Visualising our world

Together with OGiC and CSIC, it was fantastic to attend and participate in last week’s event “Visualising our world“. The event, which had the sub title of “How visualisation technologies can advance the oil & gas and construction industries” brought together an audience of over 100 delegates to discuss the practical ways in which visualisation can and is being used to transform our industries. As more than on speaker noted on the day, it was unusual and very exciting to present work to an audience which was so informed on the subject, and where it was possible to talk about experiences and possibilities in some considerable depth.


The event,  chaired by Ian Phillips (OGiC), included specific sessions on Oil & Gas (Andy Till, BP) and Construction (Stephen Slessor, Morrison Construction), and the day returned regularly to the subject of the digital twin (Dr Marianthi Leon and Prof Richard Laing, from RGU).

In the case of this latter subject, presentations from Sean Huff (Return to Scene) and Paul McLauglin (Multivista) described specific approaches to visual asset management (which itself is the subject of a current knowledge transfer partnership between R2S and RGU).

Mark Stevens (Oceaneering) gave a truly inspirational presentation on the use of 3D visualisation and subsea systems, which connected directly with an equally impressive, practical and visionary talk from Suzannah Brecknok (CGI UK).


Finally, and vitally to the discussion, Gary Kelly (Leica Geosystems) described how their ground breaking work over the past decades has resulted in the development and availability of both hardware and software which is able to now provide democratised access to the technology, whilst forming a bridge between towards usable data. The software presented by both Gary and Adam Box (Clearedge) present pathways which demonstrate the reasons such technology moving towards becoming pervasive across industries.

Perhaps the most important message to take from the event is that these subjects have moved significantly beyond future thinking in the past 5 years, and that we are now at a stage where design, delivery, maintenance and management in both Oil&Gas and Construction have been transformed. This is worth bearing in mind as we see the development of Digital Built Britain, and as we plan for education and developments in both industries. What once perhaps seemed rather futuristic has come to pass, and the effects on how we work, how we create, and how we collaborate, are being transformed.

From an RGU perspective, the event was led by Dr Marianthi Leon and Sally Charles, in close collaboration with OGiC (Ian Phillips and Audrey Sheal, in particular) and CSiC (with Ben Westland and Wendy Rizza).

A huge success, and one which deserves to be followed by similsrly inspirational workshops!


Collaborative and cross-disciplinary working in sustainable mobility

We are partners in the EU Civitas PORTIS project, which concerns urban mobility solutions in port cities. The project is now two years in, and we are beginning to see the benefits which can accrue from cross-discipline working, and tangible examples of digital technology being used to improve quality of life.

During the general assembly meeting, the Mayor of Constanta stressed that the project is about people, and about the importance of team working. It was also interesting to hear about how Constanta has benefitted from working between the Municipal Authority, Universities and the Port. The project has established new teams in each of the constituent cities, and the impact of this approach to collaborative working should be celebrated. Regarding a city as an environment rich with potential for innovation (where the city includes Municipal Authorities, Universities, Business and Communities/users) is key.

[you can read more about collaboration and participation in my new book!]

Constanta Casino building (abandoned, pending rehabilitation)

Across the project activities (this is an innovation action, so focussed on implementation), digital technology including the use of sensors and drones will combine to collect large data sets. It has been interesting to engage in discussion and very positive debate about how the processes and activities involved in using and understanding the implications of that data (for air quality, efficiency gains, and so on) can be developed across the consortium.

Constanta PORTIS mobile air quality monitoring unit

Digital collaboration therefore is embodied in the project through (mainly) the rollout of data collection, and to a lesser extent through public engagement.

Integrated governance and the development of smart data platforms are regarded as specific areas of innovation within the project, and signal moves to better align plans, policy and action (as discussed here and here).

To return to the notion of collaboration between parties, the benefits of this are often demonstrated through projects such as PORTIS, and this should be recognised in itself as being both innovative and impactful. Intensive collaboration can extend across sectors, disciplines and parties, and requires strategy and commitment. PORTIS is an example of a project which demonstrates the benefits of collaborative working, and securing the resultant benefits in the longer term will pay dividends.

Richard Laing

Digital participation and collaboration

The main strand of research throughout the work of our group has been to explore how digital methods can be used to support participatory design, and collaboration within teams.

