A UK tech success story that transforms the planning process is eyeing international expansion. Robyn Wilson reports.
The initial idea behind start-up, VU.CITY, was a seemingly simple one: create a digital city map that could be used by clients during planning to understand a scheme’s impact.
At the time of the business’ conception, in December 2016, 3D modelling was nothing new but doing it at the level of detail proposed by the team – down to 15cm of accuracy – had never been done before.
Roll on nearly four years and what started as a simple idea has fast-become a roaring prop-tech success. The team, which has grown from 7 to 57 staff over that time, has mapped all of the capital’s 33 boroughs and expanded out to cities like Bristol, Edinburgh and even parts of Manhattan.
Applications for the models are numerous – first and foremost allowing planners and developers to see how surrounding buildings are affected by schemes in terms of right to light and viewing restrictions. But it is also sparking interest from the insurance industry in terms of predicting things like flooding risks and even providing cityscapes as backdrops for use in the gaming industry.
Sitting in a glass walled London office, VU.CITY chief executive Jamie Holmes and chief digital officer Jason Hawthorne tell PlacesTech how the business got off the ground and what they have planned for the busy months and years to come.
“Before VU, I was managing director of a company called Wagstaff, which specialised in helping development clients go through the design and planning process, particularly around consultation,” Hawthorne begins.
“Context was really important. We had a number of schemes come forward, where actually being able to see the scheme in context made a big difference to everybody’s opinion of the scheme.
“We were building small area models to do that with but then we came up with an idea – wouldn’t it be great if we could look at a whole city? So instead of having to build bespoke projects for clients each time we could just slot the schemes into a whole city model.”
It’s at this point that Wagstaffs decided to join forces with rights to light specialist GIA, which had accurately modelled parts of London to help it understand the impact of a scheme in terms of light and daylight restrictions to its neighbours. And in 2017, Holmes joined as CEO.
The teams started by updating GIA’s original 80 sq km model, and then building that up to a digital city spanning 1,167 sq km all the way out to the M25.
It was a mammoth task, taking 180 outsourced modellers (300 man-years of work) to create. But when London was complete the team began to look further afield.
“We’ve started to think about our overseas venture because we do see this as scaleable,” says Hawthorne.
“We realise that the UK is a great place for us to begin this journey because we understand it so well and there’s a lot around, in terms of planning there’s a lot of nuance in the UK, which maybe isn’t relevant in other cities.”
On this Holmes makes clear that expansion shouldn’t compromise the level of support the team are able to give on a local level.
“We’re testing out at the moment how well we can support a Belfast or a Manchester and where we need to manage locally and where we can manage remotely.
“There’s a services element to the offering, which you can’t do remotely. We recognise that there’ll be regional hubs of advisory services. We’re still trying to work out exactly how big those teams need to be and how much we can do remotely.”
Revenue, too, is expanding. Currently standing at around £420,000, it is projected to be up to £1.6m this year and rocket to £6m in 2021. The company has yet to turn a profit but Holmes is “hopeful that we will be starting to turn a profit by the end of this year.” The firm started with £8m private seed funding.
The product works on a subscription model, which is charged at £5,000 a year, per user, per city – a handsome fee but with a 100% renewable rate, it doesn’t seem to be holding customers back.
And for councils, which are operating with restricted budgets, the fee covers the whole authority rather than a single user.
Overall it’s a cost that Hawthorne says is necessary for the upkeep of the model: “The other genuine thing for me here is that we need a subscriber base because it’s very costly to build London and actually the onus is on us to maintain it. There’s no point us putting it out into the world saying: ‘here it is’, if in 5 to 10 years’ time it’s all out of date.”
So far, the group has built up an impressive client roster, with architects (including eight of the top 20 architects such as Fosters + Partners and Gensler) making up about 50% of their subscribers and quarter coming from the public sector, including 25 of London’s 33 boroughs and LAs elsewhere in the country.
Salford City Council, for example, is employing VU.CITY for five large developments, using the models to give much greater context to what the area will look like when the developments are complete.
Similarly, VU.CITY has been able to bring together six developers that were working in isolation around Old Kent Road in Southwark. Using the model, they have been able to see how all their schemes will fit together over a long period of time.
But it isn’t just the property sector that is looking at VU.CITY. Potential applications of such a detailed city map are wide, as Hawthorne explains: “We’ve met with a number of very senior players within the insurance market who recognise immediately the value of looking at flood risk.”
What that means in practice is that you can click on a property and it immediately tells you the boundary and ownership details. In terms of climate change, you could raise tidal levels by a metre and look at all the affected properties instantly.
Hawthorne adds: “In the same way we had a lot of councils come to talk to us after Grenfell, saying ‘can you help us determine all the buildings over a certain height?’, which is all linked to the heights of the ladders of fire engines. For evacuation terms, they need to look at every building over this height, which previously would have been a fairly time consuming and laborious job.”
The platform currently has 700 users from 110 clients.
Development of new features and bespoke commissions continues apace. Hawthorne says the team recently secured Innovate UK funding of £350,000 through a partnership with the City of London, where they are laser scanning and highly detailing the whole of the original Square Mile to put into a virtual reality application so you can stand in the street and look at change on a human scale.
Though taking the industry by storm, the product hasn’t been without its challenges, with one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome being changing behaviour, admits Holmes.
Although, interestingly, he says that the risk-adverse public sector has been leading the way here, with the likes of Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea working with the team on a pilot called YOUR.VU.CITY, which opens the application to the public. This initiative has received a £400,000 grant through the Colouring London programme, whose backers include Homes England and Innovate UK again.
Hawthorne explains: “Currently if you want to go and look up a planning application that’s happening – and this is probably true of all local authorities in the UK – you kind of have to dive into their website, wade through loads of PDFs and eventually, if you’re lucky, you might find a page that shows you an image or diagram of what’s going to be built.
“We want to link this immediately with the 3D model, so you will be able to go to YOUR.VU.CITY and look at all the really important supporting information that goes with the planning application and see what the change looks like.”
There are technical challenges too, says Holmes. “It’s a very detail-heavy model that is stretching technology to a limit. I think we’re proving the performance of our platform on a weekly basis really at the moment, whilst at the same time technology is catching up with us.” One of their solutions here, he says, is designing a platform that can be streamed via the cloud, which they are in the process of developing.
Of course, with so much potential, it’s possible that big tech names like Google will start to explore this space but this isn’t something the team seem particularly concerned by.
“We’ve spoken to Google on the phone and we’ve got some really good relationships with them. They’re helping us with our cloud-based version as well because this isn’t an area they see themselves in,” says Hawthorne.
“What they look for really is where they can add value to their current user base and at the minute, we’re still too detailed. In their words, ‘if you don’t affect a billion users it’s not really our game yet’. So by the time we have enough cities and one billion people using VU.CITY we’ll be having a different conversation with them.”