Data is increasingly influencing decision-making in everything from how cities are structured to the retail experience, said speakers at the ULI China Mainland Winter Meeting. The conference, held in Shanghai in December, featured two presentations that demonstrated how big data and other technologies are driving design for real estate projects large and small.

Hank Byma, director of China Operations at SmithGroup, talked about the importance of using data to help build resilient and livable cities. “The smart city involves thinking about resiliency,” said Byma. “It is about connecting green space and also about thinking about the technologies that are going to inform systems we as yet don’t even know of.”

He used the example of Wanxiang Innova City, a 1,000-hectare (2,471 ac) smart city district in Hangzhou being developed by Wanxiang Group, China’s largest automotive components manufacturing company. Wanxiang’s goal is to build the world’s first smart city infrastructure running on blockchain, integrating technology innovations that include cloud computing, big data, the “internet of things” (IoT), and artificial intelligence.

The city’s development will be carried out in three dimensions: the physical infrastructure, the data infrastructure, and the communications infrastructure. Buildings will require a huge number of smart features to be built into them. For example, the piping infrastructure will integrate an extensive low-maintenance sensor network to allow easy implementation of a data layer on top of it.

“We think the smart city is an ecological city—it is based on technology, it is innovative, and it’s very human centric,” said Byma. This project is really focused on core areas for new technology, new manufacturing and educational research. and the complete city that supports these functions.”

Byma noted that smart cities have been an important focus for ULI China Mainland, which has organized tours to smart city projects in Seoul and Tokyo. “What was really interesting, believe it or not, was instead of talking about the new technologies, most of the discussion was about community building,” he said.

“What we talked about is how these technologies would enable us to help people get what they need, but also create a functioning community. I thought that was very, very interesting.”

Rainer Wessler, regional creative lead of digital experience at Gensler, discussed the concept of digital design, which seeks to “create more experiences per square meter.” The experiential aspect is becoming increasingly important for all businesses, especially retailers. “A recent study showed 89 percent of companies expected to compete primarily on experience.”

Wessler pointed out that the digital experience is not just about “putting more screens into the world.” However, people now experience much more digitally—via email, web, and social media—than ever before. He explained that people experience space in five modes: task mode, which means they visit the space to achieve a certain goal; social mode, which means they are about to meet somebody; discovery mode, where they want to find something new; entertainment mode; and aspiration mode, seeking personal growth.

“What’s interesting is that how we switch between these things—all these experimental modes—has really changed quite significantly in the last couple of years,” he said. “Everyone is doing everything everywhere. One of the most important contributors to that trend that people switch modes so much more frequently than ever before is digital technology. It’s that little personal computing device that you have in the back pocket that actually allows you to switch from entertainment to work to social mode almost continuously.”

Wessler used the example of the Cadillac House in New York, a multifunction space where “technology is employed to encourage consumers to think differently about the Cadillac brand and to inspire a creative customer base.”

The digital and physical experience in the Cadillac House is intended to be immersive, he said. “This is really about creating moments that people will remember, that will make them smile and that at an abstract level create deeper connection between brands and people.”

Another aspect to the digital experience is connective. “This is really about digital companionship, making sure that people find their way around a property, making sure that they plan their visit properly, making sure their visit can extend beyond the physical through the intelligent use of data.”

Wessler said that the best digital design “uses digital to make a different type of place. It’s not only to put messages or wonderful graphics into your face.”

In the future, he said, designers and their clients ought to consider the digital experience aspect of buildings in the very early design stage, although he confessed that “clients are a little bit nervous about making big investments in digital.”