo Rodda, an Art Institute teacher and University of Chicago research fellow working on LakeSim. "What do we build now and later is an interesting question. What if we have our own smart grid for the site, how do we do that, how do we do solar panels or wind power? Do you need to build your own power plant? We want to know the exposure and what needs investment now."

Developed over the last year and a half, the LakeSim program contains different engines that simulate factors such as weather, traffic and energy consumption. As one engine produces data, it can be factored into the calculations for another engine, part of the holistic approach Ozik and Rodda feels allows them to develop a better, faster model for solving challenging questions.

"The city is the most complex thing there is," says Rodda.

·Previous Chicago Lakeside Development coverage [Curbed]