Urbio — generative design for planning sustainable cities
Sébastien Cajot, cofounder of the Valais-based start-up Urbio, explains how design helped the team develop a more efficient and user-friendly software, while surpassing fears and misconceptions related to AI.
Urbio’s mission is to help key players in the urban energy transition to discover the most effective solutions to achieve their environmental and economic objectives. Based at the Energypolis campus in Sion, the start-up was founded in January 2020. It develops an innovative software that rapidly generates optimized plans compatible with the requirements of tomorrow’s sustainable cities.
“Energy experts and engineers operate in an extremely complex and dynamic environment, in which the objectives of the many stakeholders often diverge, and where constraints change almost daily,” explains Sébastien Cajot, co-founder and CEO. “Planning energy systems is far from being straightforward: it is iterative, interdisciplinary and involves countless tweaks. The challenge for software is not to reinvent current processes, but to provide a user experience that embraces and enhances them digitally.”
This is why Urbio has developed a software that generates “customized” and optimized plans, taking into account the parameters and goals desired by the users, while considerably reducing the time required to design urban energy infrastructure. This planning tool, in the form of a web application, highlights the most sustainable and efficient measures for each building on environmental and economic levels.
The challenge for software is not to reinvent current processes, but to provide a user experience that embraces and enhances them digitally.
Developing a tool that is as engaging as possible
Urbio collaborated with the design agency “Yellow Umbrella” within the framework of Enabled by Design. “The challenges in terms of design were to make our tool as easy to understand and as engaging as possible for users” says Sébastien Cajot. “That’s what was missing in the current prototype,” he adds. “In discussions with our users, we realized that a recurring theme was the difficulty to trust the outputs from a generative design tool. They felt like they were looking at a black box, which greatly reduced their confidence in the results generated by the software.”
It was also necessary to work on the design of Urbio to ensure users understand the added value AI brings to their work and that the aim is not to substitute them. “Replacing professionals is not the purpose of the tool. The goal is to help them be faster and more efficient in their job, it is above all a support tool.”
“We have identified a third problem, related to the innovation of our approach. Our technology offers thousands of solutions, while in today’s workflows, we are used to choosing from only a small set of all the potential solutions. The large number of possibilities offered by Urbio can be intimidating, but at the same time the added-value for practitioners is tremendous. The challenge in terms of design was therefore to facilitate navigation, exploration and understanding in this new kind of decision framework”, stresses Sébastien Cajot.
A closer collaboration with the users
The collaboration with designers of Yellow Umbrella helped the Urbio team get a deeper understanding of their users’ needs and how they interact with the software. “The designers needed to know our users, so they conducted numerous interviews and user testings with a fresh perspective both on the tool and the participants’ activities.”
We were able to go beyond pure technology and integrate the human perspective into the tool.
Thanks to this iterative process, “we were able to go beyond pure technology and integrate the human perspective into the tool”, emphasizes Sébastien Cajot. “We also learned how to communicate more effectively about our product, which directly generated more interest and excitement among future customers. In fact, more than half of the interviewed participants are either using our tool now, or asked to use it in the future”.
Sébastien Cajot derives many benefits from this collaboration in terms of scalability. “The learning curve of the new version will be considerably lower, which means less need for technical support from our team. In addition, the integrated customer onboarding functions will allow for a more autonomous and independent usage of the tool by our clients.”
Having reached the end of this design project, the implementation of the next release has already begun. However, the key takeaway of the collaboration with the designers is that experience design is central to many facets of this deep-tech software, and will remain an ongoing priority for the startup.
Urbio is an EPFL spin-off developing generative design software for the energy transition, based in Sion (Switzerland). With a focus on improving the efficiency of buildings, Urbio is committed to fight climate change.
Yellow Umbrella (YU) is an experience design agency with a core purpose of empowering projects with human-centered values. With roots in New York (USA) and Lausanne (Switzerland), YU aims to use the power of design towards supporting projects that benefit people and the planet.
This project was supported by the service Design and Prototyping of the Startup Unit EPFL