Predicting behaviour by consumers and panicked citizens

Take one sophisticated computer model capable of predicting individual behaviour in a variety of urban settings. Add a large consumer or retail corporation interested in maximizing their in-store marketing efforts. You can just predict the co-opting of an extremely sophisticated urban planning tool.

Not that this scenario has happened yet. Paul Torrens, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, has received a multi-year National Science Foundation grant to:

“...develop a reusable and behaviorally founded computer model of pedestrian movement and crowd behavior amid dense urban environments, to serve as a test-bed for experimentation,” says Torrens. “The idea is to use the model to test hypotheses, real-world plans and strategies that are not very easy, or are impossible to test in practice.” (ASU news release)

Once the academics have done all the heavy lifting, I can easily see commercial applications:

  • modeling traffic flows at trade shows
  • evaluating the efficiency of urban and suburban guerrilla marketing campaigns
  • testing category placement at grocery stores
  • maximizing the placement of shopping centre info booths
  • calculating the maximum tolerable distance between airport departure gates

Pruned has suggested some other applications:

  • simulate how a crowd flees from a burning car toward a single evacuation point;
  • see how the existing urban grid facilitate or does not facilitate mass evacuation prior to a hurricane landfall or in the event of dirty bomb detonation; or
  • design a mall which can compel customers to shop to the point of bankruptcy, to walk obliviously for miles and miles and miles, endlessly to the point of physical exhaustion and even death.

In practical terms, I wonder how much of this new modeling the folks at Disney theme parks will review and say "knew that. knew that. that's not a surprise!"

Personally, I would like to see the results from one of the professor's other projects:

Modeling Time, Space, and Behavior: Combining ABM & GIS to Create Typologies of Playgroup Dynamics in Preschool Children

pointer from CityofSound

[tags] traffic flow, urban design, patterning, shopping habits [/tags]

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