Building a Digital Picture of the Ground Beneath Our Cities

A new digital concept has been launched by the Ordnance Survey, British Geological Survey and Future Cities Catapult (now Connected Places Catapult) that would give planners, utility companies and developers a better idea of what lies beneath our feet and allow a more complete picture of our cities to be realised.

We rely on land beneath cities to build on, to house our critical transport and utility infrastructure and to provide natural resources to sustain urban growth. Yet when it comes to planning, we often focus on the visible parts of our towns and cities and overlook the value of the ground beneath our feet. This is where we need this new urban planning innovation to help.

Recognising that this is a national-scale challenge, and the need to collaborate across sectors, the British Geological Survey, Ordnance Survey and Future Cities Catapult have been working together on Project Iceberg. Project Iceberg has the long-term aim being to help increase the viability of land for development and de-risk future investment through better use of subsurface information. To realise the full potential of subsurface data, Iceberg has investigated ways to join up data and services delivered by a range of organisations and integrate it with other city data.

Today there is a great deal of data about the subsurface and there are various standards that set out how information should be captured but the information is dispersed amongst many different parties. This lack of coordination and collaboration has costs. For example the direct costs associated with ‘normal’ maintenance of underground electricity, gas and water assets runs into the billions of pounds a year without considering indirect costs such as increased road congestion during ground works.

Project Iceberg has found that there is a need for a public data-exchange framework for the subsurface that can be integrated with existing city data systems. This isn’t a single map of the subsurface but a consistent framework into which data is supplied, assured, stored, accessed and analysed by a multitude of users in the short term, whilst appropriately safeguarding privacy and security.

The National Infrastructure Commission report ‘Data for the Public Good’ released in December 2017 referenced Project Iceberg as an example of leading practice in the field. With a national subsurface data exchange framework integrated with surface city data the potential of new technologies and approaches to urban planning can be realised. Would we see augmented reality being used to view the accurate location of pipes before they dig? Sustainable drainage schemes being modelled to help manage surface water and reduce the pressure on the water pipe network? Quicker and more accurate estimates of the costs of remediating land for housing? An acceleration conveyancing for homebuyers? Project Iceberg aims to explore these opportunities and potential benefits to support integrated urban planning programmes.

Rollo Home, Content Strategy Lead at Ordnance Survey said:

“The absence of standards governing the collection of underground data means decision makers working on cross-sector domain projects face a challenge to untangle the web of data that is available. Not knowing what’s buried and where it’s buried causes significant disruption, wasted time, delays in street works, possible damage to other utilities and unnecessary extra repair and compensation costs. This lack of knowledge also presents very real health and safety risks to utility employees and the public. It’s in the interests of Great Britain to resolve this by getting a detailed and accurate picture of the subsurface space and to combine it with the above ground data model for shared operational and innovation activities.”

Stephanie Bricker, Urban Geoscience team leader at British Geological Survey said:

“The ground beneath our cities is a complex and highly variable environment but extremely valuable – we use the ground for a wide range of applications. We need to consider the interaction between the natural and built subsurface environment, and utilise data-driven processes and new technologies to apply novel approaches to urban planning – whether that’s to support brownfield development, new infrastructure or urban resilience. There are lots of potential benefits for us to explore collectively…”

Nicola Yates, CEO at Future Cities Catapult said:

“We are very excited about the potential impact of this project. Helping innovative businesses solve complex city challenges is core to our mission. As well as bringing together Ordnance Survey and British Geological Survey, what is required is much enhanced data sharing between industry, government and academic bodies who understand our subsurface. The potential savings and impact demand it.”


Since October 2016, Future Cities Catapult, now Connected Places Catapult, have been working with SMEs, planning authorities and the market to explore how digital innovation, urban data, and user-centred design can improve the UK planning system. Through our work we’ve experimented with technologies such as machine learning, augmented reality and the Internet of Things (IoT), to discover how it improve the efficiency of planning and transform how citizens engage with the planning system.

About Future Cities Catapult (now Connected Places Catapult)

The former Future Cities Catapult, now Connected Places Catapult, exists to advance innovation, to grow UK companies, to make cities better. We bring together businesses, universities and city leaders so that they can work with each other to solve the problems that cities face, now and in the future. This means that we catalyse and apply innovations to grow UK business and promote UK exports.

From our Urban Innovation Centre in London, we provide world-class facilities and expertise to support the development of new products and services, as well as opportunities to collaborate with others, test ideas and develop business models.

We help innovators turn ingenious ideas into working prototypes that can be tested in real urban settings. Then, once they’re proven, we help spread them to cities across the world to improve quality of life, strengthen economies and protect the environment.

About Catapult centres

The Catapult centres are a network of world-leading centres designed to transform the UK’s capability for innovation in specific areas and help drive future economic growth. The Catapults network has been established by Innovate UK.