This initially manifested itself in the use of early digital photographic manipulation (using Photoshop in the early 1990s), which quickly developed into research concerning the use of 3D modelling (initially through 3D Max) and the use of online surveys. Many of the barriers faced by the research at that time were technical, in that digital photography and modelling were extremely time consuming, and required high specification hardware. Of greater concern when using online surveys was the fact that most internet users were reliant on (what would now be regarded as bizarrely slow) dial up connections, and use of the web was not yet widespread across society. These factors conspired to limit the reach and applicability of the research methods, especially given the desire to use them to encourage and support engagement.

Vancouver, photo altered to produce ‘tilt shift’ lens effect

At a similar time, predictions within the construction industry tended towards the notion that many tasks and processes (both procedural and creative) would most likely become automated in the very near future, and that the ways in which we could and would use digital models would focus on information rich approaches to working. Nevertheless, one could not really avoid the fact that software and hardware to allow data capture, modelling, data use and application were limited, and that education of the main disciplines in construction was still far from having a focus on digital means of working.

The millennium came and went, though, the world did not end due to the Y2K bug, and we have found ourselves in a world where high-speed internet has become pervasive, methods to capture data about the world around us (scanning, sensors, photogrammetry) have become increasingly accessible, and the construction, planning and asset management industries have been transformed by the advent of BIM.

I have tried to capture some of the key stages of these developments, which go back much further than many might imagine, in Digital Participation and Collaboration in Architectural Design. Within the pages I argue that collaboration and participation require strategies and dedication of their own, which cannot be served up by technology, but which most certainly can be supported by the software and hardware solutions which have emerged. I have also included many examples from studies with which I and my colleagues have been involved, to provide some kind of illustration and context for the discussion.

Me drawing a table

Richard Laing

Laboratory of Places

The Polytecnico di Milano has, for a number of years, been running a summer school dedicated to the collection, modelling and understanding of digital heritage. Located in Ghesc for its first iterations, and concerning the use of digital tools (laser scanning, photogrammetry, photography) to collect and analyse the built heritage, this year the School moved to the Sacred Calvary Mount, which is the northernmost of the nine Sacri Monte.

The Politecnico di Milano is one of the world’s leading Universities, in terms of both research and teaching. Indeed, their courses in Architecture are consistently rated as being within the world’s top ten. Of particular importance to the summer school is the fact that it is organised and led by the 3D Survey Group (chaired by Professors Achille and Fassi), which is certainly a world leader in terms of digital survey techniques. Needless to say, I felt honoured to be invited!

I was able to attend the School for three days, during which time I learned a huge amount. A lecture and workshop from Dr Sonia Pistidda on the topic of architectural technical conservation very much brought me back to my days in the RGU Masonry Conservation Research Group, and here insights with regards to the need to collect and understand meta data associated with scan information added layers of complexity and meaning to the work being undertaken by the participants.

I was also able to participate in hands on workshops from Leica Geosystems, who demonstrated the new RTC360. The RTC represents real advances in terms of real-time registration, as well as speed of setup and scanning. For example, there is no longer a need to level the scanner manually, and the scanner itself uses an advanced visually driven method to relationally locate scans, and massively speed up registration.

I was also able to present from the work undertaken by our group at RGU, including from studies undertaken with Dr Marianthi Leon and Dr Elizabeth Tait. Two things which struck me were that our work has tended towards the application of technology within the social sciences (as opposed to technical advancement, per se), and that Scottish people find it difficult to appear cool in humid conditions.

I would also like to particularly thank Cinzia Tommasi and Dr Alessandro Mandelli!

Students participating in the summer school have been able to gain hugely in terms of their skills regarding the use of leading software (including Agisoft Photoscan and Leica Cyclone) and hardware (both scanning and digital photography). The opportunities afforded by the Sacri Monti to explore the recording of artefacts, buildings and (pilgrimage) routes are quite stunning.

Richard Laing, August 2018

Design, research and the REF

Earlier this month, I had the chance to attend and participate in the annual Design Research symposium at UWE, Bristol. It proved to be an really good chance to hear from experts in the field, and to discuss how design outputs can be best framed for the likes of the REF. The event was organised and chaired by Jonathan Mosley, Rachel Sara, Lamine Mahdjoubi and John Harding, whom I thank for their kind invitation.

