Scotland predicts its future with new software

The Scottish Executive is funding new software that could help town planners predict the environmental impact of urban development. ‘Simile’ generates animated maps of the effects of a growing population on its surroundings. The software will be used to predict the impact of development in the Firth of Forth.

“The integrated management of the Firth of Forth area is one of our most complex and pressing challenges,” says Alastair Davies, Managing Director of Simulistics Ltd, the company behind the software. “The booming population, the need for new transport links and the internationally-important marine ecosystem all create conflicting pressures. The role of Simile is to bring insight to the long-term effects of the decisions we are taking today.”

The company is furnishing Scottish authorities with a computer model that can be tailored to fit different environments and assess different trends. In this case Simile’s database will be adapted with geographical information about the Forth estuary. Planners will be studying how housing, transport, agriculture, fishing, tourism and industry will impact on the area.

“We are studying the interaction between the economic and ecological systems in the Firth of Forth and its environs,” Davies told edie. “For example, the presently booming population and its housing demands are changing the balance of agricultural run-off and human sewage reaching the Forth. We predict the knock-on effect of this on nutrient levels in the Forth and so on up the food chain.”

Simile has previously been used by the UK government to assess the impacts of sustainable projects oversees. The FLORES (Forest Land Oriented Resource Envisioning System) project used Simile to explore different options for forest and land use in Zimbabwe. The computer model could potentially be used to map out scenarios like the possible spread of rabies in Britain, the impact of habitat loss on animal species or the best way to manage wildlife populations.

The software also works well for risk management. “Simile has particular features that make it easy to integrate financial, environmental, political risks and so forth within a over-arching framework,” says Davies. “Large insurance brokers are noticing a trend to holistic risk management. For companies seeking to retain some risks and lay off others to achieve an optimal capital structure, we believe modelling using Simile will provide key insights into the nature of risk transfer.”

Simile has a database that includes published scientific literature. “Often the scientific literature is not seen as relevant by those deciding on planning developments,” says Davies. “Our aim is to make the information in the literature accessible in a reliable form to decision-makers who are not scientific experts.”

But how reliable will Simile’s Forth model be? “On such complex systems, over ten or twenty years, the predictions obviously cannot be treated as gospel,” continues Davies. “The point is that decisions on development have to be made anyway, whether or not we can reliably assess the implications. These decisions cannot be ducked, but at the moment we are making them whilst being blind to the future. Anything that can increase our understanding of the complex feedback mechanisms in operation, and the resulting often counter-intuitive behaviour of the whole system must be for the good.”

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