There was some excellent guidance from Professor Katie Williams about the ways in which design outputs were assessed by the 2014 panel, and of course some valuable confirmation that the same criteria apply to design as to any other form of work. That is, the research intention, rigour, originality and significance need to be clear. The panel members considering design work tended to be drawn from design backgrounds, and it was stressed were more than capable of identifying where claims of research intention was genuine.

We also heard fascinating presentations from Professor Murray Fraser and Professor Yeorgia Manolopoulou from the Bartlett, whose pioneering use of practice and design within research has been instructive and inspiring. I also hugely enjoyed hearing from Prarthana Jagannath (Superspace), whose demonstration of their research showed an amazing and forward-thinking use of digital tools and digital simulation.

All presentations from the day will be available from the UWE YouTube channel.

The presentation I gave aimed to describe the ways in which we have tried to present work in the past, through the use of portfolios. Using the work of my colleague Professor Gokay Deveci, it was possible to explore ideas about the use of portfolios, to demonstrate research intention, rigour and significance. It was also a good opportunity to present and discuss some recent award winning work by my colleague Theo Dounas, and some ongoing KTP research from Dr Marianthi Leon, each of which offer great potential in terms of practice-led and practice-based research.

Using examples from music, one must always remember that Adele has been incredibly successful in terms of records sales and BRITs, but lacks research questions. Therefore, she probably wouldn’t score very highly in the REF.

Likewise, Oasis had a massive impact on music of the 1990s, and their concert at Loch Lomond had a big effect on me personally, but the underpinning research is difficult to determine.

Therefore, possibly not great as an impact case study.

Which is a round about way of saying that the REF assesses, well, research. 🙂

New Horizons in Civil Engineering

I had the pleasure this week of participating in the inaugural ‘New Horizons in Civil Engineering’ (NHICE01) conference, organised by and held at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.

The conference was chaired by Dr. Phalguni Mukhopadhyaya, and the first contact I had with the event came through my former colleague Dr Omayma Motaleb.

What I found fascinating about the conference was the emphasis placed on the ways in which Engineering (and by extension the associated built environment professions) has an ability and a duty to participate in public debate. We know that very significant proportions of energy use and carbon emissions can be tied to construction and infrastructure, yet many of the key policy and practical decisions which impact on our industry are made by politicians or lobbyists from outside the industry. This message was clear from the keynotes onwards (with really excellent presentations by Dan Hoornweg and Murray Metcalfe), and threaded through some excellent presentations concerning longitudinal monitoring, building and engineering standards, passive housing and life cycle assessment. That so many of the papers mentioned visualisation of data, the use of information-rich modelling and collaboration signalled that themes and activities which might have been regarded as niche only 5-10 years ago are now central to industry and academia alike. This struck a chord, and reminded me of some of the work undertaken by Professor Tom Froese concerning the ways in which new technology in our industry takes time to find a mature home, but that its effect over time can be fundamental.

Particular standout presentations, for me, came from Christian Cianfronea and Lisa Westerhoff – dealing with the development of energy codes in Canada, Lorraine Sugar – dealing with energy use in cities of different scales, and a particularly incisive passive housing ‘primer’ from Susan Hayes.

I was also hugely impressed by the work undertaken by Claudiane Ouellet-Plamondon, which concerned carbon footprinting of citizens. The work holds resonance for our own work at RGU dealing with sustainable urbanism and mobility, particularly within the context of a energy city. Our paper drew on work undertaken with Aberdeen City Council, and discussed how the development and design of the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route has been (partially) mooted as holding great potential for environmental benefits within the City and Shire (through displacement, travel efficiencies, reduced carbon and pollution emissions, and through improved and improved urban environment). The emphasis taken in our work with University of Aberdeen to undertake a longitudinal assessment of cause and effect (in Civitas Portis) provoked some interesting and very positive discussion. I particularly enjoyed and welcomed a discussion with Shoshanna Saxe about the ways in which we will evaluate the long term effects of measures taken in Aberdeen and the Shire, and the ways in which this can connect with notions of behavioural change and driver behaviour.

Our paper is available from here.

I also managed to include an anecdote about an early childhood near-encounter with Justin Trudeau, which received some smiles and laughs, although being difficult, perhaps, to connect directly with the subject matter of the conference. 🙂

I should also say that the conference organisation and venue were really second to none. Victoria may only be a short distance from Vancouver as the eagle flies, but has a relaxed atmosphere and architectural style all of its own. The Royal Museum of BC contains art and artefacts from First Nation heritage and culture which is stunning in terms of both depth and presentation. That the conference introduction from Lisa Kalynchuk commenced with a tribute and thanks to the First Nation peoples whose land now contains the campus seemed both powerful and heartfelt.

I really look forward to future iterations of NHICE, and I would gladly return to provide an update on our own work.

Nice One, indeed!


By way of a brief update, our new Leica / Autodesk BLK360 scanners have arrived. In addition to the impressively small size, even including the tripod, the speedy and quiet character scanning process is remarkable.


The iPad interface is very intuitive, to the point that I actually doubted the scan had been completed. In addition, the immediate feedback (data transfer in the field, with automated registration) will remove the slight nagging doubt on the drive back from the field that “everything is stored”!


iPad interface

I really look forward to testing the scanners to record historic interiors, as well as vernacular streets and smaller buildings. The range appears as “on the tin”, and the suggested minimum operating temperature (5 degrees C) seems fairly human. 🤓


Plan view of RGU ‘Sir Ian Wood’ building scan (from Recap pro registration).

TM Forum Smart Cities InFocus – Yinchuan China

It was with great pleasure that I was able to attend and participate in this year’s Smart Cities InFocus conference, held in Yinchuan. Yinchuan is one of the leading ‘smart cities’ in China, and has invested heavily in smart technology to support all aspects of public life. This includes traffic management (to help reduce congestion), waste disposal and recycling (including smart sensors to detect when collections are due, to to assist with sorting) and air quality monitoring. What perhaps marks out Yinchuan as being at the cutting edge is the attention which has been placed on centralised and fully integrated monitoring and control of service provision.

Aspects of the conference which resonated with me with work of the RGU Built Environment Visualisation Group (@rguvis) were those related to city modelling and dynamic traffic monitoring, both of which are the subject of ongoing work. With regards to city modelling, it was interesting to see how Yinchuan had used a combination of terrestrial laser scanning and airborne visual recording to build a reference model. This was on display at the event in combination with a 3D surface model (created using 3D Max). I have to admit to feeling slightly envious of their luxury car-mounted scanner setup, which would be very attractive in autumnal Aberdonian winds. 😀

With regards to smart monitoring and control of traffic, I was also struck by how aspects of the work ongoing in Aberdeen as part of the EU H2020 funded Civitas PORTIS deal with very similar issues, including the prioritisation of traffic controls to keep freight moving, and the increasing ability to use traffic light sensors to record, monitor and inform the best flow of traffic in the city. It was interesting to hear about the work of Ofo with regards to bike sharing (now present in the UK), and the inventive use of mobile technology to encourage modal shift from cars towards cycling (in the work of Kappo, from Santiago).

Taken together with the emphasis placed throughout the conference on people and wellbeing, the strongest message returning to Scotland is that we are very well placed to engage fully with digitisation of services. Vitally, this can happen to help solve and alleviate real problems, and improve the lives of people living and working in the city. As Nik Willets of TM Forum mentioned in his brilliant keynote, ‘The main KPI of a smart city must be the happiness of citizens’.

The conference felt almost unique with regards to the extent to which the organisers managed to fully integrate the triple helix of participants from public, private and academic backgrounds. All of the presentations were both engaging and thoughtful, and attempted to draw out key findings which could be found in case studies and cutting edge product development. The city case studies included examples from across the world, including San Diego, Milton Keynes (especially interesting was their now well known work regarding autonomous vehicles), Moscow and Utrecht, where citizen participation and engagement were shown to provide better decisions, and decisions which were genuinely based on evidence, and geared towards solving all manner of problems.

One message seemed to be that cities could usefully seize the moment when faced with a major change. In the case of Milton Keynes, for example, the planned expansion of the city in the coming years offers the possibility of integrating smart and emerging technology in new neighbourhoods. In the case of my own city of Aberdeen, current very significant changes to mobility in and around the city offer the possibility to use technology to ‘lock in’ benefits which might arise from displacement of car and freight vehicles, through active travel and the implementation of new approaches to fostering a modal shift towards walking and cycling.

I should also say that the event was brilliantly chaired by Carl Piva of TM Forum, who led in the launch of the TM Forum City as a Platform manifesto. That so many organisations were present to sign up to the manifesto, including the UK Future Cities Catapult, is both impressive and heartening. The TM Forum benchmark and maturity model is now supported by an interactive app, and reminded me in some respects of the BIM maturity models used within AEC, and will help to track as well as encourage and drive developments in the future.

This was a truly inspiring event, and I would be delighted to participate again in the future.

Professor Richard Laing


Santaland, photography and social heritage

I grew up in North East Scotland, in the 1970s. This was a time before most people (or my family, anyway) took holidays abroad, and the small town of Aviemore was the vacation destination for many in my generation. I clearly remember that we heard about the death of Elvis whilst staying in a self-catering flat in Aviemore, as my Dad (a lifelong fan of the King) cooked us steaks, and we spent many happy times in the town.

Aviemore developed rapidly as a holiday centre from the 1960s, before suffering a serious downturn of fortunes in the 1980s. The town is now recovering, and the holiday ‘centre’ has seen some major investment in recent years, but many of the concrete landmarks and features I and others remember from the 70s are now gone. As an aside, I remember visiting the town in the early 2000s, and discovering that the swimming pool, ice rink, cinema and so on were (completely) gone. A paper soon to be presented at ACE 2017 deals with some of the issues this raises in terms of how a village can deal with losing a ‘centre’, but the biggest loss for me was that of Santaland (As an aside, this posting from George Monbiot in 1998 painted a rather depressing picture).

In Aviemore, ‘Santaland’ was a smallish attraction located at the holiday ‘centre’, which contained a grotto, a childrens train ride, a log cabin with games (including an ‘air hockey’ machine, which I used to play with my Dad), and the actual Santa and Mrs Santa. I have to admit that I did wonder (even at young age) why Santa was living in the Scottish Highlands in a purpose built visitor attraction, but you go along with these assertions…

What has become fascinating in recent years has been the extent to which remnants of attractions like ‘Santaland’ have started to appear in studies of abandoned architecture. In fact, in the process of looking for pictures of Aviemore, I discovered that there are in fact a whole collection of abandoned ‘Santalands‘ worldwide (including these nice images from Arizona, which strikes me as being even more unlikely as a home for the Claus family), each of which presumably hold equally strong emotional resonance for now grown-up children in those areas.

Most of the sites have tended to include photography taken recently, in an attempt to preserve what is still standing. From a visualisation perspective, I wonder if an increasingly inexpensive range of laser scanning and photogrammetry equipment and software will enable us to record these examples of social heritage in a comprehensive manner. Might it also be possible to connect these with individual social testimony?

After all, a run down and dirty statue of an elf is unlikely to be recognised as holding heritage value in itself. What the statue can conjure in terms of memory, emotion and social meaning, though, is something else entirely.

Richard Laing


I have just returned from the RICS COBRA conference in Toronto, which was jointly hosted by the RICS and George Brown College.

From a visualisation perspective, I was struck by the emphasis placed on BIM and collaborative ICT, particularly in the excellent keynote talks presented by Rick Huijbregts (Cisco), Patrick Saavedra (who gave a truly inspiring talk on the pervasive use of BIM within York University) and Ted Maulucci (who spoke about academic collaboration, innovation and next-generation IT in buildings).

I was also hugely impressed by the research, students and student work at George Brown, which was most impressively demonstrated through their scanning, BIM and augmented reality at the Casa Loma BIM Lab.


As ever, COBRA provided a great opportunity to share our own research (I presented work from our laser scanning work, undertaken as part of the Moray Council-led Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere project) and to also hear about the work of others. The conference was also reassuringly diverse, and confirmed that research within surveying and as supported and communicated by the RICS is in good health.

Next year’s COBRA will be hosted by UCL in London.

Professor Richard Laing